After a year of disappointments Tom Boonen appears ready to challenge for top honours in this year's Spring Classics.
The 33-year-old came into last season on the back of one of his most successful ever years on the bike but spent almost the entire season either out of form, ill or injured, before finally pulling the plug and ending his campaign early. It was a year to forget and one that almost cost him an arm after a bacterial infection, but now, with a full winter's training in his legs, the Classics star is looking to re-ignite his career with a flourish.
Since ending his season due to a cyst he spent the second half of 2013 rehabilitating and recovering. The long layoff included 12 weeks in the gym, with core strength work, and even running, mixed in. While his Classics rivals remained on the road and saw out their 2013 racing calendars Boonen already dialled in his ambitions for 2014 and at the Omega Pharma-QuickStep camp in Calpe he was eager to start racing.
"I started pretty early with a lot of gym work but only because I had so much time. I had 12 weeks in the gym that I combined with cycling and even some running. Then in October I started doing specific bike work. So I've been training for a long time and I can't wait to start racing again," Boonen said.
Boonen will not have to wait long before he can turn the pedals in anger, with less than a fortnight and one transatlantic flight standing in his way. He will start his season later this month at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina and although it may be a lower key event than the Tour Down Under, the South American race serves up harder terrain as well as chances for sprinters to test their legs.
"I always like to start strong, put a stamp on the start of the season and show everyone that I'm back. Not only for the rest of the world but also for me and the rest of the team as well. If I start strong I always have a good season. That's my objective, to have a really good season and then try and have a victory every month."
As ever April will act as the focal point in Boonen's early season. There is already growing talk of a second rainbow jersey later in September but the challenges of Flanders and Roubaix, in which he has seven titles in total, remain the pinnacle at which he will be judged upon. And confidence in returning to the top is certainly not lacking.
"I'm not worried about anyone if I'm 100 percent fit and I have a good mind," Boonen said.
Motivation certainly will not be a problem either. Brimming with eagerness and looking far fresher than the stained individual that was forced to wade through the Spring Classics until crashing out at Flanders in 2013, Boonen is simply happy to see the back of a difficult year.
"The hardest part was the start of the year when I had the bacteria in my arm," he said.
"It was right after the training camp. I had this little cut in my arm that I didn't even notice and then two days later they almost had to cut my arm off. Then I was in the hospital for almost two weeks and taking heavy antibiotics. I knew that all the hard work I'd done was for nothing. Then you're trying to regain your strength and you're trying to regain positive thinking I could do well at Roubaix but then I crashed again. There was nothing really good to remember about the season cycling-wise. Good parts? I had all the summer off so it wasn't all bad."
Along with his confidence and motivation Boonen exudes a relaxed demeanour. His palmares are already filed under the category of a cycling legend but the chance of setting further records keeps him going.
"When I started my career I wasn't even sure I'd even win a bike race as a professional. You don't think about competing for records in Roubaix or Flanders but right now the record is there. I've won them three times and four times. It's not like I can be more motivated because I'll go for them at 100 percent and they're my big goals.
"The better you're riding the easier it is to stay motivated. In 2012 I felt like I'd never been stronger but I was still evolving. I was using my energy better and now I think I'm on the same level. I think I just need competition and few victories."
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