The 2015 season has been a bumpy ride so far for Etixx-QuickStep's Tom Boonen, and that’s having traversed fewer cobbles than in any other season in his career. The Belgian raced Omloop-Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne but on the first stage of Paris-Nice in March he dislocated his AC-joint in his left shoulder, ruling him out of the Classics season proper. There would be no opportunity to add to his four Paris-Roubaix titles, his three at the Tour of Flanders, or even his five at E3-Harelbeke.
Boonen has only just returned to racing at the Tour of Turkey and when asked ahead of the sixth stage on Friday how much he has missed the cobbles, he said emphatically: “A lot!
“I was watching the races on the TV and especially the first races it was very painful. If you work hard for those races and you miss them just by one week before with a crash, it’s very painful."
This year’s events seem to have sharpened the 34-year-old’s perspective and he has come to terms with the fact he doesn’t have a wealth of Classics campaigns ahead of him.
Having already enjoyed such glittering success, his ambitions now are not so lofty – absence makes the heart grow fonder and simply getting back there before the end of his career would suffice.
“I would like to have one more shot at the Classics with no bad luck,” he said. “I have already achieved everything. If you look back at the last three seasons I’ve almost had everything you can dream of. It’s not been easy [missing this year] but I’ve been able to cope with it and get back to a decent level.
“My only wish is to start at the Classics with my normal condition and fight for a win, to be able to do it one more time as I wish to.”
Attention turns to the Giro d’italia
Boonen's focus has now shifted to the Giro d’Italia, starting on May 9, and he has been training in the undulating Ardennes to prepare himself for some of the climbs. Here at the Tour of Turkey he has been able to get some racing back in his legs and has helped teammate Mark Cavendish to two wins already.
“After seven weeks without any racing it’s going very well,” said Boonen. “The condition is where it’s supposed to be and I’m looking forward to going to the Giro.
“I’ve been a lot in the Ardennes, I’ve stayed in Belgium, I only trained for four weeks after my injury before the Tour of Turkey but I trained well. I haven’t had the time to prepare myself as well as I wanted to but of course with the circumstances there was no other way.
“My shoulder is fine. I haven’t especially felt anything in the shoulder. Of course the neck and the muscles around the shoulder are a little bit weaker than they were before but we have been working on it every day and it’s not something that I worry about.”
Boonen will primarily be riding in support of Etixx-QuickStep’s GC hopeful Rigoberto Urán, runner up in the last two editions of the Giro, and will go for the odd sprint when the opportunity arises. With Etixx’s strength in team time trials – they were world champions in 2012 and 2013 – there may even be a chance for Boonen or one of his teammates to wear the maglia rosa.
“It’s a little bit of a heritage of the team to do well in the team time trials but we’ll see,” says Boonen cautiously. “Pink has to follow automatically, if you do well in the team time trial and you have a little bit of luck in the first or second stage, but it's not an objective to try and take it.
“I’m looking forward to going there. I haven’t raced there a lot but I like Italy and especially with the start in San Remo, I have a few good friends there and it’s going to be a nice experience.”
Back to the old-school training
Boonen has over 13 years of experience at cycling’s elite level, having turned professional with US Postal Service back in 2002. His career has corresponded with significant developments in the sport, not least the increasing influence of science and technology.
The rise of the wind tunnel and the power meter have threatened such things as instinct and feel with obsolescence – an evolution perhaps most notably epitomised by Team Sky.
But while many teams scramble to keep up with each of David Brailsford’s marginal gains, Etixx-QuickStep – rooted in one of cycling’s heartlands, Belgium – is rowing back against the current.
“The evolution we’ve made is that we’ve started to train more like we used to do,” says Boonen. “Less paperwork, less schedules before the ride – I think it works well.
“If you have a lot of good riders in a group, you’re going to train well anyway because you start playing around a little bit on the climbs, then ride faster on the flat parts, and at the end you have a good training ride with everyone enjoying themselves.
“On the other hand if you ride with only schedules it sometimes gets boring, you have to look at the figures all the time – I don’t like it. We have made the evolution to go back to the old-style training in the team.”
As for the evolution in Boonen personally, he explains how as the years have rolled by he has grown increasingly able to look at racing with sharper perspective.
“Maybe you lose a little bit of that real anger for the sprint – when I used to lose and it was my own fault I was almost incapable of talking for two hours. But that goes away a little bit, the more races you lose the better you cope with losing.”
He certainly gives the impression of being at ease with himself. Asked if he would like to usurp Roger de Vlaeminck as ‘Mr. Paris-Roubaix’, he says with a wry smile: “Being Tom Boonen is enough.”