Tom Boonen will ride Milan-San Remo for the last time on Saturday, but he refuses to consider his final race in Italy and the final weeks of his career as a swansong. He is focused on winning rather than looking back at his success in the spring Classics.
Boonen is not interested in a long goodbye like Bradley Wiggins. He will retire after targeting Paris-Roubaix one last time and will then hold a special party with riders and fans.
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Riding for Gaviria
Boonen accepts his name is now unlikely to be added to the Italian race's roll of honour. He is happy to ride for Fernando Gaviria on Saturday, knowing the young Colombian sprinter is perfectly suited to the high-speed finale and sprint that so often decides La Classicissima.
However, Boonen wants to play a major role in the race and will be Quick-Step Floors' road captain as they try to use their incredible strength in depth to out-manoeuvre huge favourite and huge rival Peter Sagan.
"I hope to be in the top 10-15 positions on the top of the Poggio –where everybody wants to be – then see if I can put Fernando in a good position," Boonen explained.
"For us right now, he's the main rider for Milan-San Remo. He showed by winning the Tirreno sprint that he's getting better and better every day. If we look back at last year, too, he's good. He's a young guy but he's got the talent that he doesn't need a lot of experience in races. He just feels the race really well, so we put all our cards on him."
Boonen only hopes that Gaviria can avoid crashing, after his debut at Milan-San Remo was wrecked by nerves in the finale and a fatal touch of wheels as he tried to position himself for the sprint in Via Roma.
"He crashed last year but he learnt a lot. You have to take the chances you get. He's in good shape and we can put him a good position this year, so he's got to try to take it.
"He's fast, he's good, and he's one of the most talented guys in the team for his age. It's only right that he gets a chance to win. You can see that it all flows naturally for him. He doesn't have to force himself into a role he doesn't like. He has the brains to make a decision on his own, as he did in the sprint when he won the stage. That defines a true champion, I think."
Beating Peter Sagan
Quick-Step Floors know they must use their strength in depth if they are to bolster their chances of victory and of defeating Sagan.
In what was perhaps a dress rehearsal for the finale of Milan-San Remo, Quick-Step Floors tried to out-manoeuvre Sagan on stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico, sending Niki Terpstra on the attack on the final descent to Civitanova Marche in a bid to isolate Sagan. Gaviria then stuck to Sagan's wheel rather than use Matteo Trentin as a lead-out man.
The plan proved to be successful because Gaviria got the better of Sagan in the sprint to the line. Of course, the tactics for Milan-San Remo will be far more complex, with other teams also planning to attack or defend and wait for a sprint finish.
Despite Sagan's almost unique ability to go with attacks on the Poggio or even win a group sprint in the Via Roma, Boonen is confident Quick-Step Floors can find a chink in his armour thanks to their strength in depth.
The comparative weakness of Sagan's Bora-Hansgrohe team is evident to his rivals, and the other teams will ride to isolate and then attack Sagan at Milan-San Remo on Saturday and in every race this spring.
"He has a very good team, but we have to be fair, guys. I mean, you can do the math, eh," Boonen said when comparing his Quick-Step Floors squad to Bora-Hansgrohe for Milan-San Remo.
"Everyone is beatable – it's bike racing. Luckily, the best doesn't always win. We can be sure that it's going to be very difficult for him to win in the Classics. Why? Because he's the best and he doesn't have the strongest team. It'll be open racing. The race finals will start a little earlier than normal and everyone will try to isolate him and get away in front of him.
"I am only saying what the tactics will be for everybody else. They will be aware that he's there and he'll be the main guy to beat. It's not only our team but also all the other teams in the world. Everyone is going to have the same tactic and try to get rid of him."
Boonen and Gaviria will be joined by Philippe Gilbert and Julian Alaphilippe – who showed his form and aggression at Paris-Nice –while Jack Bauer, Julien Vermote, Fabio Sabatini and Matteo Trentin will have to do the hard work for the team leaders.
"We've got a lot guys going well, so we've only got to find the right way to get the results. At the moment we can all see that Sagan is flying. So it'll be difficult to beat him and so we have to plan how to beat him and the others," Boonen explains, hinting that Quick-Step Floors will not follow a traditional pre-written Milan-San Remo script.
"The way you can adapt to situations – that shows the strength of the team. It's not about having one plan and having that one plan pushed through at all costs, then you get really predictable and everyone sees what you're doing. You just act to the way they think you are going to do the race. Being unpredictable makes it harder for the others.
"San Remo's not a difficult race. They go up the Poggio as fast as possible and down as fast as possible, and then they sprint, but every five or six years, there's something that happens that you didn't expect, so we'll see. We have to be prepared for everything."
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