Legendary pavé specialist Tom Boonen surprisingly didn’t join his former Quick-Step Floors wolfpack but instead stepped into a new role with the 'Captains of Cycling' at the rivaling Lotto Soudal team, announced last week.
Captains of Cycling is the crowdfunding group behind the Lotto Soudal team. The 37-year-old Belgian will also advise the team, mostly on the technological front.
On Saturday, Boonen was spotted at the finish of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in front of the team bus of third Belgian team, Veranda's Willems - Crelan. "I’m a freelancer now," Boonen joked.
"My friend is the driver of the bus and I hopped in to see the final kilometres of the race. Why I came to the race? I came to have a look around," Boonen smiled. He glanced back on a hectic week and commented on the performances of the Lotto Soudal riders and cyclo-cross world champion Wout Van Aert.
Quick-Step Floors team manager Patrick Lefevere didn't hide his disappointment when he learned that Boonen joined the Lotto Soudal team. In an interview with Sportwereld, Lefevere said he regretted the decision from Boonen.
"I wonder what he's going to do there. I hear that he's going to advise them about equipment but if you've been on the bike only three times this year, what type of advice can you give," Lefevere wondered. "If you don't ride your bike regularly at 50 kilometres an hour, then it's impossible to develop gear."
When asked about that final remark from Lefevere, Boonen smiled and said, "that was a bit nonsense."
Boonen told Cyclingnews in Meerbeke that he was close on joining the Quick-Step team but a contract was never signed. "You’ve got to call things by their name. We sat together in June and had an agreement. Then we sat together two more times and twice we had an agreement. If there’s no conclusion then it stops at some point. I regretted it too but that's how it is. When Paul De Geyter [Boonen's manager] joined Lotto, it changed the situation a lot. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible. Now, with the reorganisation that is coming up and the riders we have… it's going to be a challenge," Boonen said.
Boonen was asked if his presence inspired the riders to ride aggressively at the Omloop. "That must've been good advice, no," Boonen joked. "The Lotto-Soudal riders rode with a great mindset today. They really raced for what they were worth but they weren’t helped by the circumstances.
Between the climbs it was mostly a headwind situation. The few times that there was a crosswind section you could see that gaps were created. But then you ride into a wall of wind and the chasers bridge back up. You needed a crosswinds section of ten kilometres to create differences after an attack," Boonen said.
Tiesj Benoot rode solo for quite a while until the Tenbossestraat climb, just before the famous Muur. “Tiesj was really strong but when you’re alone in front of the peloton in that section towards the Muur, then you know it's impossible. It killed him on the Valkenberg, they didn't race in the peloton to get away. If some guys would bridge up with him, it would’ve been different."
While standing in front of the Willems Veranda’s - Crelan team bus, Boonen was asked about the strong performance of their team leader, cyclo-cross world champion Wout Van Aert. The latter is known to be a major talent but only three weeks after his win at the Cyclo-cross World Championships it was not clear what he could achieve in his Omloop debut.
The 23 year-old Belgian rider featured in the decisive move after the ascent of the famous Muur and battled for the victory until the final kilometre.
"I wasn’t surprised. I knew he was capable of this but I didn't think he would've been able to do it now. That was a question mark for everybody. Nobody doubted his capabilities but it was unclear as to how he digested the cyclo-cross season and how he planned his training towards this part of the year.
"You don’t know how he’s going to deal with the switch of one hour cyclo-cross races to a five-hour race like today. He’ll be pleased with today’s performance and learn what it is to ride in front at a classics. It'll boost his motivation for the upcoming races. He mustn't doubt himself," Boonen said.
That’s when Van Aert rolled up and Boonen congratulated his compatriot. "Probably most riders in the front group thought that something was possible. Wout could've won today. Probably, he was a bit too respectful about riding the final of the Omloop. He should dare to attack. Every time he was in third or fourth position and there was an attack that forced him to follow the moves, it went smoothly. When you see those first five pedal strokes, you see that he’s coming from the 'cross world."