It has been more than half a year since Tom Boonen raised his arms in victory at the end of a road race, but the Omega Pharma-Quickstep rider is hoping to put a winter's worth of health-related dramas behind him and get back in the mix at the front of the race in tomorrow's E3 Harelbeke.
The race takes in many of the same roads as the Tour of Flanders, with the Paterberg and Kwaremont climbs providing a selective moment in the final 40km, and followed by the Knokteberg and Tiegemberg as the final obstacles before the finish line back in Harelbeke.
"Harelbeke is one of my favorites ever," Boonen said today. "I won here five times, and every time when I am at the start of the race or in the final it's something special for someone like me, who really likes this kind of parcour."
Last year, the E3 Prijs Harelbeke was the start of an unprecedented Classics romp by Boonen, who followed his victory here with triumphs in Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
However, a difficult off-season has meant the 32-year-old's 2013 has gotten off to a slow start. Boonen's last victory was in the Paris-Bruxelles last September, although he was part of Omega Pharma's world title winning team time trial squad. After first suffering from a serious intestinal infection over the winter, and then being hospitalised for an infected elbow in January. After dropping out of the delayed Milan-San Remo, the Belgian champion is ready to show his stripes at the front of the races.
"This week I had good training here in Belgium. I am really looking forward to the next two races, both Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem," he said. "I want to see how I will react in a final and against the guys who are the favorites, the guys who are always there in a final like these. I am hoping for the best. For sure one of my objectives is to get a good result, but I am also realistic and I know I have to survive to the final. I have to be there, and if I will be there it's the first final since a long time for me. It's important to get back in that situation again, to get the good feeling back, to be there to fight. It will be important for myself to see if the work I've done is enough."
Boonen will be joined on the start line by Sylvain Chavanel, who has recovered from the cold he caught after the extreme weather in Milan-San Remo, Iljo Keisse, Michal Kwiatkowski, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Guillaume van Keirsbulck and Stijn Vandenbergh.
The team's directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters is looking forward to a race which will be held in dry conditions after the rain, ice and snow of the past few weeks. "I am happy the weather condition will be not so extreme, so normally we won't have rain or snow. It will be dry, so that's already important.
"Yesterday in Dwars door Vlaanderen I saw a good team. The guys are motivated and I think we have to maintain this level, even in the next races, to get a good result in the race. We have Tom who has won this race already five times. Each time he starts he's a presence in the peloton. Sylvain is also in good shape. He will be there to try to get a good result. We can also count on Niki Terpstra, who is having a good moment with his form. Really, the whole team is strong and in good form. For us it will be a good test for the future."