Boonen weighs his Tour of Flanders chances

For a man with a nation's cycling hopes resting on his shoulders Tom Boonen cut a relaxed figure at Omega Pharma QuickStep's Tour of Flanders press conference on Friday.

The three time winner and defending Ronde champion opened events by describing the less than perfect season he has endured. Frankly anything would have been seen as less than perfect when held up against last season's triumphant run of domination, when QuickStep swept all before them to claim a historic run of spring victories, but with Flanders and Roubaix within a week of racing Boonen is hopeful that he can pull out a result.

Twelve months on from last year's success, the team is scrambling to save its campaign with Ronde and Roubaix their two opportunities for redemption. The fickle nature of professional sport demands that.

"Of course it's not the same as it was last year but it's not looking that bad either with the circumstances," Boonen said.

He's right. The team have De Panne in the bag, and although they were out-fought in E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem they remain a force to be reckoned with, and anyone who believes that perennial rival Fabian Cancellara and upstart Peter Sagan need just turn up Bruges on Sunday to determine the Ronde crown are sorely mistaken.

For all of Boonen's setbacks this spring, he remains a man to beat. Perhaps lacking in form, he is certainly not suffering a lack of experience or level-headedness.

"I've made a lot of progression in the last few weeks and we'll see on Sunday if it's good enough to get a result in the race, but I did the maximum possible to get here so I can't expect anything more."

Asked as to where he ranks in comparison to last year, he replied directly: "I have lot more question marks. Last year everything was going superb and that's the time you need to get a result. I think maybe it's a little bit different with the stress but now I think coming into this period was also very stressful because you're trying to get to that level again. It's different but both of the years were hard."

"After last year maybe this is not really bad circumstances. If I had the same level as last year it would have been very hard to carry the race. Now it's a little bit different, but I don't think I'll get any freedom if I try and escape in the final."

This leaves Boonen in limbo when discussing his status among the favourites. He isn't at the level of Cancellara and Sagan but he's displayed enough in De Panne to suggest he's ahead of the likes of Pozzato, Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet and Sky's contenders.

"We don't have the big favourite," he said when discussing Omega's options, "but we have a lot of very strong riders so the main thing now is to be smart.

"I'm not in my best shape this season, lets say that, but anything is possible. I've won races with less condition than this. The knee is fine. The elbow is also fine.

"In 2011 I was sick in Tirreno, but then I won Gent-Wevelgem. I've not won anything yet but if you have a twelve year career you have some set back and I've had to come back a few times but every time is different."

"I'm very happy that I'm here doing this press conference because back in January things looked a lot worse. Now I have to be happy with the condition that I have and be grateful."

Sagan's joins the cobbled contenders

During his press conference, Boonen was asked about Sagan's chances of winning Flanders. The Cannondale rider won Gent-Wevelgem and followed up with sumptuous ride on the first day at De Panne, after which Mark Cavendish claimed that they had been made to look like juniors in the wake of Slovak's power.

"Nobody is unstoppable," rallied Boonen. "It only seems like that but he's a very dangerous guy to have with you in the final. He's very fast and he can climb and it's nearly impossible to drop him on the last two climbs. He's probably the guy who can climb the Patersberg the fastest.

"In the last ten years not many big names have come and been able to win the Classics. There have been some guys who got lucky but when you look at guys who were there every year, it's not many names. It's nice to have someone joining us."

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