Over the years, stages at the Tour of Qatar have often seemed to follow a set pattern: Omega Pharma-QuickStep fillet the peloton by forcing an echelon every time the crosswinds allow it, and then at day's end, Tom Boonen polishes off the survivors in a group sprint.
For the second time this week and the 22nd time in his career, Boonen did just that on stage 4 to Mesaieed, edging out André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) by an inch in the tightest of sprints at the end of the fastest of stages – the average speed was a searing 56.8 kilometres per hour.
"We never tried to really split the group today, we just tried to control as much as possible with the eight of us. We succeeded and then in the last 50 kilometres, we were going for the sprint, full speed," Boonen said with remarkable understatement of a day that had seen QuickStep – with help, it should be noted, from Lotto-Belisol and Belkin – impose an infernal tempo at the head of the bunch.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep have dictated terms and conditions in Qatar all week. Niki Tersptra won the opening stage and holds the overall lead, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck wears the white jersey of best young rider, while Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Andy Fenn are also all camped in the top ten.
One wonders what kind of margin of improvement Omega Pharma-QuickStep's impressive ensemble has between now and the Tour of Flanders on April 6, but Boonen stressed that the Tour of Qatar was something of an early-season goal for the team. They are unlikely to race with the same abandon at Paris-Nice, for instance, as they taper towards the Classics.
"This is one week where you play at full speed. Then you go home and do the opening weekend in Belgium but then the mind already goes to the end of March," Boonen said. "Paris-Nice is different. There are maybe two or three stages that we'll really focus on, but by the start of Paris-Nice, the mind is already [focused] a bit further on."
Already on song at last month's Tour de San Luis, Boonen's rich vein of early form contrasts with the more gradual build-up of his eternal rival Fabian Cancellara, for instance. How much can he continue to improve between now and April?
"I hope a lot, eh," Boonen smiled. "Condition-wise I haven't really done more than other years. But I think with this race and going to Paris-Nice, there will still be some improvement. And besides it's not that long [to the Classics]. It's better to be in shape than to look for condition right now."
Boonen's winter regimen has included improving his core strength with Sam Verslegers, formerly the physical trainer of Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters, and working specifically on his sprint, or as he terms it, his "100-metre punch." The Belgian's final effort on Wednesday was indeed more or less 100 metres, as he expertly waited for Greipel to open his sprint before diving for his rear wheel and then coming around him within sight of the line.
"I just let him start and waited until he was on speed and I knew I had that 100-metre punch," Boonen said. "That's what I've been working on since I started training. It was to get my punch back, which I've maybe lost a little bit. But it's still there, you just have to wake it up a little bit."
While Boonen is no longer the same sprinter who won the points jersey at the 2007 Tour de France, he insisted that it was not a surprise to have beaten a fast man of Greipel's calibre, pointing out that he had done so as recently as September 2012, at the World Ports Classic. "If I'm really good I'm still able to beat those guys but it's not something I want to have to do all year around," he said. "It's different."
Before heading for doping control, Boonen joked about the interest his facial hair has sparked back home in Belgium – "Do a poll, maybe, in the newspaper," he told one reporter – and paid particular tribute to the efforts of Andy Fenn in guiding him through the final kilometre in Mesaieed.
"If you have a team like this, it makes it easier, you arrive at the finish line fresh. Your sprint is good because you're fresh, but if you're in the shit behind, then it's a big difference," Boonen said, adding: "The team is really on a mature level right now, ready to do some damage."