Tom Boonen finished a special edition of the Scheldeprijs, tailor made as a huge send off for the soon-to-be-retired Belgian. While he celebrated the victory of his Quick-Step Floors teammate Marcel Kittel, Boonen admitted he has struggled to focus on his final career goal: a record fifth Paris-Roubaix victory.
Boonen's build up to the Hell of the North has been more hectic than usual because of all the attention on his impending retirement, but he was honoured by the tribute from the Scheldeprijs organisers. "It's very busy, whereas it's normally much calmer. Sunday is a very important day, retirement or not. I want to win that race," Boonen said.
"Of course, it's impressive to see this big race in Mol. If you ask me, it's something that should be repeated. It's special to race for the last time on Belgian soil. Time is flying by. I need to try and enjoy."
At last Sunday's start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen in Antwerp, Boonen was welcomed on the podium with the Icelandic thunder-clap. On Wednesday, the organisers of the Scheldeprijs turned their race into a nostalgic Boonen tribute. The race started in his hometown Mol and looped through his home area before heading to its traditional finish in Schoten, near Antwerp.
"It was a special day for me," Boonen said after the race. "As everybody knew, we were riding through my region. At the end of the race, Marcel came over to ask me to help a bit, because it wouldn't be easy. So, in the final lap, I rode near him and kept him out of the wind."
Boonen then asked the media scrum to open in order for him to congratulate Kittel with a big hug.
"That's what we're doing it for. It's a hard sport and every bit of friendship you can find in it is fun. Today was the best example for that. Everybody was sympathising. I think I was the one least affected by it. In my head, I'm focused on Sunday. I'm trying to pass through everything with blinders on, but it's hard," Boonen said.
After the unofficial start in Mol, the peloton rolled towards the home where his grandfather resides. Raymond Boonen had a flag and pistol ready to fire the race underway. When the race started, the tweaked course kept twisting and turning around Mol. The course passed by his schools, the house where he was born and his current home.
As the Scheldeprijs was approaching the finish, Boonen unexpectedly started moving up in the peloton. With 11 kilometres to go, he was near the front with the team's dedicated sprinter Marcel Kittel on his wheel. At the 1700 metres long cobbled Broekstraat section, Boonen and Zdenek Stybar pulled in front of the peloton. A crash happened in the bunch with 4km to go, but Kittel was in front and Boonen safely behind the crash. Eventually, Kittel dominantly won the sprint.
When asked about the first 50 kilometres, Boonen laughed: "It was super fun. Constantly, we were riding at 15 kilometres from my place in bird's eye view. We were constantly riding over my training roads. That was an enormously fun experience. I can't thank the people enough for that because it was an unforgettable experience." When asked why he was still wearing his leg warmers, Boonen had a quick reply. "It was training today. With this victory, the team did the maximum to get me in a relaxed way at the start of Paris-Roubaix. Tomorrow, there's still the press conference and after that there's rest. I'm ready for something beautiful."
If Boonen can get his much-desired win and perfect goodbye in Paris-Roubaix, he would become the only rider ever to win Paris-Roubaix five times, leaving his compatriot Roger De Vlaeminck trailing. The star from the seventies managed his four wins, four second places and a third place.
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