News feature, December 16, 2006.
Focused on the spring classics
Quick-Step started its 2007 season this week in Marina di Bibbona, Italy with a noticeable change; the king of the classics, Tom Boonen, is no longer in his world championship stripes. The rainbow colours have been passed over to Italian teammate Paolo Bettini and so too has some of the pressure.
Boonen, 26 years-old, proved a point in 2006; that there is no such thing as a curse on the world champion. The Belgian started his season by winning immediately in Qatar, barely missed out in Milano-San Remo but came back to score his second Tour de Flanders. Although he did not win a stage or the maillot vert in the Tour de France, he spent time in the coveted maillot jaune.
"I was very happy with the yellow jersey," explained Boonen of his July in France. "At the beginning I wanted a stage [win] more than the jersey. But having the jersey was different than I expected; four days in the yellow, it was something I will remember for the rest of my life."
Tom Boonen led the Belgian team in the world championships in an attempt to defend his 2005 title. He was unsuccessful in keeping the rainbow colours but he reckons the added pressure won't be missed. "[In 2007] I hope to do as good as the last few years. I always say the same at the beginning of the year, and it is always hard. This off season has been better for me, without the [world champion] jersey.
"I think it was good that Paolo won and I am out of the jersey. Maybe there will be less pressure. Now the goal, like always, will be to win races straight away [in the early season - ed.]. This year everyone watched me because they were searching for a curse on the rainbow jersey."
In addition to the rainbow jersey, Boonen is a pop-star in his home country. It is not evident in Italy, but at home he is never left alone. "In Belgium, my fame is growing and sometimes it can be bad, but overall I am happy with my successes and the people in Belgium," he said.
His season is very much built around the spring classics, particularly Milano-San Remo, Tour de Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix. "Of course I want to do well in the classics. I would prefer to win a third Flanders, and if that is possible then, the following Sunday, a second Paris-Roubaix would be nice. In my mind, I really want Roubaix this year."
San Remo slipped out of his grasp last year when teammate Filippo Pozzato went away in the finale but this year he will be back. "In Milano-San Remo, I need a little big of good luck. Now I have experience so I will know the finish better. It is not a very difficult race but it is very difficult to win."
Cyclingnews asked if he would be happy with only San Remo, missing out on a big Belgian win. "I would be very happy to come away only with San Remo," Boonen confirmed. "I mean, it is one of the five monuments and they are all important, even for the Belgians. If I end my season with only one of these five races then I would be happy. You know there are going to be years when I don't win a classic, so I am always happy to win a race like this."
Being in Italy, Boonen was asked what he thought about competing in the Giro d'Italia. "Maybe I will do the Giro one year, but currently my schedule is too packed," he noted. "I start in the beginning with San Remo, etcetera, and then the classics. If I want to do the Tour, it does not give me any time.
"I try to be focused on what I do well, and they say if you focus on other types of races then you become weaker in what you are already good at," Boonen said. "I know I can finish a big stage race, and everyone always wants you to do more and more. I have to find my limits; I have touched a lot of limits but the others I am still trying to find."
Boonen confirmed that he will be at the world championships in Stuttgart and has no thought of staying home. "I heard the parcours is very hard. They always say 'it is hard for Tom,' but I think the stupidest thing you can do is stay home. I will go and see what happens."
He keeps a low-profile when the subject of Operación Puertois brought up. In a way he has every right to be quiet, he is not mentioned and why would he want to be dragged into the mess. But, as a leader on the bike, many people in cycling look to Boonen for answers to the sport's biggest problem.
"I don't look at the others, what they are doing. I try to only focus on myself," Boonen quipped. But Cyclingnews pressed further... But if you knew something was going on in the team? "I don't ask." But would you speak up to help protect the Quick-Step image? "Yes, of course," he replied honestly.
"It is not always easy to train hard and then have some of the public trash the riders. I respect all the riders; we are all doing a tough job."