When every season is built around the same two Sundays of the year, it’s only natural to have some fixed points of reference along the way. For Tom Boonen, two such test sites stand out – the Tour of Qatar, where he performs an early quality control on his winter training, and the climb of the Taaienberg at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where he traditionally heralds the coming of spring by lining out the peloton.
On the evidence supplied on the road to Al Khor Corniche on Monday, Boonen has every reason to be pleased with his off-season preparation as he builds towards the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. His Omega Pharma-QuickStep team used the crosswinds to merrily shred the peloton in the finale, and Boonen then unsheathed a rapier sprint to notch up his 21st stage victory in ten appearances at the Tour of Qatar.
After contributing richly to QuickStep’s collective pace-setting in the final hour of racing, Boonen quite literally hit a bump in the road with five kilometres to go, but in spite of a displaced saddle and damaged wheels, he had the strength to overpower Michael Mørkøv, Jürgen Roelandts and headwind in the finishing straight.
"It’s a good feeling, for sure, but I already knew after Argentina that my form was really good," Boonen said afterwards, pointing to his showing at the Tour de San Luis last month. "I already had good sensations in training, and you get proof of that when you race. I felt good in Argentina and this win is just a confirmation of those sensations."
As in 2012, when he landed a startling sequence of victories at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, Boonen’s gaunt face and early competitive outings suggest that his condition is already very far advanced. He acknowledged that it was a far cry from this time twelve months ago, when an elbow infection led to a delayed start to his campaign and an ultimately unsuccessful spring.
"I’ve had a good winter. I haven't been ill or anything like that, and wherever I’d gone for training, I’ve always had good weather, so I haven't lost any time because of that," he said. "If everything goes well in the next few weeks, then I should be capable of reaching my top level."
Flitting between Dutch, French and English, Boonen cut a relaxed figure as he spoke to reporters outside doping control, laughing when it was pointed out that he had trotted out three carbon copy accounts of the final sprint for successive television crews.
While Boonen had all seven of his Omega Pharma-QuickStep teammates for company in the 23-man winning echelon, his great rival for success on the cobbles, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), did not make the split and rolled in over seven minutes down. Cancellara, of course, has rarely shone in Qatar over the years and Boonen is well aware that Monday’s stage will count for nothing come April.
"This isn't the big exam here. My season isn't a success if I win here," Boonen said. "It’s a step, like Argentina was and like Oman will be. When I go back home after the Tour of Oman, I hope to have my base condition in place, and then after that, I can just work on the details."
Boonen’s stage victory lifts him to third overall in the general classification, 14 seconds off the gold jersey of his teammate Niki Terpstra. Tuesday’s 10 kilometre time trial at Lusail ought to suit Terpstra more than it does Boonen, although the Belgian said that he would not hold anything back in the test. "I’ll do the time trial at 100 percent, but it will be hard to beat Terpstra in a race like that," he said.
Incidentally, his breakthrough Flanders-Roubaix double in 2005 aside, Boonen’s monument victories have coincided with his four overall wins at the Tour of Qatar, in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012. But regardless of whether he overhauls Terpstra or not in Qatar, Boonen said that he paid little heed to such a sequence. "It’s maybe time to change the statistic."