Tom Boonen will be chasing a third consecutive overall victory at the Tour of Qatar. His Quick Step team will start last in the Sunday's opening 8.2km team time trial, and he is confident that he has the early season form to go for another overall victory in the Gulf.
Boonen has been through two difficult years after failing three out of competition tests for cocaine. He seems to have lost some of his sprinting speed, but he won Paris-Roubaix last year and remains a huge sports star in Belgium.
As he approaches his 30th birthday, he seems more melancholic and reserved, but like everyone who races a bike, he still gets excited about starting a new season.
"I'm looking forward to finally starting racing. It's been a long winter," he said to Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview the day before the Tour of Qatar.
"This year, Qatar is a week later and the 10 days at home after our training camp and team presentation has made me really hungry to race again."
Some riders are worried about their lack of form after the terrible winter in Europe. Not Boonen. He is confident that he'll have the legs for Sunday's team time trial and for the expected sprint finishes on the other five days of racing in Qatar.
"I know what I did this winter. After nine seasons as a professional, there aren't any surprises. You know that if you put the work and the right amount of energy into, you're always good," he says.
"I spent a lot of time in Spain between December and January. I went home a few times, but I was there for almost five weeks. I did almost everything I'd planned and didn't miss a lot of training. The last test I did was really good and on schedule. I know I'm on a good level and up there with the other guys. I'm not afraid to start the season. I'm looking forward to it."
TTT key to Qatar success
Boonen knows that a strong ride in the opening team time trial is the foundation for success in Qatar. Quick Step finished one second behind Garmin last year, and the Belgian team has selected its best rouleur and sprint lead-out train for the race.
"We've won the team time trial twice and it's the key to doing well for the overall. It's almost impossible to get time back if you lose a lot in the team time trial," Boonen said with his likable pragmatism.
"The Tour of Qatar is not a difficult race to understand after that.You have to stay near the front on the road stages. If you have a good level (of fitness) and know how to ride a little bit, then you're always up there in the classification. It's been like that every time I've ridden here. I've been on the podium five times: I've had two second places and three wins. That means I'm always there."
"This year the team time trial will be even more important because it's a little bit longer and more technical. It'll be difficult against the real specialist time trial teams like Garmin, although using road bikes makes a difference. If you have the engine, like Team Sky has in their line-up with Wiggins, you'll be in front too. We were second to Garmin by just a few tenths of a second last year. That's not a lot and so we should be up there again."
Retirement now in sight
Boonen will be 30 on October 15, and he is beginning his ninth season as a professional. He admits that he is starting to see the moment when his career might end, but is trying to fight off any thoughts of feeling old.
"I'm trying not to feel old, but it's hard," he says with a laugh.
"This is the first year I've started to look back a little bit. I've been racing for a long time and I never thought the finish line of my career would be in sight, but I'm getting there. I'm not going to last another nine years."