It's a new Tom Boonen that walked into the overcrowded press conference at the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk, Belgium today - a Tom Boonen that has the confidence of not only winning two major events prior to Sunday's Tour of Flanders, but also a rider who has re-found his sprint and his spirit.
"You have to forget everything you've won before and try to race the best way you can," Boonen said. "It doesn't really matter how many races you have already won as it all depends on Sunday. We've got a good team which is ready to ride a good Ronde van Vlaanderen."
Although he won Paris-Roubaix in 2009, it's been a long six years since Boonen's last success in Belgium's most important race, De Ronde, and he underscored just how much victory means here to a native son.
"It's one of the two most important races of the season. I would really like to win," he said. "If you talk to the foreign guys they find it hard to understand why there’s that much attention, so much media coverage about one single race. It’s something that has been growing for the last hundred years. Every year it's a nice race."
Yet in the race's nearly 100 year history, no course has veered so drastically from the usual point-to-point, and three challenging circuits ending in Oudenaarde will change the tactics and the efforts for the riders, but Boonen said every year is different, and the key is to be flexible in your strategy.
"It can be a different style of racing every year on this course. If you have a strong guy or a strong team they will start racing pretty soon in the finale but it's also possible the good guys will be looking at each other in the finale and not much will change. It can happen on many spots, just like on the old course. It's a race where you have to be able to adapt and don't make too many plans in advance. Of course I know where the toughest spots are but that doesn't mean it'll happen there."
Boonen and every fan in Belgium knows that Radioshack-Nissan's Fabian Cancellara will be the rider that everyone is watching, but he said that it is hard to win the Tour of Flanders as a top favorite - something Cancellara found out the hard way in 2011.
"It doesn't really matter to me who's the favorite. [Cancellara] is a strong rider but I've never raced to beat someone specific except myself. Of course if he attacks in the finale and I see it's the decisive attack then I'll react but I'll certainly not mark every move he makes all day long."
This year, with the confidence of his bunch sprint win in Wevelgem on his side and the strength to tackle all the hellingen, Boonen knows he has an advantage that Cancellara does not have, as evidenced by Milan-San Remo: "He has to drop me because I've got the sprint as my weapon.
"Maybe he's got a slightly bigger engine but I'm a little bit faster. We're two different riders with the same objectives. If you look at it in a physical way then we're a level above the rest. with a really hard finale then we're the two riders who can decide the race although that doesn't want to say one of us will win. We've got the key to the race in our hands."
When asked about other rivals aside from Cancellara, the Belgian named his own teammate Sylvain Chavanel and Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vinni – Selle Italia). "Pozzato is good, [Peter] Sagan is not bad. There's a lot of guys in good shape right now.
"Everybody has been talking about me and Fabian. It's not true that we're the only guys who're able to win. To me Sylvain is one of the favorites for the win because I've seen the course and know that a strong rider will win here, just like before. If Chavanel goes and Cancellara doesn't react? Then Sylvain is very lucky. We're good friends and it's no problem to me if someone else of the team wins on Sunday.
"Sagan? He can get pretty far maybe even this year. Sagan is going to be on the podium in the next three to four years. Edvald Boasson Hagen? If he's there in the sprint you have to pay attention to him but I don't count him in as one of the big favorites."
Logically it's hard to predict what is going to happen, but Boonen did offer an insight on possible scenarios. "My strongest point right now is that I don't have to be afraid of coming to the finish line with anyone," Boonen said. "I don't need to drop anyone. That's my main strength."
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