World Championships: There's nowhere to hide, warns Boonen

In this corner of the world, Tom Boonen (Belgium) doesn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Four overall victories and 22 stage wins at the Tour of Qatar are proof enough of that and, besides, a son of Flanders has an almost preternatural sense for such things to begin with.

The build-up to the elite men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships has been dominated by dismay at the rather uninspiring finishing circuit on Doha's manmade extension, the Pearl, and concern at the soaring temperatures, but Boonen believes the wind, however faint, could prove an equally decisive factor on Sunday.

The race begins with a 150-kilometre out-and-back loop past the fishing town of Al Khor before returning to Doha. Rather than the usual mere promenade ahead of the main attraction on the finishing circuit, however, Boonen envisages a rather more attritional race from the outset. Instead of dutifully chugging behind the early break, the peloton could have shattered irretrievably into echelons long before the final 100 kilometres.

"There will be a first and second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth group. Maybe the first and second groups will come back together but the others, they won't come back. I think the first part of the race is hard enough to make a difference even if it’s still a long way to go," Boonen said on Thursday evening.

"150 kilometres in the desert in these temperatures means the circumstances are completely than in a normal World Championships. It's not like you can have a fresh team to close the gap on the finishing circuit. It might be just two or three from each team in each group, and I really don't see a bigger group than 60 riders going to the finish line."

Up until their mysterious exclusion this season, Boonen's QuickStep team have made a habit of splintering the Tour of Qatar peloton almost at will over the years. In Doha's flat and arid hinterland, largely devoid of buildings, shrubbery and shelter, it doesn't take much more than a gentle breeze to whip up an anarchical day of racing.

"You don't need that much wind to make a big difference. More wind would be better but it's very open here, almost like being on an island, so winds of 9-12kph is already a lot. I think we've made big differences with less wind here," Boonen said. "It's all about the circumstances of the moment, but Qatar is different to Flanders or anywhere else. If you have a little bit of wind, you can make a big difference. There's nowhere to hide.

"Everybody will have to make his efforts in the echelons coming back to Doha. Everybody, including the sprinters. There won't be sprinters or helpers or leaders anymore. By that point, it's just every man for himself."

Boonen and his Belgian cohort, which includes Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, gladly accept the prospect of chaos, the searing temperatures – at least 10 degrees higher than the usual fare at the Tour of Qatar in February – are the great unknown of this World Championships. Should Boonen's predicted carnage ensure, the simple act of taking on sufficient water will all of a sudden become very complicated indeed.

"The most difficult part is when we come back with the tailwind, it's nearly impossible to get anything from the car or the side of the road," Boonen warned. "I don't see how you're going to take a bottle in an echelon from a motorbike, either. It's not possible."

A second world title?

Sunday marks Boonen's final World Championships appearance, 11 years on from his effervescent victory in Madrid, after which he famously affirmed that he planned to retire by the age of 30. The Belgian will finally call time after next year's Paris-Roubaix, but he refused to dwell on the sentiments provoked by the last two crusades of his lengthy career, beyond confirming that not even a second rainbow jersey would persuade him to continue past next April.

Speaking to a sizeable group of reporters – as ever, the Belgian press contingent has travelled in the greatest numbers to the Worlds – Boonen preferred to focus on the here and now. "It's not like I'm emotionally tied to the Worlds or Paris-Roubaix. I just try to win races," he said.

In recent months, Boonen has done just that, winning the RideLondon Classics and Paris-Brussels, enough to secure his ticket as the leader of the Belgian team in Doha, even if Van Avermaet will set out on an equal footing. Indeed, the internal hierarchy will only be established on the hoof, once the race reaches its denouement on the Pearl.

"It's never bad to have two horses to bet on, and we have two horses with different ways of riding. If you have only one way of riding, going for the sprint like Britain or France or Norway, it's pretty obvious to the other teams what you're doing," Boonen said.

Even in an air-conditioned conference room, nine storeys up, there is no getting away from the heat this week in Doha, and Boonen was asked to revisit the topic one more time before he and Van Avermaet were ushered away to speak to the waiting television crews.

"I've done maybe 100 races in temperatures like this in my career, and maybe 25 at temperatures higher like this. Sure, it's a problem, but it's always a problem. Nobody ever complains about this until they have a Worlds in Qatar. They've known it was going to be here for three years and the week before it starts, they realise it's hot," said Boonen, encapsulating the Belgian school of stoicism in just a few words. "They knew it before, eh? If you hold a race in Siberia, you know it's going to be cold."

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