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Originally published Monday, April 9, 2012 at 1:01 PM

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Column: Federer, Messi and ... Boonen

Lionel Messi, Roger Federer and ... Tom Boonen. Granted, Boonen isn't the global mega-star those other two are, but they're alike in that they tower above others in their sport.

AP Sports Columnist

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ROUBAIX, France —

Lionel Messi, Roger Federer and ... Tom Boonen. Granted, Boonen isn't the global mega-star those other two are, but they're alike in that they tower above others in their sport.

On a bicycle over cobblestones, there's never been anyone better than Boonen. To the layman, that might not seem much of a claim to fame. But in cycling, it makes Boonen something of a god. This sport has built a whole tradition of venerating hard men who win hard races the hard way. Boonen on Sunday won the hardest one-day race there is, for a record-tying fourth time, and did it the hardest way possible - alone.

For 53 kilometers (32 miles), Boonen rode solo at the front of Paris-Roubaix, his long, muscular legs inexorably churning him forward over the brutally bumpy cobblestones that make this race a monument in cycling, as cherished by hard-core fans as Le Mans in motorsport and football's 'clasico' matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The cobblestone tracks through French farmland shake loose nuts and bolts, puncture tires and spill riders. The rattle and shake of gripping handlebars over them is so exhausting, like holding a jackhammer for hours, that many of the 113 riders who reached the finish and the 82 others who foundered before the northern French town of Roubaix will suffer aches and pains for the rest of this week.

"Everything hurts - your arms, your hands, your legs, your back, your neck," said Allan Peiper, a director with the Garmin-Barracuda team who rode in five Tours de France and multiple Paris-Roubaix. He said the battering meted out by the cobbles makes the race even more punishing than the toughest mountain stages at the Tour.

But Boonen seemed to glide over the rocks. That takes tremendous power and bike-handling technique. And it took courage to ride off the front of the race when the finish was so distant. In recent decades, few have pulled off such a long, one-man victory.

Bike fans adore such daring. The risk for Boonen was that he would quickly tire and be swallowed by rivals hunting as a pack behind. But once Boonen escaped, they couldn't catch him. Cobblestone by cobblestone, Boonen pedaled relentlessly to maintain and then increase his lead. When it finally reached 1 minute, with 26 kilometers (16 miles) to ride, it became clear that the game was up.

"I don't get many chances to pull off a number like that one," Boonen said. "I found myself at the front alone and thought, 'OK, why not give it a try?' I fought for every second and when I had accumulated a minute, I thought, 'OK. It's possible to ride all the way to Roubaix.'"

"Frankly, it was beautiful," said Christian Prudhomme, the Tour director who had the best seat in the house, riding in a car behind.

"We were right behind him for an hour and a half. It was a sort of animal-like strength. Not at all robotic," Prudhomme said. "It was impressive."

This was the 110th Paris-Roubaix, which started in 1896, making it older than the Tour. With the other champions, Boonen has a plaque bearing his name in the communal showers at Roubaix's velodrome, where the race ends among cheering crowds.

Boonen on Sunday also happily lifted the wonderfully bizarre trophy the race has awarded winners since 1977 - a cobblestone mounted on marble.

In 2009, when Boonen tested positive for cocaine a second time, it looked like success was ruining him. He unhappily acknowledged that when he parties, "I apparently turn into somebody different."

Now, the former world champion looks like a winner again.

"People said he was finished, because of his health problems, his knee problems, his wobbles outside of sport," said Prudhomme. "Now, he is back."

Boonen also won Roubaix in 2005, '08 and '09, and now shares the record of victories with Roger de Vlaeminck, winner in 1972, '74, '75 and '77.

This month, Boonen also won his third Tour of Flanders, the daylong race through his native Belgium. It, too, rattles over cobbled sections.

Federer's record of 16 tennis majors and the football marks Messi is setting almost every week with Barcelona are arguably more impressive and certainly make them better known.

But Boonen's combined total of seven Roubaix and Flanders wins, a new record, is important stuff to fans who think cycling over rocks really rocks.

"It makes him almost a god," said Francois Doulcier, president of The Friends of Paris-Roubaix, a group dedicated to preserving the ancient cobblestone tracks.

"It means he really is strong, that he loves cycling, and that he loves classic races with paving stones. We're in awe."

After Boonen crossed the line, an employee of his Omega PharmaQuick Step team cleaned him up a bit with a quick wipe of his arms, face and legs, making him presentable for television interviews.

Shame, really. Because covered in the grime and dust this race throws up, Boonen looked the part: the cobblestone king.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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