Tom Boonen dodged questions about if this year's Paris-Roubaix will be the last time he will race on the famous pavé of northern France, insisting he is focused on Sunday and confident he challenge Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara and anyone else.
Boonen held court in the Omega Pharma headquarters near Gent, the parent company of Etixx. His teammates for Sunday sat near him but most of the questions were for the four-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. He handled the questions as smoothly as he rides over the pavé, including the question about his eventual retirement.
"There's an equal chance it will be that it will be my last and that it won't be my last," he said.
Boonen revealed more about his need to be methodical about his preparation for Paris-Roubaix. He likes to do things right, do things one step at a time and build for the big day, ensuring everything is in place.
"I'm more relaxed now because everything that needed to be done is done. I'm really happy the ways things went in the last few weeks," he said explained.
"A victory in Flanders would have been better. We didn't win but the team is very strong, we're a good group. I'm at the start of Paris-Roubaix with no real injuries and that's a long time since that happened."
A preference for Paris-Roubaix
Despite being a proud Flandrian, Boonen confirmed that Paris-Roubaix has always been the most important day of his season, since he finished sixth in the amateur race when he was just 18.
His preparation for the big day might have been extra difficult this year, but he defied medical predictions by making a rapid recovery from the serious head fracture he suffered at the Abu Dhabi Tour last October. He needed longer to adapt and recover from his training loads but seems convinced he has the form needed to fight for victory at Paris-Roubaix.
"It's the one day I've been waiting for since I started training again this winter," he confirmed. "I knew that every day was necessary to be in the best possible shape. I'm really happy with the condition I have and pretty confident that I'll be at the best level possible for this moment for me. Let's see if it's good enough.
"I'm hoping for a good day, like everybody. Other years when I was pretty good at Flanders, you know where you are. Flanders was a good day for me, I felt pretty good at the finish. I was just a little too far back before the Kwaremont and lost a few fights for position but my legs were good, so I think on Sunday I'll be there. Paris-Roubaix is a different race, the speed you hit the cobbles is different, and so we'll see. My sensations are totally different for Paris-Roubaix and that the 1% of safety that I keep in mind is gone. Sunday is all in."
When directeur sportif Wilfred Peters was asked about team tactics, Boonen cut in with a blunt answer.
"Sometimes you don't need a plan, you just need big balls…." he said, continuing to avoid to reveal any of his strongest emotions.
A puncture during the recon ride
Before the press conference, the Etixx-Quickstep riders completed their final reconnaissance of the pavé. Boonen knows the cobbles like the back of his hand, insisting that a final ride is only important to check the tyre pressure for race day.
"I saw that they're still the same…." he joked when asked about what he's learnt about the pavé during the ride. "I think the recon is always something we do for the media, it's not necessary but it is nice to have it fresh in mind and to decide the tyre pressure. It's not always same every year and so it's good to know that you are sure that the pressure in okay."
Boonen confirmed that he suffered a rare puncture during the training ride but was happy it happened in training and not in the race.
"It's good that it's one less tube that can explode on Sunday," he joked. "I think I hit some glass. It's always possible on the cobbles or dirt sections. It's good I had it now and not on Sunday."
When the press conference question turned to discuss his rivals and the favourites for Paris-Roubaix, Boonen did not seem interested in explaining the influence that his rivalry with Fabian Cancellara has cast over his career, saying simply: ‘Not much…" He seems to like Peter Sagan more, perhaps see how the Slovakian world champion is learning to live in the spotlight, just as he did.
However, he refused to describe Sagan as ‘the' favourite to win Paris-Roubaix.
"He's a favourite, there's not the favourite, he's a favourite. It's up to you guys to decide who is the favourite."
And what about you?
"I'm myself… What that means is also up to you guys."
Boonen has won Paris-Roubaix four times, like fellow Belgian Roger de Vlaeminck, but making a record fifth win is not a major goal.
"Records aren't anything special," he claimed. "I often get asked about but when you win a race few times, there is always a chance of a record. Now it's the same thing. I'm not really thinking about a record but I'm just happy to have another shot at the win. I've only had a shot at Paris-Roubaix once since 2012, in 2014 when Nikki Terpstra won. In 2013 and 2015 I missed it, so I'm happy to be here."
He is not worried about criticism in case of defeat.
"It's not important, there's always criticism these days if you do something good or something bad. It's perhaps a disease of our time, everybody has to have an opinion while not everyone cares about opinions," he reflected.
"We can only do our best and keep trying. That's all we can do. If I win the race, it's not an answer to criticism. I do it because its what I love. It's the only reason why I'm still riding a bike."
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