With a record-breaking fifth win at the semi-Classic E3-Prijs Harelbeke, it's clear that popular Belgian rider Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma - Quickstep) is ready for the upcoming two Monuments, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"This is my exam," Boonen said, and the 31-year-old Belgian clearly passed it. Shortly after capturing a hard-fought victory, a seemingly fresh Boonen talked with the press and explained that the win offers him some peace of mind going into the next important races. "I'm building up toward this time of the year. If you have won a race, it takes away the pressure a bit. I like a big win before Flanders. I am very happy," Boonen said.
Surpassing an illustrious name like Rik Van Looy with his fifth Harelbeke victory clearly made Boonen a proud man on Friday afternoon in sunny Harelbeke. "This has always been a special race for me. I've been on the podium here in the last seven years. After winning four times in a row, everybody waited for number five to come. I'm a happy man. It's my first little record," Boonen said at the post-race press conference.
"I don't know what it is with me and Harelbeke. It's just an important race on the calendar."
That calendar caused a lot of problems for the Belgian race, which was always organized on the Saturday one week before the Tour of Flanders. Last year, the UCI moved Gent-Wevelgem to the Sunday of the same weekend of Harelbeke which resulted in a weaker starting field for the E3-Prijs Harelbeke. Boonen was one of the riders who skipped Harelbeke in order to score in Gent-Wevelgem, also because his Quickstep team was in a huge need of WorldTour points.
This season, the E3-Prijs Harelbeke bumped up to WorldTour status while also moving from Saturday to Friday. "Last year, I was disappointed that I couldn't take the start. I'm glad this race finally got the spot it deserved on the calendar. The course suits me a lot. The hills are close to the finish. At the Tour of Flanders, the climbs used to be far away but here you can make the difference on the climbs and make it to the finish. Back in the old days, I would've finished solo but it's useless to live in the past. I've got some good years left ahead of me so that's what matters," Boonen said.
A solo effort to the finish line wasn't exactly what happened on Friday afternoon. Although the big guns were often firing on the several hellingen in Flanders, no definitive selection was made. Boonen himself tested his legs on the Taaienberg and on the Paterberg. "I was trying to make it a nice race. It's not only important for the result but also for the head and for how I feel on the climbs in this race. That's why I was doing a few big attacks. I wasn't really saving myself for a sprint."
Despite the series of accelerations, the group of favorites always ended caught by a large group of outsiders.
"The race was locked up. The favorites wanted to ride and actually often did so right after a climb, but somehow it never kept going. Pozzato was always with us but he didn't have to ride, which was normal since Oscar Gatto was still in the lead. Eventually it was a good thing for me to have Sylvain Chavanel in front," Boonen said.
Boonen's French teammate set up an attack together with Dmitryi Muravyev (Astana) and stayed away until seven kilometers from the finish line. "It's important that Chava and I really connect. He's an aggressive rider. Today he wasn't there all the time, but he came back on the right moment. With a bit of luck, he could've won today. The strength of this team is that everybody is on a good level. We already won with nine different riders - that says it all."
Eventually a big group of nearly 50 riders headed for a bunch sprint. "Once Chavanel was caught, we went full gas for the sprint. In the end, it all came together, but you could tell everybody suffered on a course like this. I wasn't very confident for the sprint, but I was sure I was going to do a good sprint and I was trying to win. Everybody misjudged their sprint I think. I simply followed my instinct.
"It's always possible that you will finish second or third, but in the end I won so I'm happy." Although Boonen is known to be a fast man in the sprint, he surprisingly enough didn't receive much opposition from the young sprinters in the group like Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), John Degenkolb (Project 1T4I) and Jens Keukeleire (GreenEdge).
"This is a time of the season in which everybody is good, thus the results are slightly different," Boonen said, pointing out that the Classics specialists can be fast, too, in their races.
With only one week left ahead of the Tour of Flanders, the E3-Prijs Harelbeke showed that most riders who're expected to be good next Sunday are at their level. "Today some were good but everybody was afraid to race. That was due to the good weather and fast speed. The roads didn't roll well. Everybody who is expected for next Sunday was there.
"Pozzato is always a factor. Cancellara was good. Everybody was on their level," Boonen said. "It can go every way. It's hard to say why everybody came back together all the time. If the weather like's that in Flanders, it can be the same. With a strong team, we should be able to control it again."