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WIELSBEKE, Belgium (CT): Sitting at the head of the room, facing a sea of journalists, microphones and cameras at QuickStep’s pre-Roubaix conference, Tom Boonen looked fully at ease with himself. He was three days away from the final event of his professional career, a race he desperately wants to win.
But even though the all-time record of five Paris-Roubaix victories is on the line, there was zero hint of nerves.
Everything may be riding on Sunday’s race, but he’s completely in the zone.
“I am quite okay,” he said, asked if he was emotional about his looming retirement. “I made a decision last year. I am still standing by my decision. The decision involved trying to be on a good level to finish these races.
“I am [good] right now. So in the end I got what I wanted. There is no point now trying to be all emotional about it.
“When you start as a rider you know you have to finish one day. My day has come. I am at peace with my decision.”
Asked again if he might be emotional on Sunday, he refuted the suggestion. “No, no,” he said with certainty. “I won’t lose my focus.”
‘Last year was a race against time…now I’ve had more time to prepare myself’
Boonen made his pro debut in 2002 and immediately made a big impression in Roubaix. Riding that race in support of US Postal Service teammate George Hincapie, he was visibly stronger in the finale and got his chance when the American toppled into a ditch.
He went on to finish third, a remarkable debut which hinted at what was down the line.
The performance secured the attention of the QuickStep Davitamon squad and while he was 24th and ninth the following two seasons, he kept building. In 2005 he won the race for the first time, beating Hincapie and Juan Antonio Flecha. He confirmed that talent with double stage success in the Tour de France and the world road race championship in Madrid that September.
Further victories in the race came in 2008, 2009 and 2012, while last year he battled back from a bad head injury the previous autumn – a crash which led to hearing loss in one ear – he took a very close second behind the Australian Mat Hayman.
He had been due to retire but, both frustrated and encouraged by going so close, declared he would compete another 12 months.
And so here we are once again.
With four wins, Boonen is level with previous record holder Roger de Vlaeminck. The race is a lottery but few would bet against him winning on Sunday.
“I was also focussed last year,” he said, asked to contrast his mental and physical state then and now. “But my condition is better than last year.
“Last year was really a race against the time to be in proper shape for Roubaix, and now I had a little more time to prepare myself. The Classics have been going well until now. Everything is better until now, but it doesn’t mean that I am going to get this better result than last year.”
In other words, he’s confident but not taking anything for granted. “All the ingredients are there. Now it is about putting them all together on Sunday.
“Everything is possible.”
Looking at Boonen’s performances this season verifies what he says about a better build-up. He won a stage in the Vuelta de San Juan in January, then placed eighth and sixth last month in the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.
He was then looking strong in last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, although his bid for a record fourth victory was scuppered when he had not one but two mechanical problems with his bikes.
Had that not happened, he might well have been in the running for a podium or better.
Almost one week on, he resisted a what-if analysis of the race. Asked if he would have otherwise been in the group with Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet hitting the final climb, he declined to speculate.
“The race is over. We don’t have to talk about guys crashing, guys having mechanicals,” he said. “It is a bike race, stuff happens.
“I see that [Alexander] Kristoff finished fifth. He wasn’t in his best Tour of Flanders shape all day long, so I would have had probably sprinted for fifth in the worst possible way. Otherwise, maybe for second.
“But it doesn’t matter. That happened, the race is over.”
Still, does he accept his sensations were good?
“Yes, they were really good,” he agreed. “It was really good until then. If you look at the group I was with, nothing much changed in the front. A lot of guys who were there were competing for the top ten.
“With the condition and the legs I had, I feel I would have competed with them. But there is no use trying to guess the result because I wasn’t there.”
Still, given how he felt until he ran into bike problems – and given his strong performance in splitting the peloton on the Kappelmuur – it’s easy to understand why he is calm and assured heading towards Sunday.
He seems to be exactly where he needs to be.
‘Paris-Roubaix has a little sparkle’
When the flag drops in Compiègne on Sunday, there will be a solid number of contenders. Riders such as Van Avermaet and Sagan will be high on the list of favourites, but there will be others too who must be watched.
Boonen has two things in his favour, though. One is his QuickStep Floors team, a squad which has had massive success in the event over the years and which has a very strong lineup dedicated to Boonen.
The second is his experience and track record. In addition to his four wins he’s also finished second, third, fifth, sixth, ninth and tenth. It’s a remarkable display in an event so often defined by luck and strength, and is something which can give him encouragement as the seconds count down to the start.
He has a gift, and he knows it.
“I am just good at it,” he says, referring to his flair for racing on the cobbles. “That is probably why I love it. I am 82 kilos, 80 kilogrammes when I am really skinny. I am a heavy guy for a cyclist. Then you don’t have many races where you can really put your stamp on.
“Cycling has developed … it has always been hard, but it has developed more to the climbers and the finishers who like three, four kilometre climbs in the finish.
“Most of the time it is the same five, six riders who are able to win a race. The Classics are different. I am good at it, and Paris-Roubaix became my favourite race as a kid when I won it the first time.
“The Tour of Flanders was also very special. I was also intrigued, but Paris-Roubaix has a little sparkle. It is unique in its own kind of way.”
Another thing that might add extra oomph to his pedal strokes is the emotional high he’s currently feeling. He was feted at the start of the Tour of Flanders last Sunday, with the massive crowd in Antwerp giving him a rapturous welcome at the sign on.
On Wednesday he had more of the same, with the Scheldeprijs event start being moved to his home town of Mol and also visiting other key points before the finish.
“They changed the start place for the first time in 100 years,” he said, clearly touched by the gesture.
“So it was very special. We did 50 kilometres around my home on streets I always train on and the crowds were amazing. It was a Wednesday, and there were crowds like it was a Tour de France stage. It is something that I will never, never forget and I am really grateful for all the people who have come to watch us and say thank you. I would like to say thank you back to them as well.”
Boonen knows that the best payback he could give them is to hit the line first in Roubaix’s velodrome on Sunday.
Nothing is certain but, should he pull it off, it would be a Hollywood-esque end to his career.
He will do what he can to bow out in such a fashion, but also knows that there will be no favours. If he wins, he will have earned it.
“It is not a special race. It is a normal Paris-Roubaix for all the other riders,” he explained. “Only for me it stops at the finish line in Roubaix.
“I am not expecting the peloton to think about my last race on Sunday. They will race me maybe even harder than they did before. They know I am the guy that they have to follow. It has been like that for many years.”
Likening those who would track him as flies to syrup, he knows that a big battle is the best antidote to negative tactics.
“I hope we get a hard race,” he said. “The weather forecast looks good. It sounds strange but good weather always gives a hard race. The speed is high all day long.
“In the end, everybody is finished and maybe I can make a decisive move on a nice cobblestone section.”
If so, if things work out, expect the roars from Belgium to be heard in Roubaix.