When Tom Boonen first arrived for a winter training camp in Calpe, Spain he was a bright-eyed, up and coming star excited just to be there. Jump forward to 2015 and he’s making his way through the media circus that has descended on the Etixx-QuickStep hotel with the ease of a professional, as he sets his stall out for his 14th professional season.
Boonen’s record speaks for itself with four Paris-Roubaix titles and three at the Tour of Flanders. There are plenty of riders snapping at his heals on the cobbles but he says that he feels as good as ever going into the new year. "At this moment I feel good, my tests were very good, like it was in the good years," Boonen said during the team’s training camp.
"I think that, if I can stay healthy and I don’t have too much bad luck in the next weeks, for sure I can be on a good level again and just hope that it is enough. It has been enough for a while and I hope that it will still be enough."
The past season has been a challenging one for Boonen with family problems and injury knocking him out of kilter for much of the year. It started promisingly with victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne but the 34-year-old says that the loss of his unborn child just days ahead of Milan-San Remo made him emotional wreck going into the cobbled classics season. He was dealt another blow in the form of a hip fracture as a result of a training crash in June, which sidelined him for two months.
"If you look back on 2014 season now, I have seen all sides of it, I have seen the good side and I have seen the bad side," said Boonen. "Sometimes you’re lucky, and by that I mean you’re healthy and everything stays well, and then you win straight away and you keep winning. Sometimes you’re unlucky and nothing goes the way you want it to be but then there is always next year."
Should Boonen happen upon lady luck in 2015 he could make history by winning a record-breaking fifth Paris-Roubaix and fourth Tour of Flanders victory. The preparations for that attempt are well underway with the Etixx-QuickStep team checking out the Tour of Flanders course the day after Christmas. "It is exactly the same, it is just those two climbs," he said with a smile, referring to the addition of Berendries – which comes back after a two-year hiatus due to road works – and the Tiegemberg.
New and old rivals
At the classics Boonen will have to fend off traditional rival Fabian Cancellara as well as the likes of Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. However, his toughest challengers could come from within his own camp. Last season saw Omega Pharma-QuickStep go into the cobbled season with arguably the strongest classics line-up in the WorldTour. It was a new position for both Boonen and the team, and it didn’t always work out.
"Sometimes it is an advantage and sometimes it is a disadvantage because everybody looks at you," said Boonen. "If you look back at Flanders last year we did the perfect race there until the point that we were in the main selection and we were there with four. It was the first time for me to be in that situation and it is a little bit confusing, like what do you have to do?
"It was a strange situation and that is something that we need to talk about; how we can take care that doesn’t happen again. If you are beaten by a stronger guy then no problem, but if you have four guys in a group like that then I think that we could have handled that differently and I think that we will in the future."
Paris-Roubaix will also see Boonen go up against Bradley Wiggins in his swansong for Team Sky. Boonen didn’t have much to say about the 2012 Tour de France champion but that he was happy that he was targeting Paris-Roubaix and wished that more would do it.
"I can only say that I really admire the guy for doing it. It shows how big Roubaix is firstly and I really like that he likes the monuments. He gives them the value that they deserve. I think that more GC guys should do the classics. We ride the Grand Tours as well and I think that it is better for everybody if you have the good riders in every race."
The last big goal in Boonen’s calendar will be the World Championships in Richmond at the end of September. Boonen is still in two minds about how he will approach the event with both the Vuelta and the team time trial in his considerations. "If we can be part of the winning team time trial team that is also something that you really don’t want to miss, but if you do the Vuelta and then want to become world champion on the road it is something you have to think about."
Boonen won’t get a chance to see the route of the road race before he travels to the US but he’s had a chance to see it on video and he likes what he sees.
"It is a parcours that suits me," he said. "It is a parcours that really suits the classics guys. There are some short, steep cobblestone sections and then there is a longer climb that will get your legs empty until the end of the race so it might make a difference on the cobblestones."