For more than a decade, the road to Tour of Flanders victory has gone through Tom Boonen, but he lines out for this year’s race in an unfamiliar role: an outsider in his own land. His Etixx-QuickStep team, too, have fallen short in the Classics so far this season, and they arrive at the Ronde under pressure to change the complexion of their campaign with a win.
Boonen being Boonen, and Belgium being Belgium, he still managed to draw the masses to a home furnishing showroom off the motorway at Wielsbeke for Etixx-QuickStep’s final press conference on Friday afternoon, where he wore his reduced standing lightly.
“If I’m honest, I will not be a big favourite for Sunday,” Boonen said. “But I think last week we saw a very strong team [at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem]. Tactically I don’t think we made any error. It’s a week later now, and I think everyone is improving. I think we have to expect that everybody will be on his best level, hopefully me as well.
“I don’t know what’s fair to expect as a goal, but if I have to put a number on it: I think if I’m like I was last week, then I’ll be able to be up there in the final.”
Etixx-QuickStep boast enviable strength in a line-up that includes Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Matteo Trentin and Stijn Vandenbergh, but at times they remind one of a football team that dominates possession but lacks a clinical striker. “As a whole, I think our team is stronger than in the past, but I think we’re missing out on that one guy who is 1 percent stronger than the rest,” Boonen said.
In years past, of course, that man has been Boonen. “There’s years when you’re favourite, there’s years when you aren’t a favourite, but the objective is always the same,” he said. “The media puts a stamp on it but I don’t think it makes any difference to how you approach the race.”
Boonen’s subdued form in the lead-up to the Tour of Flanders is hardly unexpected. The initial prognosis after he sustained a head injury at the Abu Dhabi Tour in October was that he would be off the bike for six months, after all, yet here he is, ready to line out in Bruges, straining for a record fourth Ronde win.
“It’s been very hard. The hardest part of my career,” Boonen said, though since his last Flanders win in 2012, he has had more than his share of ill fortune, as crashes ruined his springs in both 2013 and 2015.
“The last few years has been one big comeback, actually. But to come back after a skull fracture was very hard. It set me back much more than I thought. I needed much more work than I thought I would to get back on a decent level.”
Boonen later downplayed expectations still further by acknowledging that he would have a better chance of pulling a win out of the bag at Paris-Roubaix than on home roads. “I’ll give my maximum and it’s not that Flanders or Scheldeprijs are training rides, but for sure they’ll help me and Paris-Roubaix is the race that suits me best. The extra week might help.”
Boonen’s most enduring rival, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), is the bookmakers’ favourite for what is set to be his final Tour of Flanders, and, whether he wishes it or not, his spring campaign has at times had the feel of a farewell tour. There is speculation that this might also yet prove to be Boonen’s final Tour of Flanders – his contract expires at the end of the season – but he refused to be drawn on life beyond 2016.
“I didn’t want to talk about the final season before now and that’s still the same way. We’re talking about now, and the future is not important right now,” Boonen said.
Cancellara is the only rider in the current peloton to match Boonen’s haul of seven monument victories, and regardless of what happens over the next two Sunday, their names will invariably be linked in the annals. Boonen made it clear, however, that he did not wish to bow out with the same fanfare as the Swiss.
“He chooses to say when he’s doing his last few races, but I don’t want to put the attention on it being the last time every time you get to the start line. I think there’s a time for everything but the time for saying goodbye is not at the Classics. Maybe you can talk about it later when the time is right. Everyone has his own opinion on this, and I think it differently than he does.”
Boonen’s outgoing personality may not quite tally with the old stereotype of the Flandrien, but one senses that Briek Schotte would have approved of his wonderfully fatalistic view on the changing of the guard that will follow his and Cancellara’s exit from the stage.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” Boonen said. “The race starts with the guys who are at the start and it finishes with a few of them at the end. There were good guys in the past, there’ll be good guys in the future. It’s just the names that change.”