Despite the phalanx of microphones and cameras held towards him by journalists and photographers, Tom Boonen had the relaxed body language of someone accustomed to the limelight. Wearing dark shades and a beard, the Etixx-QuickStep rider sat on a bench near his team bus for almost ten minutes before the sixth stage of the Tour of Turkey, calmly fielding questions from the press about his recent injury, his current form and his future plans.
Boonen was visibly more at ease than team-mate Mark Cavendish, who had occupied the same spot and faced the same task immediately beforehand. He’s a little over four and a half years older and has done more interviews in that time; in addition to that, he seems to regard the media a little differently.
That’s fine; each and every rider has their own individual personality, a different way of interacting. What was interesting about Boonen is that he seemed completely at ease with what he has achieved, despite some recent frustrations.
Asked by CyclingTips what he would choose if he had a wishlist for the ideal final period of his career, he said that he was largely content with what he had done.
“I have already achieved everything [I want],” he answered.
He then paused, and added: “I would like to have one more shot at the Classics with no bad luck.”
Boonen had a standout season in 2012, taking a bevy of victories including the rare Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double.
Since then he has been hampered by illness and injury at the precise time of the year he was seeking to be at his best. That has been frustrating, and you sense he wants to remind people again of what he can do. In fact, he wants to remind himself, to feel the same sensations again in the environment he feels is his own natural terrain.
“If you look back at the last three seasons, I have had almost everything [bad] you can dream of. It has not been easy but I have been able to cope with it and get back on a decent level every time,” he said.
“My only wish is to start at the Classics with my normal condition and then fight for a win.”
Asked if the subtext of his stated goal of one more big Classic campaign meant that his career could come to an end in the next season or two, he clarified what he meant.
“No. Just to be able to do it one more time as I wish to.”
“I am looking forward to going to the Giro”
Boonen’s spring ambitions were foiled by the shoulder injury he suffered in Paris-Nice, but he returned to racing in this Tour of Turkey and is encouraged by his sensations there.
“Of course [I’m happy],” he reported when asked about how he considers this period has gone. “We started off well with two wins immediately. For me, after seven weeks without any racing, it is going very well.
“I think the condition is where it is supposed to be and I am looking forward to going to the Giro.”
His form is increasing. Equally reassuring, his injury has completely settled down.
“My shoulder is fine…I haven’t felt anything,” he said. “Of course the neck and the muscles around the shoulder are still a little bit weaker than they were before but we have been working on it each day and it is not something that I worry about.”
That resolution to his torn ligaments means that he is now able to set goals in the coming months. He will head to the Giro d’Italia for the first time and help team leader and GC contender Rigoberto Uran there, but will also seize any opportunity which arises to pick up a stage.
He’s already got stage wins in the Tour and Vuelta, and so doing likewise in the Italian Grand Tour would complete a rare triple.
Beyond that, he has some big one day races on his radar.
“The first objective now is to prepare well for the nationals, do the Giro and all those races. And of course the third part of the season will be to prepare well for the worlds. I think we find a course there that is really good for the Belgian team.
“I have only seen it on video so I think that is not really something you can count on, but it is a good course for me.”
Boonen previously took the rainbow jersey in Madrid in 2005; pulling on that famous garment once again a decade later would complete a circle of sorts. It would also more than make up for missing out on the Classics.
Mellowing (somewhat) with age
During the interview with Mark Cavendish, the Briton field a question about how he had changed over the years. CyclingTips asked the same of Boonen, who once was seen as one of the best sprinters in the peloton and who clocked up six Tour stages between 2004 and 2007 plus the Maillot Vert of points winner.
How did he feel he has changed over the course of his career?
“You evolve as an athlete. I think overall you become a better athlete,” he responded. “Maybe you lose a little bit of that real anger for the sprint. You know, when I used to finish and I was lost and it was my own fault, I was almost incapable of talking for two hours. But that goes away a little bit.
“The more races you lose, the better you cope with losing.”
It’s a peculiar statement, not least because we think of champions as being obsessed by winning. But it also shows how age can help keep things in perspective.
Perhaps that change in attitude also explains why some older sprinters decide they no longer want to take the same risks as they once did.
The blur of a bunch sprint, the jostle of elbows and the search for gaps that might not exist marks this wing of the sport as particularly dangerous. If the obsession to triumph every time wanes, reason can slip in.
However there’s also another factor too in that gradual shift from a fast-twitch specialist.
“I think every athlete that gets older – especially as a bike rider – you evolve more into that endurance-type rider, because we do so many hours,” he said.
So what about his training: has that changed?
“It’s maybe more focussed,” he answered. “Not just doing hours. Every hour you do has to count. If you do the right amount of training in the right way you feel that maybe you can do more with less training. It is something that you have to find out.
“Still, I am a guy who really reacts well to long and hard rides.”
Interestingly, Boonen said that the Etixx-Quick Step team has moved away from the type of data-obsessed approach that some other teams embrace.
“The evolution that we do is we started to train more like we used to do,” he said.
“Less paperwork, less schedules before the ride. I think it works well. If you have a lot of good riders in a group, you are going to train well anyway because you start to play around a little bit on the climbs, you start to ride faster on the flat parts, and in the end you have a good training ride and everyone enjoys themselves.
“On the other hand, if you start riding with only schedules, you know, sometimes it gets boring and you have to look at the figures all the time. I don’t like it. So we have made the evolution to get back to the old-style training on the team.”
Speaking of old style, Boonen’s palmares draws a parallel with the career of Roger De Vlaeminck. The Belgian, who competed in the seventies and early eighties, won four editions of Paris-Roubaix.
Boonen equalled that total in 2012, thus drawing level with the rider called Mr Paris-Roubaix. If he takes a fifth before he hangs up his wheels, he would have the outright record and, thus, the right to that sobriquet.
So, does he want to be known as Mr Paris-Roubaix by the time he retires?
“No,” he answered. “I am Tom Boonen…that is enough.”