Tom Boonen was happy to finally make his season debut at the Tour of Oman on Monday after a difficult winter and his recent spell in hospital after an infection in his elbow.
Boonen spent almost a week in hospital in mid-January. He is relieved just to be healthy and racing again after risking the amputation of his arm.
"I'm happy…. I've still got my arm. That's a bit more important than having good form," he said before the start of stage one of the race, managing to joke about his problem but confirming that he was just eight hours away from far more serious consequences of the infection.
"That's what they told me, eight hours. If it hits the bone, the arm was gone and it was only a few millimetres from the bone. On the Friday there was nothing but then on Sunday they told me that if I hadn't done anything, Monday would have been too late."
Boonen thinks he picked up the infection at the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team presentation.
"Everybody has it on their skin but if it goes in your body and your wound closes and the crust forms, it starts breeding. Your elbow is probably the worst place to have it because there is no blood circulation. Otherwise the white cells kill it. But it had time to breed and got strong enough to attack the rest of my body."
He has traditionally ridden the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman as key preparation for the spring Classics. He peaked perfectly in 2012, going on to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. What he can do this spring after a stomach problem in December and then his recent time in hospital remains a mystery, even to Boonen.
"We'll see. Let's talk again in April. I want to do well and will do a lot of work but I have no idea what the infection did to my body. I've been training well but it has been a big assault on my body," he said.
"It changed everything. I'm normally already on a good level, trying to win races and stages. Now we'll see. There's still a lot of question marks but there's still enough time to erase them."
"I was in hospital for a week and that's only two weeks ago, so it's not long ago but my week of training felt good. Of course it (my form) is not like it was before but we'll see. There's still seven weeks to go (until the Tour of Flanders), that's a lot of time but it isn’t too. I did a lot of training before and was really good already, so I hope there's enough to buffer the illness."