More than four months after a crash in the Vuelta a España put a premature end to Tom Boonen's 2011 season, the 31-year-old Belgian returned to racing in fine fashion at the Tour de San Luis's opening stage, playing a key role in the race finale for stage winner and teammate Francesco Chicchi.
Entering the final kilometres of a wet and wild 189.3km stage from San Luis to Villa Mercedes, featuring torrential rain, cold, and hail, a select 38-man group was all that remained at the head of affairs. Within this selection were five of Omega Pharma-Quick Step's six riders, working to set up Italian sprinter Chicchi for the win.
"It was very hard, Boonen told Cyclingnews. "We had only six guys and at the end we had only five guys, so it's not easy to control, especially with the wind and after a hard day. We had everything - rain, hail...
"In the last five or six kilometres it was just us trying to control the race – not easy, but controlled. A steady pace, but not pushing it every 500 metres – steady so we can arrive for the last kilometre."
With 1.5km to go, however, Boonen launched a dangerous solo attack which put sprint rival Team Saxo Bank on the defensive, interrupting their lead-out train for local favourite Juan Jose Haedo.
"At the end I had a turn alone at 1.5k for Chicchi," said Boonen. "I went alone and he stayed with the Saxo Bank guys behind me. He caught me back at 200m to go and he went and won it just barely by a few millimetres.
'Today we wanted to do everything possible for Francesco because he already won here two years ago. His best day is always the first day so we tried for him today."
Chicchi already had a stage win at the Tour de San Luis on his palmares thanks to his victory on the opening stage of the 2010 edition.
While the Belgian is no stranger to competing in nasty weather conditions, the extreme conditions which battered the peloton on the first day of racing in Argentina came as a surprise.
"The problem was everybody was expecting a really hot day so everybody had really light clothes on and when we crossed the top of the climb (the KOM at 41.3km) the temperature, the sensation, was about 3 degrees [Celsius]. It was unbelievable. Everybody was putting on their big jackets, everyone was freezing."
The KOM at La Cumbre was the highest elevation of the stage at 1,033m, and from there to the finish it was predominantly downhill.
"It was all the way [to the finish] a false flat descent so you didn't have to push, and then a really hard headwind plus hard, cold rain and hail.
"The drainage isn't so good here so when it rains the water just moves, but it doesn't really leave the streets and it's really slippery."
While the Belgian ProTour team has earned its first season of the victory, Boonen hopes to add to the squad's success at the Tour de San Luis by seeking his own chances.
"I will try it (finishing sprint) one day, I'm not sure which one, and maybe go in a breakaway. I for sure want to do one sprint here and for all the rest we want to do good work here, not skip any efforts.
"After that we go to Qatar and it starts to get a little bit more interesting for me."
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