From cycling star to rally pilot: Tom Boonen’s thrilling gear shift
After an impressive career in cycling, he is now embracing the challenges and thrills of rallying. His evolution from pedals to steering wheels unveils a story of passion, determination, and adaptability. Find out what cycling and rallying have in common in our exclusive interview with De Clercq & Partners' brand ambassador, Tom Boonen.
- Tell us about your journey as an athlete. What inspired you to pursue this sport?
“My fascination with speed sports has been a constant throughout my life. Right after my cycling career concluded in 2017, I obtained my license to participate in car races. During the summer following my last Roubaix race, I participated in my first car race in Spa (25H fun cup). There, my second great passion besides cycling was confirmed: motor racing! It's akin to cycling in some ways, though not in terms of adrenaline, but certainly in terms of atmosphere.
My entire 2022 season was dedicated to competing in the Porsche Carrera Cup. Pierre Delettre, the race director of the Porsche Carrera Cup Benelux, played a pivotal role in connecting me to the rally sports. It was through Pierre that I was invited to participate in February 2023 in my first ever rally: the Boucles de Bastogne. Bernard Munster then paired me with Erwin Mombaerts, a former (co-)pilot with over 35 years of experience. Erwin lives less than 5 kilometres away from me, and we were a natural pair from the first moment.
My first rally experience in Boucles de Bastogne was so fulfilling that just a few weeks later, we took part in the Rally of Haspengouw. We deliberately chose to participate with a 'historic' car (Lancia) to discretely notch-up practice kilometres and immerse ourselves in the rally scene away from the spotlight. After a ‘DNF’ in our third rally (Rally des Ardennes), we promptly swapped the historic car for a newer, and faster Skoda for the remaining rounds of the Belgian Rally Championship. I can confidently say that, by then, I had completely fallen in love with rally sports.”
- Who is Tom Boonen as a rally pilot in three words?
“Consistent, smooth and self-confident!”
- What's your favourite aspect of rally?
“The level of difficulty in rallying is enormous, and that is precisely what fascinates me about it. Rallying presents a far greater challenge than I had envisioned on the circuit. What captivates me is the chance to stay grounded, while embracing vulnerability within the sporting arena. It mirrors the essence of cycling, where the spotlight on you as a cyclist is constant. Both in rallying and cycling, the true test lies not only in the physical skills but also in the mental strength and the ability to embrace the unpredictable nature of the sport.
Rallying is an intricate dance between man and machine, but it's more than just driving skills. It's about strategy, adaptability, and an intimate understanding of the terrain. Unlike circuit racing, where the track remains quite stable, rallying demands constant adjustment and quick thinking as the conditions on the course shift unpredictably. There lies a certain vulnerability in admitting that you are unable to control every element, yet it is precisely this dynamic aspect that makes rallying so appealing to me.”
- Do you have any pre-rally rituals or routines that you swear by?
“I like to have a perfect preparation down to the smallest details. This allows me to calmly approach a rally weekend. As such I can fully concentrate and deliver my best performance. I am anything but superstitious. However, I always carry something from my twin daughters with me while I am competing.”
- Which type of Rally is your favourite and why?
“Picking just one type of rally is challenging for me. In general, I am fond of natural tracks that gracefully weave through the landscape. I tend to favour faster rallies over slower, muddier ones. However, in Spa, I surprisingly enjoyed the thrill of manoeuvring the car precisely for a corner, even in the slippery conditions. So, I must admit, I can also appreciate the challenge of a muddy terrain.”
- What was last year’s most memorable moment to you?
“It is challenging to pinpoint one single moment. Perhaps what stands out for me is the consistency we achieved from the moment we entered with the Skoda. Rally fans congratulated me after each race, acknowledging our constant progress. Practice in rallying relies on riding kilometres in the rally car, which is almost impossible on public roads. A standout memory for me is finishing every rally we started, which is quite unique for a debutant, especially with a fast and challenging car.
If I were to choose a top moment, I would dare to say that the Spa Rally stands out. Simply finishing was tough due to the wet, muddy, and slippery conditions. Only 57 out of 127 cars managed to cross the finish line. Achieving a steady top 10 in such a demanding rally was a personal highlight for me.”
- Where would you like to see yourself in three years?
“In the next 3 years, my goal is to perform at my absolute best in rallying. Perhaps, I might even strive for an overall podium spot in the Belgian Rally Championship. I am uncertain if this is entirely feasible, but I am hopeful it is! This year marked just the beginning, a phase in which I have made significant strides. However, I am confident that there is still plenty of room for improvement and progress. I am excited for what lies ahead and I am looking forward to next season with Pieter Tsjoen Racing team."