Tom Boonen (Quick Step) has cut a fit and motivated figure in Doha since arriving late last week, and the 30-year-old Belgian confirmed that he is recovered from the knee injury that ruined his 2010 season with a splendid victory on the first road stage of the Tour of Qatar.
After outsprinting Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad) and Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) to take the win at Al Khor Corniche, Boonen explained that he was glad to put a black period of his career behind him. He underwent knee surgery in July of last year, and only returned to racing at the Circuit Franco-Belge in late September. The winter months were spent fine-tuning his rehabilitation.
"It took me a long time to get back in the saddle, a lot of work," Boonen said. "It was maybe the hardest thing in my career getting here in a good shape. I'm here now and I'm really happy that I could do the first stage with a victory straight away. It's good for the morale and it shows that all the work I've done is paying off."
Since the inaugural edition in 2002, the Tour of Qatar has become a favoured preparation event for legions of Classics specialists. Stage one of this year's race perfectly summed up why this is the case, as a very select lead group formed in the windy conditions. Boonen had Classics thoroughbreds such as Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo), Marcus Burghardt (BMC) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) for company in the 18-man break that dominated the day's racing across the exposed desert flatlands.
"The first kilometre of the stage we were doing 75kph," Boonen said. "It's the same story every year with the wind. Yesterday the forecast was that we were going to have a headwind at the start but the wind turned a little bit and it was completely tailwind for the first 25km.
"So it happened that everything split up and there were five groups after 5km. It was a big fight to stay in front of the second group."
With teammates Gert Steegmans and Nikolas Maes marshalling affairs, Boonen was confident that the race would come down to a group sprint. In the finishing straight, Boonen saw off the challenge of Renshaw, Haussler and Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek).
"It was a very hard stage with the wind," he said. "You could see in the sprint at the end that everyone was just finished."
While Sunday's Mallorca Challenge saw an AIGCP-led protest against the banning of radio earpieces, stage one of the Tour of Qatar began on time and without radios. However, Boonen outlined why he is against the UCI's measure to outlaw the use of radios and warned that there could be problems later in the spring.
"It's difficult because we have no information about the dangerous points on the race," he said. "Over here [in Qatar] it's not that bad because it's not that difficult or that technical of a race. But I'm 100 percent sure that in the Flemish races or the stage races in Europe, it's going to be a big mess. We'll wait and see if something happens and who is responsible for it."