Tom Boonen will ride Milan-San Remo for the last time on Saturday, but he refuses to consider his final race in Italy and the final weeks of his career as a swansong. He is focused on winning rather than looking back at his success in the spring Classics.
Boonen is not interested in a long goodbye like Bradley Wiggins. He will retire after targeting Paris-Roubaix one last time and will then hold a special party with riders and fans.
"Wiggins stopped something like 15 times. It doesn't work that way, eh. Either you stop or you don't stop and you keep racing!" Boonen joked about Wiggins' drawn-out farewell, revealing that lots of riders in the peloton have already come up to him to say goodbye and wish him all the best.
The stream of farewell messages and nostalgia seem to irritate Boonen, as if he is being invited to his own funeral. Before hanging up his bike and getting on with the rest of his life, the 36-year-old Flandrian wants to enjoy every aspect of his final spring campaign. He knows the need to train and race hard, to recover and stay focused, and that the huge media attention in Belgium will ease after Sunday April 9. He is still hungry but keen to savour every moment, without getting caught up in the emotions of it all.
"It's strange, when someone comes to say goodbye, you realise that, shit, there are not that many races left anymore. But I'm not thinking about all the last things I'm doing; I'm thinking about what’s coming up," Boonen explained to journalists at Tirreno-Adriatico before travelling to the Quick-Step Floors team's traditional base near Bologna for some recovery ahead of Friday's journey to Milan.
"Yep, Milan-San Remo will be my last race in Italy but I'll be in Italy a lot after that, hopefully. I'm not aware that I'm doing things for the last time – otherwise I don't think I'm focusing in the right way.
"The only reason that people talk about Paris-Roubaix now is because it's my last one. Of course Paris-Roubaix is my favourite, and the races before it are races I really enjoy. But Roubaix is the last one – that's all. There are not many races left and so we'll have to try to win some of them. For sure we'll lose a lot but we'll be trying to win too."
Milan-San Remo will be Boonen's 40th Monument of his 16-year career. He has been close to victory several times – including two places on the podium – but reveals he only had the form and sprinting speed to win it once.
"A lot of people say I ride Milan-San Remo because I have to but I like to ride it. It's a special race," Boonen points out.
"It's difficult to win but every Classic is difficult to win. Milan-San Remo seems more difficult to actually win it because you often finish so close to victory. You're always there sprinting with 30 or 40 people, sprinting for victory, so you always have the sensation you can win. Whatever happens, there's always a good rider that wins it.
"If I look back at all the editions of Milan-San Remo I've done, I've been on the podium several times, but I feel I only missed out on victory once – I think it was in 2008 or 2009. That's when I really had the legs to win. Other times I was in the place where I deserved to be. But that's Milan-San Remo. It's a seven-hour race and then it's decided in two seconds."
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Riding for Gaviria
Boonen accepts his name is now unlikely to be added to the Italian race's roll of honour. He is happy to ride for Fernando Gaviria on Saturday, knowing the young Colombian sprinter is perfectly suited to the high-speed finale and sprint that so often decides La Classicissima.
However, Boonen wants to play a major role in the race and will be Quick-Step Floors' road captain as they try to use their incredible strength in depth to out-manoeuvre huge favourite and huge rival Peter Sagan.
"I hope to be in the top 10-15 positions on the top of the Poggio –where everybody wants to be – then see if I can put Fernando in a good position," Boonen explained.
"For us right now, he's the main rider for Milan-San Remo. He showed by winning the Tirreno sprint that he's getting better and better every day. If we look back at last year, too, he's good. He's a young guy but he's got the talent that he doesn't need a lot of experience in races. He just feels the race really well, so we put all our cards on him."
Boonen only hopes that Gaviria can avoid crashing, after his debut at Milan-San Remo was wrecked by nerves in the finale and a fatal touch of wheels as he tried to position himself for the sprint in Via Roma.
"He crashed last year but he learnt a lot. You have to take the chances you get. He's in good shape and we can put him a good position this year, so he's got to try to take it.
"He's fast, he's good, and he's one of the most talented guys in the team for his age. It's only right that he gets a chance to win. You can see that it all flows naturally for him. He doesn't have to force himself into a role he doesn't like. He has the brains to make a decision on his own, as he did in the sprint when he won the stage. That defines a true champion, I think."
Beating Peter Sagan
Quick-Step Floors know they must use their strength in depth if they are to bolster their chances of victory and of defeating Sagan.
In what was perhaps a dress rehearsal for the finale of Milan-San Remo, Quick-Step Floors tried to out-manoeuvre Sagan on stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico, sending Niki Terpstra on the attack on the final descent to Civitanova Marche in a bid to isolate Sagan. Gaviria then stuck to Sagan's wheel rather than use Matteo Trentin as a lead-out man.
The plan proved to be successful because Gaviria got the better of Sagan in the sprint to the line. Of course, the tactics for Milan-San Remo will be far more complex, with other teams also planning to attack or defend and wait for a sprint finish.
Despite Sagan's almost unique ability to go with attacks on the Poggio or even win a group sprint in the Via Roma, Boonen is confident Quick-Step Floors can find a chink in his armour thanks to their strength in depth.
The comparative weakness of Sagan's Bora-Hansgrohe team is evident to his rivals, and the other teams will ride to isolate and then attack Sagan at Milan-San Remo on Saturday and in every race this spring.
"He has a very good team, but we have to be fair, guys. I mean, you can do the math, eh," Boonen said when comparing his Quick-Step Floors squad to Bora-Hansgrohe for Milan-San Remo.
"Everyone is beatable – it's bike racing. Luckily, the best doesn't always win. We can be sure that it's going to be very difficult for him to win in the Classics. Why? Because he's the best and he doesn't have the strongest team. It'll be open racing. The race finals will start a little earlier than normal and everyone will try to isolate him and get away in front of him.
"I am only saying what the tactics will be for everybody else. They will be aware that he's there and he'll be the main guy to beat. It's not only our team but also all the other teams in the world. Everyone is going to have the same tactic and try to get rid of him."
Boonen and Gaviria will be joined by Philippe Gilbert and Julian Alaphilippe – who showed his form and aggression at Paris-Nice –while Jack Bauer, Julien Vermote, Fabio Sabatini and Matteo Trentin will have to do the hard work for the team leaders.
"We've got a lot guys going well, so we've only got to find the right way to get the results. At the moment we can all see that Sagan is flying. So it'll be difficult to beat him and so we have to plan how to beat him and the others," Boonen explains, hinting that Quick-Step Floors will not follow a traditional pre-written Milan-San Remo script.
"The way you can adapt to situations – that shows the strength of the team. It's not about having one plan and having that one plan pushed through at all costs, then you get really predictable and everyone sees what you're doing. You just act to the way they think you are going to do the race. Being unpredictable makes it harder for the others.
"San Remo's not a difficult race. They go up the Poggio as fast as possible and down as fast as possible, and then they sprint, but every five or six years, there's something that happens that you didn't expect, so we'll see. We have to be prepared for everything."