It’s the beginning of the end for Tom Boonen. One of the mostly richly decorated riders in the history of cycling will hang up his wheels after Paris-Roubaix in April, and the road to that famous velodrome starts on Monday, some 11,000 miles away in Argentina.
The Vuelta a San Juan, which has stepped up to provide a replacement-of-sorts for the cancelled Tour de San Luis, will provide the Belgian with seven days of hot-weather racing to lay the foundations for the spring, and maybe even boost the confidence with an early victory.
In choosing to bring the curtain down on his career a the race that means the most to him and that he has won a record-equalling four times, Boonen, who is also a former world champion and three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders, has set the framework for a fairytale ending. These may be the first words in the final chapter, but he insists the emotions are taking a back seat for the time being.
"Actually it feels the same,” he said in a pre-race press conference at the riders’ hotel on Saturday evening. “I think mentally it’s just the same. I have to try to prepare well for the Classics, like I always do, and be 100 per cent fit and motivated for those races.
"Of course, afterwards it will be different, but I think going into those races there won’t be a big difference.”
Where there certainly is a difference is in Boonen’s form and condition – at least compared to 12 months ago.
This time last year he was suffering on routine training rides and racing against time to get back to full fitness after crashing heavily at the Abu Dhabi Tour in late 2015. It was a hell of an achievement that he went on to return to the height of his powers at Paris-Roubaix, coming so close to winning the Hell of the North for what would have been an outright record fifth time.
In fact, Boonen’s condition has hit the headlines in Belgium this week after his compatriot and teammate Pieter Serry posted a photo on Instagram of Boonen’s leg, muscles bulging and veins almost bursting out. The Quick-Step Floors doctor said the heat can have that effect, but there’s little doubt in the team that the 36-year-old, a couple of kilos lighter than normal, is flying.
"I’ve prepared very well, because I don’t have entire season in front of me – there are only a few months left. The start until the finish isn’t that long, so I want to start well,” said Boonen.
The training has been going very well. We came here on Monday and have been riding for a few days, with a few long rides. The views are very nice but you always need a support car, because [if not] if something happens they’ll find you in the desert. I came here because I knew it would be hot, and that’s good for the condition.”
One question mark ahead of the race is whether Boonen is here to perform – to win – or simply to bank the kilometres in the clement conditions.
Sitting two spots along from him on the top table at the press conference was Fernando Gaviria, the precocious Colombian who, it’s fair to say, probably possesses a more lethal sprint than Boonen and who has won three stages at the last two editions of the Tour de San Luis.
“There won’t be any disagreements between us,” said Gaviria. “We’ll talk during the race and see who’s feeling stronger.”
There are, on paper, five stages for the sprinters and Boonen, though similarly diplomatic, made no secret of his desire to get a result on the board.
“I think we can split the stages up,” he said. “Fernando is the first sprinter of the team, and we’re here in South America, so we’ll try to do as much as possible for him.
“But there are there are a couple of chances for me and I’d like to take them. We have a strong team, it’s the first week of the season so everyone is eager to win, but if you don’t try you never know.”
That last quote encapsulates the attitude that has brought so much success to the Belgian over the past 15 years, and though a win here in Argentina would be small fry compared to the other results on his palmares, it could be a significant one in the writing of that fairytale.