It’s sobering to think that it is now nine years since Tom Boonen sprinted to the rainbow jersey in Madrid and then told the world that he would be safely retired by the age of thirty – the sportsman’s equivalent of The Who’s defiant ‘Hope I die before I get old.’
A couple of weeks shy of his 34th birthday, now fuller of beard and lighter of hair, Boonen is still here, and still in the battle for the world title. “It’s incredible to think that nine years have passed,” Boonen marvelled in Ponferrada on Friday morning. “Life goes by quickly.”
Boonen has had precious little opportunity to stop and look around in that time, but he has missed – almost – nothing. His exploits since 2005 have been such that his place in posterity as one of the greatest classics riders of his or any generation is assured. He has racked up over 100 victories, and claimed the green jersey at the Tour de France.
The Worlds road race is one of the very few events where Boonen has failed to repeat himself, and even then, there is mitigation. The lingering knee injuries that so hampered him in 2010 and 2011 saw him miss out on the editions best-suited to his characteristics in the intervening period. Realistically, he feels there are three opportunities remaining, beginning this Sunday.
“In recent years I missed Copenhagen because of my knee, and I didn’t go to the Australia because of my knee either,” Boonen said. “So I missed out on two chances to be world champion on two courses that were really good for me. Right now in my head, I feel like I’ve got three chances left – this year, next year and Qatar. We’ll see after that, but there certainly won’t be many more.”
Given his record at the Tour of Qatar over the years – four overall wins, 22 stage victories, countless photo opportunities at the camel race track in Al Shahaniya – Boonen’s interest was piqued as soon as the 2016 Worlds were awarded to Doha. “Qatar is in my head. When it was announced two years ago, I started thinking ‘if it’s possible to be there, that could be the most beautiful Worlds of all time,’” Boonen smiled.
In the here and now in north-western Spain, Boonen plays an almost ancillary role in the Belgian squad’s offensive. Greg Van Avermaet is the man in form and with the reins of leadership, while Philippe Gilbert and Sep Vanmarcke will follow the moves. Boonen, meanwhile, has been instructed to keep his powder dry until the final lap and save himself for the possibility of a sprint – not at all unlike his brief in Madrid nine years ago.
“I think that it’s a strength for us to have four riders capable of winning, four riders who used to being there in the finale of big races,” Boonen said. “It’s not just about having men in front, you can also put pressure on the others with the riders you have behind. If Sep and Greg are in front, and I’m behind, that puts a lot of pressure on the other teams.”
Simon Gerrans lines up as the favourite for victory following his impressive brace of wins in Canada earlier this month. Boonen didn’t demur with his status, but he noted that while the Australian is a canny operator in the finishing straight, he could be pitted against a different calibre of fast man on the Ponferrada course.
“I think Gerrans is the fastest of the riders who do Liège and races like that, as we saw in Canada where he did an extraordinary sprint,” Boonen said. “But it’s not the same thing to do a sprint against the riders from the Walloon classics because they’re not the quickest riders in the world.
“Gerrans is a rider capable of winning those races, but against the likes of [John] Degenkolb and me, normally he wouldn’t have a big chance. But it’s not just him; there are a lot other riders capable of winning on Sunday.”
Boonen’s approach has been a low-key one, and his last victory dates back to May and the Tour of Belgium, but he has built quietly and diligently towards the Worlds at the Eneco Tour and the Vuelta a España. After taking bronze with Omega Pharma-QuickStep at last weekend’s team time trial, he declared himself pleased with his condition.
“I’ve done everything in the last two months to get here in top form,” Boonen said. “I came through the Vuelta well, and I was very tranquil. I did a few sprints, I got into a couple of breaks, but it was always tranquil.” A rarity, perhaps, in those whirlwind nine years since Madrid.