By Shane Stokes in Doha, Qatar
One team trial triumph, two individual stage wins and second on day four of the race; Tom Boonen has shown very strong early-season condition and appears to be heading for his second overall victory in the Tour of Qatar.
The Belgian had a superb Classics campaign in 2006 and a somewhat quieter one last season; with fans and journalists alike wondering what is in store for 2008, Cyclingnews asked him how his form compared to last year's event.
"I don't know, my form is always good at this point," he answered. "But from year to the other, I never feel anything different - it [his early season form] is always good.
"I stopped earlier than before last season, it was the second week of the Tour of Spain. As a result I had more time to relax, to rest. That was necessary. Training was the same, but I had more rest [beforehand] so I think I have more reserves for the up and coming races," the Quickstep sprinter added.
Boonen will head to the US after Qatar, riding the Tour of California. Before then, he will aim to sew up victory in the race by riding well in the final two days. He has already eliminated several rivals, including Danilo Napolitano (Lampre): when the hammer went down during stage four, the Italian was caught in the second bunch and finished 8'37" back.
Slipstream Chipotle-H3O were the ones who forced the split, being then joined in the pacesetting by riders from other teams. "They began it [the move], but at that moment we had already been on the front for 50 kilometres," said Boonen. "They attacked from the left. There wasn't really a crosswind, it was a strange wind but there was just enough to split up the group. It was better for everybody once that happened, up the front we were more relaxed. Also, I think if you came to the finish line with a complete bunch it would be very dangerous."
Boonen was looking good for another stage win on Wednesday but underestimated the wind, finally losing out to Italian Alberto Loddo. "There was a curve at the end because we are travelling along the corniche," he said just before the jersey presentation. "The wind was coming from a certain angle but we changed direction as we followed the road. I waited until 500 metres to go like always, then started getting ready. I went without problems, I put it in the eleven [sprocket] but at 100 metres from the line it [the wind] was like a wall. I lost five, six kilometres per hour, all my speed was gone. Loddo was on my wheel, he waited for the right moment and then did a good sprint."