Turning point or stardom for Tom Boonen

The career of Quick Step's Tom Boonen has some similarities with that of his compatriot Eric...

An interview with Tom Boonen, April 5, 2008

The career of Quick Step's Tom Boonen has some similarities with that of his compatriot Eric Vanderaerden, and scandalmongers say that the career of the 27 year-old might go the same way. Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé details the Flemish superstar's season lead-up on the eve of Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Vanderaerden's career as a professional started off like rocket in 1983 with victories in Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a España and even the prologue in the Tour de France, all as a 21 year-old. He went on to win many more stages in the Tour de France, and by 1987 he had also won the E3 Prijs Harelbeke, Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But from that point on the Vanderaerden rocket sputtered and no big victories followed.

Tom Boonen started winning the big races as of 2004 when he was 23 years-old, and now four years later it is the first time that the Belgian hasn't won a race on home soil heading into the Ronde van Vlaanderen. If Boonen brings home his third victory in Meerbeke on Sunday, he will no longer be compared with Vanderaerden and go to be known as one of the few riders who have ever won the Flemish race three times – adding his name to a list that includes the illustrious names of Eric Leman, Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni and Johan Museeuw. It would be an impressive feat to accomplish, as even the legendary Eddy Merckx couldn't pull off that third win.

"As you turn professional and race too much, that feeling falls away, but for these races it comes back. You have that feeling again and you want to show everybody how good you are." - Boonen excited for his home race on Sunday.

2008: "I'm doing well"

The two-time Ronde van Vlaanderen winner – in 2005 and 2006 - talked about his current form, and those of some other riders who will start in Brugge with high aspirations. "The E3 Prijs was nice but looking back, it was nothing more than that," Boonen said about the race last weekend where he launched an impressive attack on the Taaienberg, which was countered by Fabian Cancellara. Together the duo held off Juan Antonio Flecha and tried to bridge up with the early breakaway group. Eventually, they fell short and Cancellara's team-mate Kurt-Asle Arvesen grabbed the flowers in Harelbeke.

"I can tell everybody that I'm doing well, but when you can't measure it mano-a-mano against the man who will most probably be my biggest rival then you can maybe delude yourself, and you're not completely sure. So after Saturday I've learned a lesson, but sadly enough Cancellara did so as well. He will most probably not be waiting when I jump away," Boonen explained that both riders would definitely be keeping an eye on each other.

"There aren't a lot of riders with poor form, and this will see a race that has more top-class riders than normal. Previously there were two or three outstanding riders, but now there are so many guys. Most riders who have the inherent potential of winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen are really good, so about six or seven guys can possibly win it," Boonen said. "Then again, there's the battle between the teams and the tactical jousts. The most annoying thing that can happen as a rider, is that you're not allowed to ride because a team-mate is in the front."

When asked about the favourites for the win, Boonen summed it up with five names: "[Leif] Hoste, [Alessandro] Ballan, [Filippo] Pozzato, Cancellara, myself and then there's the twilight zone with riders like [Nick] Nuyens. [Philippe] Gilbert remains a question for me, because this is still Flanders. Philippe is a great rider and he's in the form of his life, but I've never seen him riding the finale in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But it's up to him to provide proof to the contrary.

"I'm better than last year," Boonen noted. And when asked why he was feeling better he replied with an answer that is very typical for the former World Champion, "Because I'm better," he laughed. "It's very general, but I'm feeling better and riding better than last year. Last year, I wasn't bad during the build-up of the season, and in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But my crash in Kortrijk [during the first half of the 2006 Ronde van Vlaanderen - ed.] was the main reason why I couldn't keep my head up.

"I'm pretty sure I'm better now. Harelbeke [E3 Prijs] was good although I didn't have to go full on, and the same thing counts for De Panne [Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde]. I had less difficulty to stay in the front, battling for the win, while I had more problems with that last year. All together that gives me the feeling that I'm better than last year."

Empty handed in Belgium

Boonen hasn't won any Belgian races so far this season and that provides fuel for speculation in the media. He explained why he didn't try harder to win one of the semi-classics, "If I get into the position that I can win it, I will certainly have a go, but it's no longer my concern if I don't win in Waregem [Dwars door Vlaanderen] or Harelbeke. I'm no longer chasing 25 victories a year. That's over, and I'm trying and willing to peak for some specific moments in the season.

"It's mainly a mental thing. If you're 100 percent fit when you start in a race, then you can ride more focused in the finale. But if you have to start in every race like that, then you become tired and you arrive at the start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen with two percent less form. Those two percentage points decide if you win or lose and I don't want to risk that anymore. I want to be at the start in Brugge at 100 percent."

If Boonen doesn't win the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix then he might regret that he wasn't chasing the victory in the semi-classics. "It's a risk, but things wouldn't be any different for me if I had won in Harelbeke or not. I've won six races this year, but if I don't win Flanders or Roubaix it will not be good enough for a lot of people. Whatever you achieved before today is lost. Everybody starts in Brugge with a blank ballot. It seems that Sunday, or in Roubaix, will decide if my spring season was good or not, and I hope it will be judged as good."

The club championship

As Boonen is Flemish he is likely more nervous for Ronde van Vlaanderen than most other races. On the other hand, he has become much more mature at his age of 27 and he might have become indifferent to the nerves.

"I'd like to compare it – and it might sound stupid, but I'll say it anyway – with the past, when as a young kid there was a club championship early on in the year. You were full of nerves, but it had to happen there. You had to show that you trained all winter long and win that novice race. But as you turn professional and race, too much that feeling falls away, but for these races it comes back. You have that feeling again and you want to show everybody how good you are," Boonen described in a way that everybody could imagine what he meant.

'Tommeke,' like the Belgian is often scream as he flies by the packed road-side fans in Flanders, has some scenarios in his mind in which he crosses the finish line with his hands in the air. During the press conference in front of the international media he didn't want to give away his preferred scenario, but he wanted to explain which one he didn't want. "Different good scenarios are possible. I hope that it will be an honest battle with not too much team tactics. ... [One] in which the big guns are firing and the crowd gets to see an exciting race where everybody can go full on, without looking to each other. Then we'll have a beautiful Ronde van Vlaanderen."

Boonen expressed his hope for a great race on Sunday. It almost sounded if the 27 year-old was making an appeal for the removal of the race radio for riders. "No, that's not true," he reacted. "If someone isn't allowed to ride then probably that order was given before the race. For example: if you're away with Boonen then you don't have to go full gas. ... To me it's not about race forgery; the commands would arrive much later [via the team car]."

In the 'club championship' Boonen win, adding his name to the short list of champions, or open the door for scandalmongers' comparisons to Eric Vanderaerden... stay tuned.

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