It has taken him several years – and considerably longer than he needed to achieve fluency in the local tongue – but Tom Boonen has finally learned to win bike races in Italy. The Belgian national champion's sprint win in stage 2 of the Tirreno-Adriatico in Montecatini was, incredibly, his first ever on Italian soil.
With Milan-San Remo just ten days away, Boonen now hopes that there will be many more to come – preferably beginning with La Classicissima on March 20, if not before.
"I've actually not raced that much in Italy," Boonen said in his post-race press conference in Montecatini, offering half an explanation for the drought he ended by taking an uphill sprint that proved too tough for fellow San Remo hopefuls like Oscar Freire and Alessandro Petacchi. "I've done eight San Remos and this is my third time at Tirreno. That's not many chances to win in Italy," Boonen continued.
The 2005 world champion went on to admit that becoming the first Belgian to win a Tirreno stage since Dirk De Wolf in 1991 was "a nice feeling".
"It's not easy to win stages at Tirreno," he said. "Everyone thinks that this is just another one-week stage race, but the riders here are in good shape and all trying to make up that last one or two per cent ahead of San Remo."
Boonen's spirits and San Remo hopes will have received a further boost with so many of his rival sprinters falling away on the steadily-rising last kilometre through the streets of Montecatini.
Daniele Bennati's Liquigas teammates led him expertly around the final bend, only to see Boonen launch himself from Bennati's slipstream and stomp across the line ahead of Rabobank's Paul Martens.
"I told my teammates to get behind me, because I was just going to let Liquigas lead me out," Boonen explained. "There were three of Bennati's guys on the front, going around the last corner. I got a good jump and I think the strongest guy won."
It was hard to argue with that assessment, although Boonen isn't getting carried away. This time last year, some uncharitable remarks about Mark Cavendish's climbing came back to haunt the Belgian when Cavendish outrode him on the Cipressa en route to victory in Milan-San Remo.
Asked on Wednesday whether he still considered the Cavendish a threat for San Remo, despite the Manxman's inability to hold the best wheels on Tirreno's climbs so far, Boonen replied with an emphatic, "Yes".
Cavendish's struggles in Tirreno have even prompted some in Italy to wonder whether the Manxman isn't bluffing as he occasionally did in the same race last year. Boonen, by contrast, knows that his fourth win of 2010 will shorten the odds of him triumphing in San Remo – and perhaps make it even harder to attempt the kind of surprise attack on the Côte de l'Epan which almost brought him glory at Paris-Tours last autumn.
"But I think that even without this win, I would have been a big favourite at San Remo," the Quick Step star argued on Thursday. "It's impossible to just hide in the peloton. It would also be stupid not to try to win when I'm feeling good."