Tom Boonen once hinted that he would retire before he reached 30, perhaps burnt out after a ten-year professional career and weary of being a huge sporting idol in Belgium. But despite three difficult seasons, disrupted by injury and problems with cocaine, Boonen is still in the saddle and celebrated his 30th birthday last October. Perhaps hungry to make up for what he has lost, he has no plans to retire just yet.
“When I was young, I always thought that doing the same thing for ten years would get boring but it didn’t,” he admits to Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview. “I still like racing, I still love it, perhaps even more.”
Quick Step held its team presentation Friday at the Velo Follies BIke Expo in Kortrijk, Belgium.
Boonen won four early season races in 2010 and finished second to Oscar Freire at Milan-San Remo, second to Fabian Cancellara at the Tour of Flanders and was fifth at Paris-Roubaix. But then he was forced off the bike for three months after a knee problem flared up as a consequence of crashes at the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse. He missed the Tour de France and the world championships and saw Philippe Gilbert crowned as best Belgian rider of the season for a second year.
Questions about if Boonen could ever make a successful comeback have circulated during his troubles. But he calmly dismisses them, insisting he is back to his best after a lot of hard work in the gym and on the bike during the winter. At the recent Quick Step training camp in Calpe, he looked fit and strong and perhaps just as importantly, he seemed happy to be riding his bike.
“Last year was going well until I smashed my knee up in the crash. I was happy, it was a good year,” he insists. “But it took me three months off the bike to recover and so I lost everything and had to start all over again. That’s why I don’t have any results from the second part of 2010.”
“I rode some races in the fall but it was hard work getting some form back. But it was the right thing to do because it made my winter easier. I went on holiday in October but I was quickly back on the bike in November. I think my form is now pretty good. I even feel better than I did last year.”
Boonen underwent surgery on his pre-patellar band in July and spent two weeks in a leg brace.
“There wasn’t a problem with my tendon but I had some scar tissue and it took time to get it soft and working smoothly. My legs still gets stiff on a rest day or on a plane but I’ve done a lot of work in the gym in the last few months. Now my legs are almost the same strength even if I use my right leg more than my left leg.”
“Of course things like this change you as a person, but I don’t think I’ll have a problem to be the same level as in the past. The strength is there. My tests in the lab in December and January show that I’m fit. I’ve done a lot of motor pacing, so I won’t have problem with the speed of racing.”
Boonen’s palmares and natural charisma mean he is still the undisputed leader of the Quick Step team. Frenchmen Sylvain Chavanel and Jerome Pineau kept the team in the headlines at the 2010 Tour de France while Boonen was recovering from his injuries but he carries the hopes and the future of the team on his shoulders.
After losing Stijn Devolder to Vacansoleil, Quick Step slipped to 18th in the UCI ProTeam sporting criteria and only just secured a place in cycling’s first division. With money tight, team manager Patrick Lefevere has brought in some young riders and signed Gert Steegmans, Francesco Chicchi and Gerald Ciolek to either act as Boonen’s leadout or as alternative sprinters. They are clever signings but it remains to be seen how successful they can be against the likes of HTC-Highroad and Belgian rivals Omega Pharma-Lotto
Boonen puts a positive spin on the 2011 Quick Step team line-up.
“I think a new wind has blown through the team. We all get on and I’m happy to be here again,” he says.
“I honestly think we will be one of the top three teams in the sprints this season. We have a really young team but some of the guys got stronger and have more experience. We’ve got me, Steegmans, Chicchi, Ciolek, Stauff and Maes. We have guys who can go hard.”
Lefevere sold 80% of the team to Czech business man Zdenek Bakala, securing the future even if Quick Step decided to end its sponsorship after 2011. Like everyone in the team, Boonen’s contract ends this year. However he refutes any suggestion that the team’s future is uncertain.
“The future is safe right now. Last year wasn’t the easiest for the team and especially for Patrick, but he found some money and a new backer that allowed us to breathe easy,” he says.
“I think we’re more relaxed than we’ve ever been. Of course Quick Step has been in cycling for a long time and might not carry on. I hope they do but maybe they want to do something else. Nobody has a contract for next year, so everybody has to fight.”
Boonen admits he would consider moving to a rival team even if Quick Step continues in 2011 but refuses to fuel speculation by giving any names.
“There are a few teams I’d like to go to, but I’m not going to say who, but they’d be the best teams in the world. I’d hope the best teams in the world would want me too. But I’m still under contract and I’m still got to race this year. Let’s wait till after the classics before talking about the future.”
Qatar start to 2011
Boonen will again kick off his season at the Tour of Qatar in early February. He was tempted to ride the Tour Down Under this year but knows he has to peak in April for the classics.
He seems genuinely curious to see how the major changes at teams like Garmin-Cervelo and Leopard Trek rider will affect the racing on the cobbles.
“I hope it will create better racing. The best riders are more spread out,” he says. “Last year it was difficult for us to have more than one rider in the front selection but this year we’ve got Niki Terpstra and Chavanel will be there after resolving his back problem.”
“Looking at the other teams, Saxo Bank doesn’t seem the team it was. Leopard is a strong team, but it is new and they also have to keep guys fresh for the Tour de France. Both those could affect how good they are in the spring."
"I think Garmin-Cervelo will be strong, perhaps the strongest team. They have a lot of good riders but I think they can work together. We had a lot of leaders in the past and if you manage things right, it’s not a problem.”
“I’ll also be watching Sky this year. I think they really aimed for the start of the season in 2010 and did too much work in the winter. They’ve got a good team and I think they’ll be good. Of course I think Quick Step will be better.”