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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Tom Boonen at the pre-Paris-Roubaix press conference
“I’ve still beaten him more than he’s beaten me”
A week is a long time in politics, so the adage goes, but there is little scope for spin in the unforgiving climate of the cobbled classics: in recent seasons, the truth has had a habit of remaining unchanged from one Sunday to the next. Yet even though Tom Boonen was short on condition at the Tour of Flanders, he remains optimistic that he can be at his best at Paris-Roubaix this weekend.
“It was the first final I did above 6 hours,” Boonen said at a press conference in Kortrijk on Friday. “I was pretty good for 230 kilometres, I really felt able to win the race but in the last 30-40 minutes, I felt the condition was really not good enough. But still I made it ok to the end, and the extra week and race will help me to achieve my best level.”
Boonen missed Milan-San Remo after his partner suffered a miscarriage and has been playing catch-up in his preparations for the classics ever since, but he believes that he has benefited from his outing in Flanders last Sunday. Certainly, his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team seems in need of its leader.
QuickStep have landed victories at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Three Days of De Panne in the past three weeks, and had more riders than anyone else in the finale at the Tour of Flanders. Without an on-form Boonen, however, they can sometimes seem rudderless or without a focal point.
“Maybe it comes as a surprise but winning classics is not easy, eh? You can have the best team in the world but it’s not a guarantee you’ll win a classic,” said Boonen, who downplayed the idea that the team was overly reliant on him to score major victories.
He made light, too, of the pressure on his shoulders to deliver a classic victory. For all his protestations in February that his Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne triumph had relieved him of pressure for the spring, Boonen knows that his campaigns are judged purely on what he achieves at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“It has come to the last chance for us for the classics of the north. Most of the time I react pretty well to pressure, so I hope it will be my turn,” he said. “I’ll take the start and hopefully I’ll turn on to automatic mode myself. When I feel cobbles under my wheels I always go fast.”
The Cancellara duel
Boonen smiled when asked if Paris-Roubaix had changed since his debut in 2002 – “not at all, it’s the last authentic race,” he said – although after reconnoitring the finale on Friday morning, he did note that the wind could have a significant bearing on the outcome of the race, and pointed to two interesting precedents in 2007 and 2011.
“At the moment, there’s a headwind most of the time so it’s really pretty open I think,” he said. “The last two times we had a headwind like this I think [Stuart] O’Grady and [Johan] Vansummeren stayed in front, so it’s a dangerous situation to let a group go off the front because behind the race will be a blocked a little bit. But it all depends on how the race evolves.”
In 2007, of course, the heavy marking between Boonen and Fabian Cancellara contributed to the circumstances that allowed O’Grady to stay clear and claim a surprise victory. “It would be stupid to look only to Fabian, which I never do,” Boonen said. “We have a history together, we’ve always been competing in the classics and it would be nice to have a duel together. But I hope I’m on my best level: it’s not nice to be in a duel with him when you’re not good.”
Curiously, for all their years of dominance on the cobbles – since 2005, they have won six Tours of Flanders and seven editions of Paris-Roubaix between them – Boonen and Cancellara have rarely faced each other directly in the winning break in a monument. It has happened just twice, in fact – at Paris-Roubaix in 2008, when Boonen won the sprint on the velodrome, and at the Tour of Flanders in 2010, when Cancellara famously dropped him on the Muur.
“I think I’ve still beaten him more than he’s beaten me, no?” Boonen said mischievously of a duel that has been played out in the record books as much as in direct confrontation.
Cancellara’s victory at the Tour of Flanders last Sunday saw him draw level with Boonen’s tally of three. If he complete the third Flanders-Roubaix double of his career this weekend, Cancellara will also equal Boonen’s record of four Paris-Roubaix victories, jointly held with Roger De Vlaeminck.
Whatever the result on Sunday, of course, Boonen’s place in history seems assured. Little wonder, then, that he could shrug off the prospect of a slew of negative newspaper headlines about QuickStep’s 2014 classics campaign if they fall short again at Paris-Roubaix.
“I’ve been a pro long enough to know that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” Boonen grinned. “Even if you have the best team in the world it’s no guarantee that you’ll win a classic, and that’s what makes the sport so beautiful.”