May is traditionally the month of the year when Belgian cycling briefly catches its breath after the spring classics before beginning the countdown to the Tour de France, and, as such, it was hardly a surprise that a man like Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) could go 13 seasons as a professional without once lining up at the Giro d'Italia.
When Boonen was ruled out of the classics after separating his shoulder in a crash at Paris-Nice in March, however, his 2015 plans were hastily rewritten. After a relatively gentle return to action at the Tour of Turkey, the belated Giro debut offered a more robust work-out. Almost two weeks in, the Belgian is pleased with his progress.
"If you look at two months ago, I broke my elbow and my shoulder was completely destroyed so I'm already very happy that I'm here and my shape is actually good too," Boonen told Cyclingnews. "The race started in San Remo and if you know the region there a little bit coming down you know it's going to be hard and they've been racing very hard but personally I'm happy that I'm already standing where I am."
Friday's flat run to Jesolo offers Boonen the opportunity to take his chances in a bunch sprint after two abortive efforts in the first week. "It's not easy because it's just me and Sabatini for the sprint," he said. "The day that Greipel won, I had to sprint with a kilometre to go to get in position so my sprint was over before it started."
Jesolo, of course, lies just 30 minutes' drive from Venice's Marco Polo airport, and with a mountainous final week to come, the inevitable bunch finish on Friday afternoon is likely to be followed by a dash to the departures lounge from at least some of the Giro's fast men. Speaking earlier in the week, however, Boonen was not sure if he would be among their number.
"We wait and see, but until now I've been improving every day so I don't think it will be a problem to finish the Giro," he said. "But there are still two options we have to consider. It's also important for me that I finish well here because I have some big objectives in June. That's the main thing for me right now – to be at my best there."
Those objectives – the European Championships in Azerbaijan and the Belgian Championships a week later – pale in comparison to the Monuments Boonen missed this spring, but for a Classics star in June, they amount to more or less the only games in town. "There's not much more than that, so I have to do it with the races that are there," he smiled, adding simply that he had returned to racing sooner than initially anticipated because "if you give it as much time as the doctor says, you just sit at home and it gets worse."
Boonen's over-arching goal for the remainder of the season is the World Championships road race in Richmond, though he deflated the idea that missing out on the cut and thrust of the pavé in April will leave him feeling any fresher by the Autumn. The road to recovery has been at least as arduous as the one to Roubaix.
"Some people think always like 'he's been out of racing so he'll be fresh' but coming back from an injury costs you much more energy than racing does," he said. "If everything goes well and you have no worries, you can keep racing and it won’t bother you. But if you come back from an injury it takes much more out of you than people really realise. I don't think it's an advantage having an injury, for sure. If you talk to guys who have an injury, it takes much more out of a human being than everyone thinks."
May is also a month of contract negotiations. Along with Zdenek Stybar, Rigoberto Urán, Mark Cavendish and Michal Kwiatkowski, Boonen is one of a number of marquee names at Etixx-QuickStep whose current deal expires at the end of the current campaign. Manager Patrick Lefevere – who returned to the Giro during the week – has already admitted that the team will struggle to keep all of its galacticos on board.
Boonen, however, has been with Lefevere's squad since he swapped US Postal for QuickStep at the tail end of the 2002 campaign. The team may already be preparing for the post-Boonen era, but the idea of the Belgian lining up in a rival’s colours next spring seems unthinkable.
"It's also a thing that there are less places on the team but for me personally I have no ambition about leaving," Boonen said. "We've talked already a little bit and most of the time it doesn't take that long for me to resign the contract but we will see. There hasn't been anything signed yet."
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