There may be a new sponsor and a renewed emphasis on stage racing, but it was business as usual for Tom Boonen as the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team was launched in Vilvoorde on Friday. No sooner had the curtain fallen on the presentation than the local media swept past Tony Martin, Sylvain Chavanel et al and descended upon their man, eager to talk classics.
Following that lengthy Flemish inquisition, Boonen then had to repeat the ordeal for the foreign press. After shaking hands with his new batch of interviewers, the amiable Belgian explained that at this stage he is well used to the vagaries of living in the spotlight in one of cycling’s true heartlands, even if that has hardly made the criticism he has faced in recent seasons any more palatable.
“I’m not a guy that really reads the Belgian press. I think I’m pretty experienced in that regard, but if I read it, it still hurts me, so I don’t read it,” Boonen said. “I know my weaknesses and I know my strengths and I don’t have to read it because it still hurts me. Everybody has to earn a living and the Belgian press is sometimes pretty critical. The Belgian public is pretty critical too, but I think it’s up to me right now for myself to be back on the level I was before. I mean, I’m only 31, so I think I have a few good years left.”
Although Boonen captured Gent-Wevelgem last season, it’s no secret that he has fallen short of his usual standards in the Classics over the past two years, as he suffered from the effects of a persistent knee injury. In theory, surgery at the end of 2010 ought to have put the problem to rights, but in practice, Boonen needed another year to build the muscles in his leg back up again.
“The problem was that last winter I was still recovering from the injury, I was doing a lot of efforts to get back on the same strength of the legs,” he said. “You’re not really training to be in shape for the season, you’re just trying to get back to a level that sees you get your fitness back. So in a way, you miss an entire winter.”
Boonen surprised himself by beginning his campaign with a sprint victory at the Tour of Qatar but his progress was stalled by illness at Tirreno-Adriatico. That victory at Gent-Wevelgem notwithstanding, Boonen was still short of his best form by the time the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix rolled around. “The Classics weren’t really that bad, but I was just missing that little bit, the details,” he said.
Worse was to follow in the summer. “I was just unlucky in the second part of the season – I crashed badly at the Tour, I crashed at the Tour of Spain, so I hope now to get my mojo back,” Boonen said.
If the local media’s interest on Boonen remains unabated, then so too does the rider’s ambition. Once again, the success or failure of his entire season will hinge on two Sundays in April and he is adamant that he can add to his tally of Monuments.
“Last year I was not on my top level at the Tour of Flanders, but if I was a little bit smarter, I would have won, so I learned that you don’t have to be the strongest guy in the race to win,” he said. “I spent a lot of energy when Sylvain was in front, trying to protect the breakaway. But I learned in the final that I could have won the race almost easily, without being the best guy in the race.
“Now that everything is going ok and I’m in better shape than last year, it’s not a question – I’m sure I can win a classic.”
Facing up to the BMC challenge
Fabian Cancellara have may have proved the biggest individual obstacle to Boonen's hopes of Classics success in recent seasons, but in 2012 he must now also face the collective challenge of BMC. The team's high-profile acquisition of Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd has buttressed an already solid line-up, but Boonen believes BMC must first prove itself on the road: “It’s only possible to talk about a super team when you have results.”
After vying for leadership of the Quick Step team with Johan Museeuw and Paolo Bettini earlier in his career, Boonen is well-versed in the practicalities of riding in a squad of galacticos, and he reckons that BMC can make it work.
“We had it a few times, we were in the Classics with five, six guys able to win and I was pretty used to it,” he said. “Especially because I was a young guy I had to find my own way and fight those guys a little bit. They’re still your teammates, but you still have to find your way and make yourself as important as possible.
“Still, it’s always better to have the talent. If you have one leader and something happens, the race is over. If you four leaders and something happens you can still make a gamble with someone else and BMC have a lot of talent in their ranks.”
Of course, Boonen is himself planning to benefit from an injection of quality into the Omega Pharma-Quick Step ranks. While leadership at the Classics will again fall on his shoulders, the addition of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer should ensure that he no longer carries the sole burden of being the squad’s principal supplier of WorldTour points. Indeed, Boonen feels that the team’s more wide-ranging approach to the season is indicative of broader changes to its philosophy. Now facing into his 10th campaign in the set-up, he admitted that things had become stale in recent years.
“When I looked Quick Step 10 years ago and then looked at Quick Step last year, almost nothing had changed,” he said. “But when I look at Omega Pharma-Quick Step now, a lot of things have changed. It was time to be on track again and be modern – a time to try to lead and be an example for other teams instead of just following other teams.
“It’s not only about the riders, it’s about everyone. The job of the team and the managers is to motivate and push the riders to get their maximum level, and it was a little bit gone the last few years.”
Boonen, too, is looking to draw on the harsh lessons of the past number of seasons as he faces into his latest campaign, which gets underway at the Tour de San Luis on January 23. “When you’re winning races, you don’t really think about why you’re winning races,” he said. “I think I’ve learned more about myself in the last year and a half than in all those years that I was at the top level.”