News feature: March 5, 2007
"As soon as we set foot on Belgian ground we MUST aim to win every race!"
Referring to Tom Boonen as a sprinter is justified but everybody knows that he is much more than that as he excels in all the Spring Classics. The popular blonde from Balen is known and - dare we say it - loved by everyone in Belgium. Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé caught up with 'Tommeke' at one of the first semi-classics of the 2007 season; Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
The young Quick Step leader is so popular with fans in his home country in fact that he is mobbed everywhere he goes. Was the apartment he bought in Monaco last year as much for him to get a break from the fans as a sunny base for long winter training rides? "Actually I'm enjoying all of this attention right now," Boonen said on Sunday in Kuurne. "It feels good to be back at the start of these races."
Boonen was relaxed while autograph seekers and reporters scrambled for his attention. We referred him to the 'groupies' that wander around him, some trying to catch his eye just before we talked with him. "Which nice girls do you mean, I didn't see any," Boonen laughed. "Ah, this is all just fun, anyway it's better to enjoy it than to dislike it."
The conversation switched immediately to racing. On Saturday, in Omloop Het Volk, Boonen scratched his way back into contention after a strong Stuart O'Grady and Juan Antonio Flecha stayed away for the last hour of the race. "That was a pleasant tension," Boonen said. "I like that atmosphere not only during the race but also outside of it. I had a lot of fun yesterday although I used four to five cartridges - especially when I tried to decide the race by bridging up with O'Grady and Flecha in one effort. It was a breaking point that I couldn't catch them and even with four guys we almost didn't make it. They must've been riding extremely hard."
Unlike Het Volk, where Boonen and three others just caught Flecha and O'Grady in the last meters to decide the finish, the early break in Juurne was neutralized two kilometers out; giving the former world champion a chance to test his new leadout man - Gert Steegmans. In a display of how compatible the duo are, Steegmans put Boonen at the head of the race with only 200-meters to go so strongly that Steegmans had to soft pedal to not beat his leader across the line. "Create a statue of (Steegman) and myself without heads and you'll notice they will be almost identical," Boonen said about his new leadout man. "Gert is just as explosive as I am, the difference is probably that I have a little more experience than him."
By winning in Kuurne, Boonen racked up another typical Flemish spring semi-classic though he has always claimed that it's extremely hard for him to win these earliest races, except when they end up in a bunch sprint. Not that he doesn't want to win. "As soon as we set foot on Belgian ground we must aim to win every race," he says. "And I want to win more than the Tour of Flanders."
About the day's events, Boonen said: "I really enjoyed winning here. I could win here today because this was a different race (from Het Volk - a bunch sprint rather than a chasing break). I suffered on the climbs where I started in front to slowly drop back to the middle of the peloton; in the Omloop I had a minor crash on the Kluisberg resulting in a stiff back this morning … when I woke up at 7am for blood tests. The selective zone was too far away from the finish so if you attack nobody is allowed to be as good as you are because then they can follow you. So the good thing today was that we had Rosseler in the breakaway - we don't have to go for a bunch sprint each time as we can put our trust into other elements as well."
Setting up for showdowns with Petacchi - or Bennati?
From here, the ProTour season starts to roll with - possibly - Paris-Nice and Milano-Sanremo. In 2006, the former world champion missed out on a win on the Via Roma and had to settle for the consolation proze of then teammate Filippo Pozzato taking the victory. For 2007, Boonen faces ahost of new challengers. Among them; Daniele Bennati, who has beaten Italian sprint star Alessandro Petacchi on multiple occasions recently. "Bennati is the man of the future and I'm sure we'll be crossing paths many times in the upcoming years," Boonen said. "During the 2006 Tour de France, Bennati was the strongest sprinter although he didn't win the the green jersey. He's extremely strong and doesn't yield for a eight kilometer climb… he's a much better cyclist than Petacchi," Boonen concluded his view on Bennati.
Another Italian rival for Boonen is his former teammate Pozzato, who beat him during the Omloop Het Volk on Saturday. "I know the strong and weak points of 'Pippo'," Boonen said casually though. "He's explosive but he can only get rid of me on a longer climb and he can't beat me in a sprint. Anyway, we'll have some good years coming up where we will cross paths with each other many times. In contrary to my style, he's quickly satisfied when he grabs a big win so he's not there all year long."
Boonen will face another former teammate in Nick Nuyens as well. Does he regret not talking his teammates into staying by his side? "No," Boonen said. "I advised Pozzato to leave the team because in our team he couldn't be in the role he's playing in the Liquigas team. I've know Nuyens since we were 15 years old and I've been riding with Pozzato with the juniors so there aren't that many secrets. I think that if you look at the pro riders who have ten years in the peloton, you'll notice that everybody has been in the same team once."
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