Pressure is off after becoming the most winning rider in Kuurne
With a powerful sprint victory, Tom Boonen concluded a magnificent Omega Pharma-Quick-Step team performance in a windy Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday afternoon in Belgium. At the age of 33, the Belgian star is starting to break several records. In Kuurne, Boonen grabbed his first record of the season, becoming the first rider to win the so-called donkey race three times. The win in Kuurne came one day after an off-day during a chilly Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
"It was a sprint of dying swans, after 70km on the attack. I'm glad I won it because otherwise it would've been a disgrace," Boonen said.
The Belgian explained - somewhat jokingly - that a lot of pressure had just fallen off his shoulders. "This win is taking away a lot of questions and provides me with one quiet week until Paris-Nice. All the expectations about my so-called good form are now confirmed. Once you've won, it's possible to say that it's very important, that it's indispensable for the upcoming weeks. Before the opening weekend, I already knew I was going well. Yesterday didn't change that. I know I can't handle the cold. I even threw up during the race because my stomach was cramping. That's never going to change. It was the first time I had rain this season and that came as a shock. It didn't have anything to do with form. It was an accident de parcours."
Boonen said that the hoped his win and the broken record were the start of something "beautiful". "I'm a happy man. Hopefully, I can remain healthy for about two weeks, add some percentages in Paris-Nice and then the big races can come."
Despite its UCI category 1.1 status, Boonen explained that he regarded Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne as one of the biggest Belgian one-day races. "There's two races in the opening weekend. We lost one and we won one. I'm glad I won it. Yesterday was in my top-five of coldest days in my career. Kuurne is one of the season-opening races, one of the most important races in the spring season. [...] It's my first small record this year. There's a few more that I've targeted. If I can take just one of them, then my career has succeeded, not only my season," Boonen said, referring to a possible fourth win in the Tour of Flanders and a possible fifth win in Paris-Roubaix.
While Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is considered as a race for the sprinters, this edition turned out completely different. The Omega Pharma-Quick-Step and Belkin teams joined forces and placed a coupe at the Oude Kwaremont, often a crucial decider in the Tour of Flanders.
"If you attack here, it's still 55km after the last climb. If groups ride away here, it's because the weather's foul. The way we did it doesn't happen often. It clearly depends on the strength of the lead group," Boonen said. "Nikolas Maes accelerated on the Kruisberg [with 97km to go] but I told him not to do it because nobody would want to ride with us. I told them to save everything for the sprint. That was the plan and we did exactly the opposite."
"We arrived well grouped near the front of the peloton at the foot of the Oude Kwaremont. Stijn Vandenbergh took the initiative and accelerated. We ended up with a group of 10 riders, but it made no sense to push on. I wanted to wait for the next group because we would kill ourselves. In the end, I'm really glad we tried it. It became a very nice race. It showed how strong we are as a team. Winning as a collective is the nicest way to win a race. Especially because you don't plan to do it before the race. Then you roll into it and hesitate. Then, together you start to work for it. Suddenly it's a matter of honour. You decide to go for it. 'They're not going get us and we'll see what happens.'"
While there were five Quick-Step riders up front, there were five others who could ruin the party. And although co-operation was nowhere to be found among teams in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the situation was the opposite in Kuurne.
"It was fun that everybody kept going for it. We had everything to lose. Three teams were riding behind us and in the past a similar situation always brought the lead group back. The eight men from our team and Belkin were really strong guys. Luckily everybody was obliged to work very hard to create our lead. When hitting the local circuit of two laps everybody was dead tired. I expected attacks but the wind was our companion. Puncheurs like Maarten and Sep had nowhere to go. There were four men to chase an attacker down."
Sep Vanmarcke rode a very strong weekend but remains without a victory. Boonen realized that despite his poor day on Saturday he came out better than Vanmarcke. "For two days, his good weekend will be talked about but then it's over and only the result remains." Boonen was impressed that Vanmarck his young teammate Moreno Hofland survived the selection on the Oude Kwaremont but felt he captured a comfortable sprint victory over the fast Dutchman. "I didn't know what to expect from Moreno. He rode very strong but just not strong enough to win here."
After this weekend Boonen will enter Paris-Nice before heading to Milano-San Remo in three weeks time. "There's always a stage with crosswinds so I have my chances in the first few stages. Otherwise it's a long week. So hopefully we can win a stage. Some guys in our team made the GC a goal so we'll have enough work on our plate. San Remo was already a goal, but now that's even more the case because the course is back in my favour. The oldest course is the nicest one. [The climb] Le Manie isn't such a problem for me. The peloton often splits there but that's not a problem. It might be my last chance to do something there as there may never be such an opportunity again. The course is a gift of god for me and then it'll be over."
Boonen also had a few words on the always recurring race radio topic. Both in the Omloop and Kuurne, there were no race radios in use so riders and team directors were unable to constantly interact with each other. "The difference is that we have men along the course with signs. [The fuzz around] race radios is the biggest blow-up in the world; it's a non-event. Having them is easy and safe. That's all."
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