Tom Boonen has stuck a defiant note on the eve of the 2016 season, telling reporters at the Etixx-QuickStep training camp in Calpe that he has recovered well from the head injury he sustained at the Abu Dhabi Tour and decrying the “predictable” tactics of many of his Classics rivals.
Boonen was initially told that he could face up to six months off the bike after he suffered a temporal bone fracture in Abu Dhabi in October that damaged his hearing but the Belgian returned to training in late November and believes his preparations for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix remain on track.
“Before the first training camp, I wasn’t able to do much and I thought it would be a big setback but in the end I was able to train with the guys and it all went much better than I expected,” Boonen said. “I think at this point, I don’t have any more ground to make up, I’m almost at the same level I was at this point last year.”
Since his last Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix victories in 2012, Boonen has endured a string of misfortunes each spring, most recently in 2015 when he dislocated a shoulder joint in a crash at Paris-Nice and was ruled out of the Classics altogether. He hopes fortune will allow him a clear run at April this time around.
“I think I deserve it after the past three seasons, I’ve had my share of bad luck,” Boonen said. “I mean, I wanted to do Abu Dhabi because I wanted to finish the season as late as possible and have a short break, and prepare the spring classics in the best way possible, and then this happens again… But I hope from now on all the bad luck is behind me.”
Boonen dismissed the idea that he had considered retirement due to his accumulated bad luck – “Quitting is the easiest way, eh?” – and although he only committed to a one-year contract extension with Etixx-QuickStep, he does not appear minded to follow Fabian Cancellara into retirement at the end of this season.
“I thought about it a few times. It’s nice to think about not riding your bike anymore and eating and getting fat, but I like riding my bike and I like to stay skinny as well,” Boonen said. “I’ll be 36 at the end of this year and that’s not an age where you think you’re going to go for ten more years, so that’s why I signed for a year, to wait and see.”
When retirement does eventually come, Boonen intimated that he would like to stay involved in cycling “but not full-time, nothing that would keep me away from home more than I am now.” But for the next three months at least, he has eyes only for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Cycling has undergone some notable changes since Boonen turned professional with US Postal back in 2002, but he was critical of what he sees as the streak of tactical conservatism that has made a return at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in recent seasons.
“When I turned pro, really the only acceptable style of racing was to wait, to wait, wait, wait. I tried to change that a little bit but now everybody’s waiting again,” Boonen said. “They’re all afraid of each other. They’re so afraid to do one thing too much and get dropped in the final. I think some people would prefer to lose the race and not to attack, than to attack and get dropped. And I don’t like it.
“Sometimes you just have to have the balls to try something. Everybody always waits for Carrefour de l’Arbre [at Paris-Roubaix], but the easiest way to get beaten is when you get predictable. Everybody is predictable these days. It’s nice to have a team that does something nobody expects, or a guy who does things nobody expects.”
The changes Boonen has detected around the Classics are not limited to the racing itself. He pointed out that the popularity of the Tour of Flanders, in particular, has expanded beyond all recognition over the course of his career. Once merely a big day out on the calendar, De Ronde now feels like the culmination of a two-week Flemish extravaganza.
“It’s two weeks of madness before the Tour of Flanders now but when I really look back on it, it wasn’t like that 15 years ago,” Boonen said. “And if I talk to my Dad, who did the Tour of Flanders another 15 years before, he says it was a big race, but there were only 50,000 people on the side of the road.
“Now people look back and say those were the big days, but if you talk to the riders who rode in the 70s and the 80s, they’ll say the Tour of Flanders was just a name, a race in Flanders that we called the Tour of Flanders, but not like as we see it now. I’ve noticed that in the last 15 years, they really hype it.”
Earlier in his career, the weight of being the home favourite amid such tumult was such that Boonen relocated to Monaco. Long since reinstalled in Mol, near Antwerp, Boonen has developed his own coping mechanism.
“In the weeks before the Classics, my girlfriend says that I get in my cave, I don’t come out until the races are over,” he said. “I don’t notice, I think I’m normal but I’m not talking as much. I’m just focused. It’s a state of mind that you get into. I think I need that to get into that special Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix mode.
“You have the week before Harelbeke, which is considered like a general exam, and then another week to Flanders, so in the end it’s two weeks where there’s five or six pages a day in the papers. But at the end of those two weeks they can’t say any more because everything’s been said and done.”
At this point in the year, it’s difficult for any Flandrian to look beyond the first two Sundays in April, but given his track record at the Tour of Qatar over the years, Boonen is naturally considered among the contenders for the World Championships in Doha in October.
“I’ve raced in that region in that period, and I’ve noticed that riding 40kph in 45 degrees is not as easy as going 60kph at 25 degrees,” Boonen said. “It’s going to be completely to the races we’ve done in the past in February in Qatar, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do echelons there. And there are laps in the city for the last 80k, so there won’t be so much wind. I think it will be a sprint.”