On Friday afternoon Tom Boonen (Quick Step) spoke one last time with the media in Kortrijk's Kennedy hotel before taking part in the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. For the first time in years Boonen is not topping most of the favourites' lists. After being dropped by Fabian Cancellara on the Muur in Geraardsbergen in last year's Tour of Flanders coupled with the Swiss rider's tour de force performance in the E3 Harelbeke last Saturday, Boonen is forced into a new role of minor favourite.
"It doesn't change a lot. I approached the race the same way like other years. It's also something you have to think about during the race and not to do all the attacking on the climbs and save some energy. Maybe it's a more relaxed way for me to race and it takes some pressure away from the team which is good because we already have a few losses," Boonen said.
With teammates Nikolas Maes, Kevin De Weert and now Niki Terpstra all unable to compete, it means that Boonen will be joined by four Ronde debutants on Sunday. "Of course it's better to have an experienced team but we have to adapt with young, talented riders. It's good for them to do it now as it well help them in the future," Boonen said.
For now Boonen still leads the Quick Step troops in Flanders and he considers himself to be one of the main contenders, together with Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto). "Obviously there's one big favourite and there's a few of us right behind him," Boonen said. "Things are looking good for me, not perfect but good. The form is coming but I would prefer that it was already there. We'll have to see: the form will be there right in time or just not in time. Anyway, you can only see what your level is during the race."
Boonen said he's running late in his build-up for the Spring Classics even though he won Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday. "That was a surprise because I wasn't feeling really good. It was a good win for the head."
Boonen's build-up towards the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix was interrupted by illness during the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. "It wasn't good to get sick in the Tirreno, riding without reserve. I was happy to be in the first group in Milano-Sanremo before exploding on the Poggio.
"It's getting better every day. Wednesday was the first time since my illness I felt good again. It's better not to get sick but if it's like that you have to adapt," Boonen said.
Clearly Boonen is able to adapt in style as he changed his race program when team manager Patrick Lefevre had him race Gent-Wevelgem instead of the E3 Harelbeke, which features more of the Ronde course. Boonen doesn't like the Gent-Wevelgem race but lived up to Lefevre's team expectations and brought home the win and the resulting good team car position for the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
It did mean he had to plan additional training on the course of the Ronde. "By doing Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday I stayed in Flanders instead of heading back to Monaco this week. I did extra training on the course on Wednesday which was quite useful because I've only raced the hills in Waregem (Dwars door Vlaanderen).
"I did some efforts on the climbs to test my legs. I felt really good during training on Wednesday but it's not in the race. It was the first time since last year I rode the course which changed a bit. The first important climb in the finale is the Kruisberg instead of the Kwaremont. From there everything is critical. It was good to do the Muur in training," said Boonen, referring to the key pavé climb of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Last year the Muur was the climb where Boonen was dropped by Cancellara. One would expect Boonen to be nervous ahead of Sunday's clash with Spartacus but the now 30 year-old Belgian seems very relaxed. "Last year...I haven't thought about it a lot. It was a fair battle. I lost the race and after the race I would've been happier if I'd won.
"I came close but I cracked on the wall (Muur). I'll try again this year. Of course there were some mistakes from my part there. If it happens again I will never go on the right [side] again, it cost me a few metres. He's (Cancellara) in perfect shape and did a great race on Saturday but we'll try to beat him on Sunday. There's always this year, next year and the year after. There's a lot of chances to come. It's not because you lose one time you're unable to win the race again," Boonen said.
Last year Matti Breschel showed that a strong lieutenant is crucial in an often tactical race as the Ronde, by featuring as lightning rod for Cancellara. "I didn't have the luxury to let Breschel go when he attacked. I used a lot of energy to chase," Boonen said.
Although Boonen didn't specifically name him, teammate Sylvain Chavanel can fulfill that role for the Belgian on Sunday. Cancellara lacks a man like Breschel in his new team this year although Stuart O'Grady should be capable of helping him in the finale.
The strongest outfit is clearly the Garmin-Cervélo team with world champion Thor Hushovd leading a group of Spring Classics specialists. "The strongest team is Garmin but they haven't won a lot, did they? They had their share of bad luck and without luck you can't win races," Boonen said.
When asked about scenarios and tactics Boonen didn't seem to hide what he preferred: revenge for last year's duel with Cancellara on the Muur in Geraardsbergen.
"It's easier to fight man-to-man. If you get dropped, you get dropped. There's nothing you can do except for trying not to get dropped," Boonen said.
"I'm hoping for a hard race although that benefits Cancellara too. It will help us both if the race is hard and the favourites are isolated fast. The weather's not looking good so that will help us a little bit.
"The only problem we can have is that a breakaway goes with a few guys that can win the race. Everybody will be looking at Fabian and it's possible the race will get locked that way. That would be a very bad scenario so I hope we can open the race pretty early. If we have a lead group with some big names in it I will take the responsibility to ride to win the race and not to get second," Boonen said.