With Quick Step lying bottom of the WorldTour standings coming into the weekend, Boonen skipped the E3 Prijs in order to save his energies for Sunday’s race. The decision paid dividends when he outsprinted Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo).
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Boonen admitted afterwards. “In the last few years, Gent-Wevelgem was off my list, but because of certain reasons it came back on and I’ve won it for the second time. So of course it’s a surprise and I’m also very happy.”
Mechanical problems on the second ascent of the Catsberg threatened to remove Boonen from contention, but he successfully chased back on in the company of Kevin Van Impe. When a four-man group featuring his teammate Sylvain Chavanel and the prodigious Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) then clipped off the front in the closing 30km, it increasingly looked as though he was out of running for the win.
Boonen even began to dedicate his efforts to hindering the pursuit behind, but in a breathless finale, the race came back together just in time for a group sprint, with Ian Stannard (Sky) the last man to be caught.
“The breakaway was gone, we were protecting it a little bit and all I was doing was shouting at guys and trying to keep everybody at the front to get the morale of the other teams as low as possible,” Boonen said. “And then suddenly Geert [Steegmans] started sprinting and I saw the guy in front of me, Stannard, and I said ‘he’s the first guy’ and then I went. It all happened so fast.”
Boonen’s thoughts now turn to next weekend’s Tour of Flanders, and while the former world champion was naturally pleased with his Wevelgem triumph, he said that it had little impact on the state of his morale and the nature of his preparation ahead of the first major rendezvous of his season.
“It doesn’t change it a lot,” he said. “It’s a different kind of racing. I’m happy with this win but for the Tour of Flanders I need to improve a little bit more I think.
“This is the right time to do it. The last few years also when I did really well in the classics it’s now that you have to get those extra five per cent.”
Boonen’s first victory in Gent-Wevelgem came as 23-year-old in 2004, when the race was still held in the midweek slot between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. That spring had also seen him take victories in Harelbeke and Scheldeprijs, but he worked for his then leader Johan Museeuw in the Monuments. Boonen smiled as he recalled how his position within the Quick Step Classics hierarchy had changed in the intervening seven years.
“In 2004 my main objectives were still Harelbeke, Wevelgem, the Scheldepreijs, and Waregem, and at Flanders and Roubaix I was a helper back then,” he said. “So my biggest aims of the season were always the Wednesday races and I think in the years after I became a Sunday racer.
“At the beginning I was more of a Wednesday racer, but then Museeuw stopped and I became the weekend guy.”