By Hedwig Kröner in Pla-de-Beret
As the Tour de France hit high mountains in the Basque Pyrenees, it was time for Cyclingnews to catch up with World Champion Tom Boonen, much less surrounded by the media than in the first week of flat stages. Although the tall Belgian wore the yellow jersey for a few days, his appetite for success was far from being satisfied as he was unable to take a stage victory. Moreover, his other big objective, the green jersey, is currently on the shoulders of rival triple stage winner Robbie McEwen.
Just how hard was it for the Quick.Step star to feel the pressure? "It's only as hard as you make it," Boonen replied in his usual relaxed way. "If you keep thinking of it all the time, every second of the day, then it's hard of course. But if you only think about during the race, and you keep seeing the sport as a sport - and not as something that rules your life - then it's not a problem."
Some people have said that Boonen's lead-out train at this Tour wasn't the right one compared to what he had in the spring, and that this was one of the reasons for his failure to take a stage victory so far. "The lead-out train's okay, but I already said it before the Tour: We miss one more guy, so that's normal," Boonen partly agreed. "The problem is that we're the one team that tries to make up a train, a perfect train. All the other teams of the sprinters do their usual thing: try to sit on my wheel and do their sprint. Now, I don't blame them. But we made that choice before the Tour to take Garate and Rujano, two climbers, instead of two guys who were normally leading me out. That's a choice we made."
The Belgian continued, "Garate is a guy who is 300 percent motivated, and I like him a lot, and also Rujano. But they took the spot of Trenti and another guy and that makes a big difference in the last kilometres. If we just sit and wait, like the other sprinters do, then we got a different sprint - and I don't like that kind of sprinting."
Certainly, the usual scenario in the sprinter's stages saw Davitamon's Robbie McEwen and Rabobank's Oscar Freire taking advantage of the chaotic finales of the first week of racing, whereas Boonen's performance lacked its usual power. "If I look back on the entire week, every time something was wrong it was just because the speed wasn't high enough," the Quick.Step rider continued, getting to the core of he problem. "It might sound strange, but in this Tour we're sprinting at much lower speeds than ever before, at least five k's an hour slower. When you have seven guys leading you out you sprint at 70, 72 km/h, and here, I sprint not even at 65 km/h, it makes a big difference!
"I was talking to Mario Cipollini, who said he had the same problem. We both need high speeds, because then all the small guys like McEwen and Freire, they die. They stay in my wheel, and then they die. If I go 2 km/h faster, they can't come out of my wheel. But now, at these lower speeds, they wait in my wheel and then they come around. I take too much wind, the speed comes down - bam. That's the only problem there is. But that's not something I'm worried about, as it's not really my mistake. That's just the way it is."