Boonen ready to set Flanders on fire

The Quick.Step team picked up the gauntlet to dominate the Spring Classics, and they're certainly...

An interview with Tom Boonen, April 7, 2007

If you've won the Tour of Flanders two years in-a-row, combined with a victory in the 'Hell of the North' (Paris-Roubaix), not to mention four straight wins in the 'mini-Tour of Flanders' (E3 Prijs) then you're the one and only favourite for the 2007 Tour of Flanders this Easter Sunday. Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé met up with the already legendary Belgian, Tom Boonen, to discuss the prospect of a historic triple.

The Quick.Step team picked up the gauntlet to dominate the Spring Classics, and they're certainly not hiding their ambitions. Quick.Step wants nothing less than victory in what for them seems to be the second most important race of the season after the World Championships. With two-time winners Tom Boonen and Peter Van Petegem alongside world champion Paolo Bettini, the Quick.Step management has several irons to put into the fire, not forgetting the more than capable team-mates on hand before the finale.

If Boonen wins 'Vlaanderens Mooiste' for a third time in three years, he adds his name to other triple winners like Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Fiorenzo Magni (the Italian won the race three times in-a-row during the early fifties) but the 26 year-old from Balen, near Antwerp refuses to let history affect him. "I'm not thinking about that three times in-a-row record as I found out it becomes paralysing if you think about it too much," said Boonen.

During last year's Tour de France Boonen failed to live up to the high expectations for the first time, despite wearing the yellow jersey in Belgium. We asked the Belgian if it was possible for him to get nervous on home soil. "Maybe I'll be a little nervous on Sunday," he admitted. "I can't be nervous as from now on our plan just needs to fall together; at crucial points in the race we'll have to make the right decisions. We will ride the finale on Sunday, that's for sure... we just have to."

"Every scenario where I lose is out of the question!" -Boonen isn't thinking about defeat on Sunday

With his amazing number of wins during the last few years, Boonen has become wildly popular in Flanders - a public figure - forcing him to move to Monaco, although financial reasons have also influenced his relocation to the tax haven. "I think the amount of people waiting at the team bus every race came to a standstill; if there are more people then they're probably just born," he joked. "The hype during the races has been growing every year but that's just great, the adrenaline pushes you forward."

The main problem for Boonen at this year's race might well be the strength of his own team - Paolo Bettini told Cyclingnews in December that he'd rather win Flanders than take a third Liege-Bastogne-Liege - although Boonen played down the possibility of fighting his own team-mate for victory. "It's possible that we end up in a situation where we both can win the race; I can win it for a third time while Bettini still needs to win it for the first time.

"I'm sure that if Bettini is in a situation to win the race he'll try to use it... we just need to use common sense. We need to make sure that the team doesn't have to work much before the Oude Kwaremont, there's nothing wrong with being a favourite."

Asked what kind of scenario he prefers on Easter Sunday, Boonen replied in his typical joking style: "Every scenario where I lose is out of the question!"

Winning the Tour of Flanders is something that big champions of the Spring Classics - like Sean Kelly, Erik Dekker, Freddy Maertens and Laurent Jalabert - couldn't pull off. They all have their reasons, but it proves that the strongest riders don't always win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Being a winner in 2005 and 2006 shows that Boonen clearly has what it takes, but the Belgian denied he has any specific recipe for success. "I'm looking to nobody, I believe in my own strength and possibilities," he said. "There's no real recipe I think, I'm just lucky to be who I am, lucky to grow up over here and to be in this team."

Maybe that's the recipe to become a winner in Flanders: being a local. Taking a look at the past winners we see that out of 90 editions there have been 64 Belgian winners - British rider Tom Simpson being the sole non-continental winner in 1961.

Non-Belgian favourites like Filippo Pozzato, Alessandro Ballan and especially Spaniard Oscar Freire don't have the knowledge to prepare for every important sector, but Boonen refuted our theory. "Did you know that the first time I explored these roads was during the Ronde van Vlaanderen?" he said. "I'm not training in this area as I grew up at the other side of the country. My first Tour of Flanders was an example of racing expertise."

So what exactly does he mean by 'racing expertise'? "Before a race I have to take a look at the course as well but I file the data in my head and I memorize it... Oscar apparently doesn't." he said.

The cobbled surfaces around Flanders might be a factor: Freire was spotted exploring every cobble of the Oude Kwaremont during the recent E3-Prijs. The Spanish winner of Milan-San Remo has previously said you don't have to know the course to win the race. "Oscar can say something like that," Boonen answered. "Oscar has the advantage that there aren't many cobbled sections in the finale, so with him you never know. To me, it's sad to see a hill like the Koppenberg being removed from this year's edition, I like the climb as it delivered something extra to the race."

Despite the removal of the brutally steep Koppenberg, which had most of the peloton on foot last year, the riders still need to overcome no less than 18 hills before arriving in Meerbeke.

Cyclingnews asked Boonen who else might bother him in his quest for a third Flanders title. "There's nobody really on top of the rest," he said. "Ballan, Paolini, Flecha, Pozzato, O'Grady, Cancellara ... they will all be there in the finale; we have to watch out as there a couple of strong duo's among them."

The positive side for Boonen is that he can get to the finish with almost every one of them knowing he can beat them in a sprint. "That's true with a group of four or five, but I'm in major trouble in a group of ten riders; at that moment I hope there are some teammates around," he laughed.

On Easter Sunday we'll know if 'Tommeke' is able to claim a third win in Flanders and send Belgium into a spin once again. It's already clear that more than half a million people will be supporting their heroes somewhere along the 259km route as beautiful weather has been forecast. "If the weather is good, the race is good," Boonen smiled. "I'm looking forward to the start in Bruges. I realise that sooner or later I'll have a less good year but I hope it's not this year."

At that moment it's clear to see what many people seem to like about the Belgian; even though he's considered a superman he's able to put things into perspective and joke around when he wants to.

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