Can anyone deny the Belgian veteran the perfect send-off – or will it be a fairytale ending for Boonen in his fourteenth and final appearance in the Hell of the North?
A year ago it seemed like only the romantics genuinely believed that old rivals Fabian Cancellara and Boonen could be realistic challengers in what was expected to be both of their final cobbled classics campaigns.
But then they both went within a whisker of signing off in style.
First up, Cancellara came close in the Tour of Flanders – finishing runner-up behind Peter Sagan a week before seeing the world champion bunny-hop over his prone body in the Mons-en-Pevele cobblestone sector in Paris-Roubaix (Cancellara crashed in his lap of honour in the Roubaix velodrome as well, just for good measure).
As for Boonen, after placing 15th in Flanders he matched Spartacus by finished second a week later – denied an historic fifth Paris-Roubaix win by seemingly the unlikeliest of champions in Mathew Hayman, the only rider in the peloton that day to have ridden more editions of the Queen of the Classics than Boonen.
If it was hard not to feel sorry for a man who had nevertheless already lifted the cobblestone trophy on four prior occasions, you only had to consider the story of the chap who denied him number five; Hayman's tale could perk up even Kendall Jenner in the aftermath of a cataclysmic advertising own-goal (not that she exactly needs to be any more, er, perky).
In his 16th Roubaix appearance on Sunday, Aussie veteran Hayman will don the number one bib – but the soon-to-be 39-year-old Orica-Scott rider will find himself a marked man in the defence of his crown.
Now Hayman may have gone under the radar a bit this season having ridden the majority of the classics campaign in support of either teammates Luke Durbridge or Jens Keukeleire, but that means zilch: after all, last year his preparation consisted or riding Zwift in his garage while training with a broken arm. You don't get more radar-limboing than that.
But his win last April – and the manner in which he achieved it – will mean that Hayman will be followed more closely than a small-fingered gung-ho president on Twitter. Put simply, he won't be able to win Roubaix the same way as he did last year – and last year was arguably the only way Hayman was going to win it.
So, does that make Boonen the favourite on paper? In a way, yes.
But there are things that are going to have to go his way. There can be no repeat of his 2011 puncture nightmare, where Boonen – seeking that fourth win – was jettisoned in the Arenberg; he'll need to go long and, if possible, arrive in the velodrome on his own – for if last year's finale taught us anything it's than the Belgian is less Tornado Tom and more Breezy Boonen nowadays when it comes to a sprint.
Such is Quick-Step Floors' faith in Boonen, however, that they have not included last week's Tour of Flanders winner, Philippe Gilbert, in their eight-man team. In lieutenants Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin, Boonen has three of the strongest riders pulling for him, riders who could clearly step up into a leadership role if things don't go Boonen's way (Terpstra is the 2014 champion, remember).
But Boonen will need to be riding with them or ahead of them if he wants a chance. Should one of his teammates do a Gilbert and ride up the road, then Boonen may find himself shoehorned into a supporting role in his final appearance.
The last of four former winners taking to the start is the 2015 champion John Degenkolb of Trek-Segafredo. The German missed the defence of his title last year because of the horrific training accident he had earlier in the season, and while he's still short of his best, Degenkolb has the qualities to be there at the business end on Sunday. He's certainly a rider you'd put in the category marked "tough" – even if his recent tendency to squirt rivals in the face with his bidon, rather than pedal them into submission.
Talking of which, Jens Debusschere is perhaps a weak Lotto Soudal's best chance – but not the best Belgian hope beyond Boonen. That accolade goes to BMC's Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet, who may or may not have won in Oudenaarde on Sunday had his Bora-Hansgrohe rival 'Icarus' Sagan not so dramatically had his wings burnt when riding too close to the barriers on the Kwaremont.
Van Avermaet is clearly in the form of his life and is desperate to end his run of 36 monuments without a single victory. His track record in Roubaix is far from excellent, but he did finish third the last time he raced here in 2015 and it would be neither a surprise nor unpopular were GVA to add to his swelling palmares.
Win in Roubaix and van Avermaet will level the career monument count of Sagan – the man he will no doubt have to beat into second place should he triumph. He has form there: six of van Avermaet's last 10 major wins saw his old sparring partner finish the bridesmaid. Sagan himself has not picked up a win in almost a month and the world champion will be chomping at the bit to avenge his Flanders calamity.
Sagan has never finished higher than sixth in his four previous appearances, however, and it remains to be seen how his shoulder – which took a mighty bash on Sunday – reacts to 55km of fiendishly cobbled roads. The 257km route includes three more cobbled kilometres than last year and two sectors that haven't been used since 1987.
Once again, of the 29 cobblestone sectors the stand-out challenges come with the Arenberg (95.5km remaining), Mons-en-Pevele (48.5km remaining) and the Carrefour de l'Arbre (17km remaining). All three are rated five star by the organisers taking into account their length, the irregularity of the cobblestones, the overall condition of the sectors and their position in the race.
Unless The Donald instructs the US Air Force to use their HAARP weather-controlling secret weapon over the skies of northern France on Sunday – perhaps to put out the fires raging against Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen ignited by the fake news-driven mass media – this year's 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix will be played out under sunshine and a blue sky, with the mercury hitting a balmy 21 degrees.
So that means for the eleventh year running there will be no rain in the Only-Slightly-Less-Hellish Hell of the North.
Another stat we should perhaps consider – if only for frivolity's sake – ahead of the third monument of the season is a run that stretches back to Alexander Kristoff's win in Flanders back in 2015.
After Kristoff's triumph came monumental victories for Degenkolb, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, Arnaud Demare, Sagan, Hayman, Wout Poels, Esteban Chaves, Michal Kwiatkowski and, last week, Gilbert.
Taking that into consideration, things are looking good for both Boonen and van Avermaet… But less good when you take into consideration another stat, namely that we haven't only witnessed 11 different winners of the last 11 monuments, but 11 different nationalities too: Norway, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Slovakia, Australia, Netherlands, Colombia, Poland, Belgium.
Suddenly our options appear rather more limited.
Following Cancellara's retirement Switzerland aren't exactly in the frame; Nelson Oliviera will struggle to finish for Portugal; the sequence has come too early for Ireland, for whom Dan Martin should star in the Ardennes; the current crop of Kazakhs at Astana look a bit rudderless (where's Maxim Iglinsky when you need him?); Jempy Drucker can't win it for Luxembourg; Canada's Antoine Duschesne and Denmark's Magnus Cort Nielsen are surely too wet behind the ears; while Borut Bozic and Luka Mezgec look certain to post DNFs for Slovenia…
That leaves only Britain and the Czech Republic as viable options. Step forward Team Sky duo Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard, and Quick-Step's Stybar.
Welshman Rowe was going strong in Flanders until the absent Sep Vanmarcke took a tumble; he also has a half-decent record in Roubaix. On current form, Rowe has a better chance than England's Stannard, whose third place last year proved that for him to win, like Boonen, he will need to do it solo.
Perhaps Stybar, then, is the best option to keep these uncanny sequences going. The 2015 runner-up has the engine and – provided he doesn't ride too close to the fans in the gutter like in 2013 – the requisite cyclo-cross skills to stay upright. He'll also be sufficiently under the radar entering the race.
Sure, a Stybar win wouldn't be the ideal way for Boonen to bid the sport farewell, but victory to a teammate – as last weekend proved – is better than a slap (or a Degenkolb squirt) in the face. You heard it here first…
Rider ratings for Roubaix
Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors)
Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors), Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott), Luke Rowe (Team Sky), Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott), Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal), Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R-La Mondiale), Tony Martin (Katusha), Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Dimension Data)
Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Daniel Oss (BMC), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Bert de Backer (Sunweb), Adrien Petit (Direct Energie), Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott), Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert)
Read the original article on Eurosport: Blazin' Saddles: Can anyone deny Boonen a fifth Paris-Roubaix win?