Coming into the E3 Harelbeke on Friday the form of Belgian cycling star Tom Boonen was a major question mark. The 32-year-old Belgian champion had a troubled winter in which he almost lost his arm due to an infection. The weeks without training in January didn’t allow him to come into this key part of the season at the desired level of form.
On Friday afternoon, Boonen showed flashes of his unquestionable talent by creating the decisive breakaway move with an acceleration in the asphalted gutter of the cobbled Taaienberg climb. In high contrast to that acceleration, however, was his performance 25 kilometres later on the Oude Kwaremont when Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack) blasted away in front of the group towards his third victory in Harelbeke
Boonen was dangling at the back of it, failing to hold the wheel of men like Andrey Amador (Movistar). Usually Boonen is the one who rides away there but this time no fewer than three of his teammates rode in front of him at that stage: Sylvain Chavanel, Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar. Just over one week away from the Tour of Flanders it is clear Boonen still has work to do. Boonen’s Omega Pharma-QuickStep team director Wilfried Peeters agreed.
“Tom was a question mark before the race and it’s clear he will not start as the outright favourite,” Peeters said.
After the finish, Boonen took his time before talking briefly with the attending press and – by his standards – the 32-year-old kept it short, possibly to avoid the cold in these crucial days ahead of the two monuments: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I’m seventh. If you can’t be happy with a top-10 result... We’ve been spoiled in the past and that’s the problem. I did reasonably well. I had a weak moment but came through it. Seventh in the results isn’t bad but on the Kwaremont I wasn’t going anywhere. From the moment we rode away [on the Taaienberg] I didn’t recover. I hadn’t eaten anything since and that showed on the Kwaremont. Then I took some gels and drank a bottle. I recovered a little later. All is like I expected it to be.
“Earlier, on the Taaienberg I was going smoothly but I didn’t open a big gap, that was never the case. It certainly wasn’t bad. On the Kwaremont I saw bits of the climb that I’ve never seen before; I was hitting every cobble. I climbed it really badly. You just can’t go any faster if the legs don’t want to; you’re without energy. There’s nothing wrong with the engine, I simply ran out of fuel. I managed to recover so that’s the positive side.”
Boonen stated that he wasn’t too worried about his form despite his lacklustre performance on the Oude Kwaremont, a long cobbled climb which also features in the Tour of Flanders.
“My dad always says that I need to hit rock bottom once before recovering by the next week. We shall see. I still needed this, that’s clear. It certainly wasn’t bad so there’s still moral.”
Cancellara the Flanders favourite
The domination of Fabian “Spartacus” Cancellara was in high contrast with Boonen’s own performance but that didn’t worry the Belgian champion either. Logically he named Cancellara as the sole top favourite for the Tour of Flanders.
“Yes, of course. He threw his cards on the table and it was an impressive numéro. If Fabian is good then everybody knows that he can do this, it’s not the first time he did this. Let him do his thing, I’m building in my own way so I don’t have to worry about him. I will not be like last year but that’s not necessary. You can win Flanders differently too. I have loads of experience. In 2011 I wasn’t good either and finished fourth while I could’ve won so I’m certainly not beaten yet.”
Boonen realizes he needs all the race kilometres he can get to be ready for Flanders and Roubaix, echoing the words from Roger De Vlaeminck on Thursday. “Boonen needs every race now. I think he’ll be good in Roubaix. Flanders comes too early,” De Vlaeminck told Cyclingnews. Next on his schedule is the WorldTour event Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday but although he is the defending champion, Boonen played down his ambitions for that race, deferring to the team’s fastest man Mark Cavendish.
“Gent-Wevelgem is not for me, that’s for Cavendish. Hopefully the weather’s good so that we can properly ride the race. That’s the next step. From now on everything is important. I need every second.”
Omega Pharma-Quickstep team director Wilfried Peeters agreed that Boonen had a weak moment but he was pleased with how the team raced. When asked about the weird team tactics at the Kwaremont when two Omega Pharma-Quickstep riders – Vandenbergh and Stybar - dropped out of the first chase group.
“We were always in control of the race until Boonen had a weak moment on the Kwaremont. It’s the first time he went deep. We will see next week. On top of the Kwaremont there was also a misunderstanding with Sylvain [Chavanel] who accelerated while the two others were on their limit. I didn’t have television images and I can tell you that we didn’t tell them to wait for Boonen. They were dropped, possibly due to the high amount of work they did earlier in the race. In hindsight it is clear that Stijn was very strong and that we could have used him in the finale,” Peeters said.
It will be interesting to see whether Boonen will be able to help out teammate Mark Cavendish on Sunday, provided there is a race, of course. The weather forecast looks as bad as it was for the cancelled Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne event a few weeks ago. Last week Boonen already pulled out of Milan-San Remo while his team leader Cavendish could have done with all available support as he eyed the win in San Remo.