Judging by a muted showing in last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, as well a lack of wins thus far this year, the chances of Tom Boonen winning Paris-Roubaix next weekend seemed remote to many.
The Etixx-QuickStep rider finished back in 15th place, a full minute behind Peter Sagan. He was, it seemed, simply not in the same sort of form as when he triumphed in Roubaix in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012.
However, speaking to him at the start line of Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs race, he insists otherwise. The legs are good, he claims, and there are legitimate reasons why last Sunday didn’t go as well as he hoped.
“On Sunday I was already really good,” Boonen told CyclingTips, responding when asked if he needed Scheldeprijs to hone his form for Roubaix.
“I was always a little bit too far back. I think the biggest problem I had until now is on the big fast descents like off the new Kwaremont, I am still a little bit afraid. I was always in about 50th position.”
Boonen’s hesitancy stems from a bad crash last autumn on stage two of the Abu Dhabi Tour. He hit the ground, lost consciousness and suffered a fracture to his left temporal bone, an area of the skull above the ear.
The Belgian was initially told by doctors that it would take six months to recover. However he proved that prognosis wrong, returning to training weeks after his fall and building up for his beloved Spring Classics.
He says his fitness is where it needs to be, but his head isn’t quite there yet. He’s worried about crashing again, which is not surprising: his fall last October was a serious one, and he was left with permanent hearing loss in one ear as a result.
Because of that fear, he was disadvantaged in Flanders.
“I was fine in the approaches to the climbs where it was normal speed and you could fight for position with the narrow roads. But on the big road there where you just have to take your chance, it was not that easy,” he explained. “Because of that, I lost a lot of strength going onto Kwaremont every time.”
Being badly placed on the key climbs means he was not in a position to respond when the other big names were firing. He missed the crucial move launched by Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) inside the final hour of racing.
He also missed the counter by Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), which saw the Swiss rider team up with Vanmarcke and try to chase lone leader Sagan.
However, save for some misfortune, he is certain he could have been in contention for a top five finish.
“I could have followed Alexander Kristoff on the Paterberg,” he said.
“If so, we would have bridged across to the guys who were sprinting for fourth place [Kristoff ultimately took fourth – ed.]. But I got caught behind Kwiatkowski, who got dropped before and lost ten metres.
“I never came back, I was always at seven seconds. That is the [fine] details. The most important thing was that I was always a little bit too far back on the Kwaremont, and I spent a lot of energy there.”
Remove the fear of descents and he is confident he is where he needs to be to bid for a record fifth title.
“I am really happy with the shape I am in right now. The result [in Flanders] could have been a little bit better. But going into Paris-Roubaix is completely different.”
“If you are in front you only have to control two or three guys to stay there. That is a completely different race. I think it will be easier to do a good result there.”
Asked flat out if he believes he can win Roubaix, he was assured in his answer.
“Yes. I am completely sure it is possible,” he said.
Final campaign or not?
The Boonen-Cancellara rivalry is one which has enthralled fans for the past decade. Cancellara has already made clear that 2016 is his final season, saying that he is convinced it is time to walk away.
Boonen has floated the possibility that he will do the same, but has not yet announced what his decision will be. It’s certain that he will ride the world championships in Qatar next autumn, bidding for what would be a second world title, but after that the future is uncertain.
Asked for clarification as to his plans, he told CyclingTips that he wasn’t going to make any announcements at this point in time.
“Even I don’t know. Well, maybe I do, but I don’t think it is the moment with these races now to talk about the future,” he said.
“I made the decision before not to do it, because I like to have the attention for the race and not always be asked if this is my last race here.”
Reading between the lines, it seems possible that he will indeed walk away. Had he made the decision to do another year, making that choice public would in itself have killed the questions about riding the Classics for the final time.
Instead, saying nothing until later this year hints that he simply wants to avoid the type of drama and attention that Cancellara has faced.
Still, full clarity will be reached when he finally does speak about his plans.
Asked when that will be, he smiled. “Maybe in the summer,” he said.
Between now and then, he will do what he can to notch up more big successes. Winning Roubaix may have seemed unlikely to some after last Sunday, but he’s personally convinced he’s where he needs to be to take on and beat Sagan, Cancellara and the others in four days’ time.
Don’t write him off just yet.