Tom Boonen is back in his saddle; all's right with the world. The solar system that orbits Tommeke's star was briefly thrown into disarray when he crashed in the final kilometre on the opening day of the Tour of Oman, but he bore few ill effects when he reported for duty ahead of stage 2 in Nakhal.
No other rider at this Tour of Oman exerts quite the same gravitational pull as Boonen. Belgian reporters make up a sizeable part of the small international press corps, with newspapers Het Nieuwsblad and Het Laatste Nieuws, news agency Belga, and television stations VTM and RTBF all represented in the Gulf this week. Despite the presence of Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), their chief duty in Oman is, in the manner of royal correspondents, to cover every detail of Boonen's Middle Eastern visit as the final days of his professional career tick by.
Following Boonen's late crash on Tuesday, a retinue of reporters – from Flanders and beyond – made its way swiftly to the Quick-Step team cars. When Boonen arrived, the back ripped from his jersey, he was in little mood to talk, and he promptly set out to cover the 40 kilometres back to the hotel by bike. Directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters arrived on the scene after Boonen had already left, and he, too, had little to add. "I don't know what happened. I just heard on the radio, 'Boonen crash' and that's it," he said.
Later in the evening, Boonen's Quick-Step team confirmed that he would continue in the race, and that his injuries would not compromise his Classics campaign, but the incident was already headline news back in his home country. Shortly before the start of Wednesday's stage, he addressed the nation, like a prime minister seeking to restore market confidence after a sudden plunge in the stock exchange.
"It's not too bad at all, just scrapes and abrasions," Boonen said of his injuries. "I slept very well, but I'm stiff, obviously. I'll suffer with that for two more days, but it's nothing I can't cope with."
Boonen was brought down by a touch of wheels with his teammate Yves Lampaert with 750 metres to go, just as his Quick-Step squad looked to manoeuvre him into position for the finishing sprint, but, rather unjustly perhaps, he identified the positioning of Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data) as the root cause of the incident. "The moment we went, Farrar went to the right to bring his team to the front, but then, for some reason, a brain fart as they say, he came back to the left," Boonen said. "There was a bottleneck after that. Yves Lampaert braked and I hit his wheel."
Lampaert had cut a particularly glum figure in the minutes after stage one had finished, but he was absolved of all culpability by his leader. "It wasn't his fault, I don't blame him at all," Boonen said. "Yves did what he had to do. I'm just happy it wasn't worse. It's strange to say, but when you fall at high speed like that, you usually do less damage than when you're going slowly."
The simple fact that Boonen was able to ride back to his hotel afterwards was an indication that his injuries were not severe, and he joked that the hour-long journey through the outskirts of Muscat and its late afternoon traffic had at least allowed him to ride the annoyance out of his system.
"Two minutes after the crash I had forgotten about it, but it's true that I was furious about it at the time," Boonen said. "I wasn't angry because of the crash, but because I couldn't sprint. This race doesn't have a lot of sprint opportunities, the idea was to sprint for the win on the first stage and then work on my condition. But it's only a small setback."
It was put to Boonen that battling to partake in a sprint finish such as this was an unnecessary risk when the prize on offer paled in comparison to what awaits on the final two Sundays of his career. A stage win in Oman is merely another line on a long palmarès; a valedictory victory in the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix would add considerable heft to his legacy. Boonen has just 52 days – and counting – left as a professional bike rider, but he is fighting against the notion that this is a farewell tour. If there is to be a lap of honour, it will have to wait for the Roubaix velodrome in April.
"It's only Oman, sure, but that's no reason not to try to win. And in my career, I've only crashed twice in sprints," Boonen said. "Cruising in the peloton thinking my goals are later is just as dangerous."
As if to prove the point, Boonen was active in the tough finale of stage two, riding on the front of the peloton even on the lower slopes of the climb of Al Jissah. "I had a relatively good day considering the abrasions on my back," he said. "In two days, it will be ancient history."