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Making his return to racing after injury on stage one of the Presidential Tour of Turkey, Tom Boonen has ruled out any participation in the Tour de France this year and said instead that he will likely pursue a Giro/Vuelta programme in order to be in top shape for the world championships.
“The Tour is out of the question,” the 34 year old told CyclingTips at the stage one start in Alanya. “I go two months now à bloc [flat out – ed.]. Then July I am off, then August September two months à bloc again for the world championships. The Tour just doesn’t fit the programme and the team is pretty full as it is.”
Instead, riding Grand Tours the either side of July is looking likely. “There is a good possibility that I do Giro and Vuelta,” he confirmed.
Boonen took the world road race championships ten years ago in Madrid, triumphing with a strong sprint from a select group. One decade on, his career has gone in a slightly different direction to originally envisaged; his penchant for bunch sprints has faded, but his Classics career has marked him out as one of the best in the history of the sport.
His triumphs include four editions of Paris-Roubaix, three of the Tour of Flanders, plus a total of 14 semi-Classic wins between the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Paris-Brussels.
He had hoped to add to his tally again this season but a bad crash on stage one of the Tour of Qatar left him with badly injured shoulder. That in turn made riding the Classics impossible, and forced him to sit out the exact period of season that he was targeting.
“It was very frustrating, especially the first few races,” he said. “After a while I got in peace with the situation and you have to deal with it.
“But still, I have missed it a lot. I get a lot more nervous watching the races on TV than I did when I was actually in the race. I think I still have to do them a few times.”
Boonen looked in good shape at the start, appearing relaxed, lean and also eager to get going. Numerous fans from Turkey and elsewhere approached him at the team minibus and he signed autographs and stood for photos.
He spoke to CyclingTips minutes before the start and while he said that he still had sensations in the injured area, that he was ready go get back into action.
“It is the kind of injury you feel for a long time, the ligaments were all torn apart,” he said. “So I will still probably feel it for a few more months, but it is not painful any more. On the bike it feels okay and it only gets stiff after long days on the bike.
“It is not like it is bothering me.”
“If I get a stage win there I have a stage in all three of the Grand Tours”
Boonen has never competed before in the Tour of Turkey. On paper at least it should suit him well, with a large number of flat to undulating stages plus a high likelihood of sprints.
However two things make it unlikely he will figure: firstly, the fact that it is his first race back and his main aim is to get ready for the Giro, and secondly because Mark Cavendish is here and on the same Etixx-QuickStep team.
Cavendish won four stages last year plus the points classification and had his race face on again before stage one. Looking focussed, he made repeated adjustments to his bike as the minutes ticked down to the start, then sat in the team bus away from fans and reporters. He then returned to his bike and made further adjustments to the orientation and height of his stem.
Boonen was in a very different mood, taking things easy and enjoying the atmosphere.
“The thing I have heard about the race is that it is pretty hectic sometimes in the final, but I can’t say because it is the first time that I will race here today,” he said.
“For me it is the perfect race to get started again after my injury. That is why I am here.”
He will have the chance to compete for eight days in the race, giving his form a good sharpener prior to heading to Italy and the start of its Grand Tour on May 9.
Having never competed there before, he said he is looking forward to his debut.
“I always wanted to do the Giro but doing my programme the entire year with the Classics, it has never been possible,” he said, smiling at the thought. “So now I am able to do it for the first time and I am happy that I will be able to ride in Italy for the first time.
“I have a good amount of fans there and also friends at the start in San Remo. I lived there for a while so it will be fun.”
Asked what his ambitions were, he said that the primary objective is not a personal one.
“The most important thing is Rigoberto,” he said, referring to Rigoberto Uran, the team’s general classification contender who was second overall in 2013 and 2014. “He wanted me there to guide the team a little bit in the first two weeks. The last week in the mountains it won’t be for me.
“But also if I feel okay, for sure I will try to get a stage win in the Giro. That would be nice. If I get a stage win there I have a stage in all three of the Grand Tours and there are not a lot of riders who have this….”
As regards completing the race or not, that is something that will be decided at a later date. Boonen said that it is still being weighed up, and that his sensations in the Tour of Turkey will be one of the determinants.
“For sure I will do 13 stages. There is another possibility where I do the entire Giro, but it depends a little bit on this week. Then we will decide the rest of the programme until the national championships.”
Looking further ahead to the worlds in Richmond, he knows that it could be a good fit for him. In recent years several courses have been taxing and suited more to those who can climb. The chances for sprinters have been few and far between.
Richmond could be different. “I know only that it is pretty nice for a Classics rider. It has a cobbled section, there are a few uphills – a typical worlds course,” he said.
The 2016 worlds is also one that could suit him, being set to take place on the pan flat and wind-blasted roads of Qatar.
He therefore has two potential chances to retake the jersey he wore in 2005 and 2006.
“It would be a dream,” he said, confirming that it is a goal before the end of his career.
“It is not that easy…but we will try.”