Tom Boonen has revealed that he went to see a sports psychologist earlier this year in a bid to get to grips with nerves on the bike.
Fear is not an emotion you’d associate with Boonen, who in April cited ‘big balls’ as the key characteristic of a Paris-Roubaix winner, but the Belgian, speaking at an event alongside QuickStep directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters, admitted he didn’t feel comfortable this year at the opening weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and again at the Tour of Flanders.
“At the opening weekend, I really wasn’t feeling it. I didn't dare go for the gaps," said Boonen, according to Het Nieuwsblad. "For the first time in my long career, I went to see a sports psychologist."
The 36-year-old had the one-off session in March, though the feelings still persisted at the Tour of Flanders in April.
“I turned onto the third climb of the Oude Kwaremont in last place in the group – that had never happened to me before,” noted Boonen, who had been caught up in a big crash after 100km. “During the descent of the Nieuwe Kwaremont I really was scared."
Developing such fear at this late stage of a storied career seems strange, but riders often have such reactions in the wake of serious crashes. Boonen suffered one such incident at last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour, where he hit his head on the tarmack and left the race in an ambulance. It was later revealed he’d suffered permanent damage to his hearing.
"I had not yet processed the Abu Dhabi crash," Boonen told Sporza. "I could have taken more risks, but I didn't dare do so."
The Belgian didn't go back to the psychologist after Flanders, but showed no lack of confidence at Paris-Roubaix the following week when he made the front group and finished second in the velodrome.
"There is a difference between going down the Nieuwe Kwaremont and Paris-Roubaix," he said. "When you're in the front group in the Forest of Arenberg there is never a moment when you think, 'Wow, if something goes wrong here...'"
The road to Roubaix
Boonen will travel to Denia in south-eastern Spain on Monday to link up with the QuickStep team on its first pre-season training camp, where his 2017 programme will be set in stone.
He will bring the curtain down on his 15-year career after Paris-Roubaix in April – a race he came so close to winning for a record fifth time this year.
"Everyone always talks about Roubaix, but I want a really good spring as a whole and to try to get a result in every race,” said Boonen. “Last year it was only at Paris-Roubaix that I felt like I reached my true level for the first time.”
The path to the Roubaix velodrome may well pass through Italy, as Boonen considers racing Tirreno-Adriatico instead of Paris-Nice for the first time since 2011.
"I would like to once again ride Tirreno. During my career, I haven’t raced that much in Italy during my career, so I’d like to race there again.”
Boonen is toying with the idea of racing the Tour de San Juan in late January, but he will definitely be heading to the Middle East in February for the Tours of Qatar and Oman. The opening weekend of Omloop and Kuurne will follow, with Tirreno leading into that defining month of Spring Classics.