The countdown continues apace, and doesn’t Tom Boonen know it. Speaking ahead of the final stage of the Tour of Oman in Muscat on Sunday, the Quick-Step Floors rider let slip that he now had 49 days left as a professional cyclist - a rare concession to the valedictory air that complements all coverage of his 2017 campaign. Then again, when the Flemish press has been very publicly ticking off the days since early in the new year, it’s not hard to keep tabs on the time from here to Paris-Roubaix on April 9.
“Yeah, they remind me well in Belgium,” Boonen said in Muscat before the final stage of the Tour of Oman. “Having to talk about it every day for the rest of the 49 days is going to be a little bit crazy. But we keep in our minds that Roubaix is the last one and we just talk about the races. When we cross the finish line in Roubaix, then we can see what the result was.”
Boonen’s first day at this Tour of Oman proved the most dramatic, when he crashed inside the final kilometre and missed out on the opportunity to sprint for stage victory. The Belgian showed few ill-effects in the days that followed and said that his injuries would not hinder him in the weeks ahead.
“I had some sore spots but it’s healing well and the only time it really bothers me is at night when I sleep – or when I don’t sleep. But in the end I think a few more days of recovery will do the trick,” Boonen said.
The first major appointment of Boonen’s campaign is just six days away, as he lines up for a final tilt at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, somehow the one cobbled classic missing from his weighty palmarès.
Boonen missed gilt-edged opportunities to win in Ghent in 2007, 2012 and 2015, but he has left an imprint on Belgium’s traditional season-opener all the same. Over the years, the right-hand gutter of the Taaienberg has become something of an annual test site for Boonen, and he acknowledged that Omloop offers a firmer indication of how the spring will play out than early-season races in warmer climes.
“It’s a different kind of racing,” Boonen said. “I think on Saturday we have a new day and you have to look at it as the first real race of the Classics season. We have to look in the race who is good and who isn’t good. We don’t have to look at who is good now.”
Even so, the Tour of Oman provided a useful work-out for Boonen, particularly given the absence of the Tour of Qatar from the calendar. After beginning his campaign with a win at the Vuelta a San Juan, he had to fill the gap in early February with a training camp in Spain before travelling onwards to Oman.
“This race has been harder than other years,” Boonen said. “I think you felt there was no Qatar. Normally you have 70-80 percent of the riders from the Tour of Qatar and they’re already a little bit more tempered after a few days in the desert, but now everybody came here fresh and it was hard racing. But in the end, there was not a moment where you could tell this guy is better than the other guys.”
Boonen’s farewell campaign will be judged on what he achieves at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, though his forgoing of Paris-Nice in favour of Tirreno-Adriatico suggests a man with designs on making the most, too, of his final outing at Milan-San Remo, even if his best displays in the race came the bones of a decade ago. Boonen grinned when asked why he had chosen the Italian stage race as his final Classics preparation.
“Pasta,” he said. “No, I wanted to do a few more weeks in Italy. I went to France the last few years but I think I’ve done 50-50 Tirreno and Paris-Nice in my career. I wanted to do the last few weeks in Italy also because before San Remo I can stay there. But nothing special, just a personal choice.”
The significance of every single personal choice over the next seven weeks will, of course, be minutely parsed and analysed for its impact on the last crusade on the cobbles. “It’s a bit annoying,” Boonen said and shrugged. It hasn’t been any other way since his emergence as a fresh-faced 21-year-old at Paris-Roubaix in 2002, after all, and Boonen has always borne the burden lightly.