After an injury-afflicted 2013 campaign, Boonen began his winter training earlier than normal this time around. His fine early condition was confirmed by Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s tactical approach on stage 3, where no less a figure than Mark Cavendish led out Boonen in the sprint.
Although Boonen slightly mistimed his effort on the drag to the finish line, and could only manage third place in the sprint behind winner Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), he was nonetheless pleased with the state of his form at this point in the season.
“Going into the sprint, I think everything went perfectly, but I think I wanted it too much. I think I went a bit too early,” Boonen said afterwards. “Cavendish gave me a good lead-out and he still wasn't finished, but I saw the sign and I thought it was a headwind with a three to four percent uphill. I had the sensation that we weren't going fast enough so I just went.
“My legs just blew in the last five seconds. I'm already happy to be there, but if you're doing all those big efforts you want to do something more than 3rd place. But still it's a good sign.”
Building towards the classics
Boonen’s 2012 campaign began with a stage victory at the Tour de San Luis, and the Belgian proceeded to keep winning in the months that followed, ending the spring with victories at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. By contrast, his 2013 campaign started late due to an infected elbow wound, and he never hit his stride before a crash at the Tour of Flanders ended his Classics challenge prematurely.
With that in mind, Boonen stressed the importance of beginning the year on the right foot. “I like to start my seasons well. More precisely, I need to feel strong. That allows me to work calmly towards the Classics,” he told L’Équipe.
During the off-season, Boonen also began working with Sam Verslegers, formerly the physical trainer of Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters. Under Verslegers’ guidance, Boonen has paid special attention to building his core strength during the winter.
“It’s important to work with people from outside of cycling, where ideas can end up going around in circles,” Boonen said. “We’ve worked on core strength, the strength in the upper body that we have the tendency to neglect in cycling. It brings gains in your stability on the bike, and your ability to accelerate gently but for a long time.”
Asked if he felt a need for revenge after his ill-starred 2013, Boonen said that he simply felt highly motivated. “To be honest, revenge isn't the right term. Motivated would be more correct. I’m in a phase of rebuilding,” he told L’Équipe. “Slowly, with training, you feel your body respond more and more as you would like, and the more that happens, the more you feel your motivation grow. It’s a feeling that grows and grows, to the point that pinning on your first dossard becomes an urgent need.”