Tom Boonen interview: Ambition still burning as an iconic career nears its end

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Whatever happens this weekend and next, Tom Boonen will remain one of the top names in the sport. He knows it. We know it. A four-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, a three-time champion of the Tour of Flanders, he has equalled the previous record of wins in both events.

However the Belgian wants more. He could have retired after 2016 but choose to keep on working for another few months, giving himself the opportunity to grab one more Monument and to seal his place as the king of one or other of the events.

Two days before the Tour of Flanders, Boonen, teammate Philippe Gilbert and the rest of the QuickStep Floors team met the press in an unusual setting in Antwerp. The conference was held on a boat docked at the Zaha Hadid plein, located below a striking building which resembles in some ways the diamonds the city is famous for.

On the vessel, Boonen spoke at length to the media about his buildup to the race, his thoughts on his chances, reflections on his career, key memories and the approach he will take on Sunday as he aims for triumph in the Tour of Flanders.

Q: Tom, can you talk about your buildup and where you are now? Are you happy with how things have gone, would you have liked to have had a win beforehand, or does it suit that Philippe is the guy with more recent success? Does that take the pressure off for you?

Tom Boonen: The pressure is always the same. Having Philippe win a race doesn’t change anything for me. My personal results in the last two races were good, but nothing special. But I was always there in the situation that I wanted to be.

And I think Flanders is a different race as well. It is a little bit longer, a little bit harder. My shape is improving so we will see.

A question about building up to this moment and these weeks in general, because it is your last year. Is it harder, or maybe a little easier, because you are more eager to do good in your last year? To do all the work in the winter, etcetera etcetera?

Yes, that was the objective. I thought that it was going to be much easier to do everything. In the end it was. I only had a little bit of misfortune after the Omloop, first crashing and then getting sick. But that was the only major setback I had so far.

I missed two chances there in the opening weekend to show myself, and then in the last two races Phil beat me in the breakaway. So it is always a little bit like that. You can only show yourself when you have the chance to show yourself. There hasn’t been one moment yet when he had to go full speed. I hope that there will be an opportunity on Sunday, or even wait until next weekend if necessary.

But I am pretty sure that I will be strong enough to keep up with the guys. Then it is up to the last time up Kwaremont and Paterberg – then the legs don’t lie. If you get dropped, you get dropped. If you stay there you can compete for the victory.

Boonen racing up the Oude Kwaremont in the recent E3 Harelbeke.

Tom, apparently you will be working both Sunday and next week on a special Roubaix bike. Can you explain a little bit what makes this bike so suitable for cobbles?

It is made for cobblestones [smiles]. I always ride my Roubaix for the last three years in Flanders. The Tarmac is a little bit too hard, I think. It is a personal choice. I always took the Roubaix bike to Flanders as well. It is also in my opinion better to ride the same bike in the two most important races of the year. And the Roubaix doesn’t really give you a disadvantage on the normal part, so why not use it? That’s about it.

If you had to choose one of the two races to win, what would your preference to be?

Every time they put this question in [smiles]. There is no answer. When the moment is there, if it is on Sunday or if it next Sunday, there is no preference between the two. But the last race is always the nicest, of course.

How does the new Roubaix riding style compare to the old one because of the Future Shock headset? Has it changed your riding position or riding style at all?

No, not really. The position is the same on the bike. And after ten minutes on the bike, you are not really aware of the system any more. The only thing you are aware of is when, for example, on the Muur or the Taaienberg or the Paterberg, the steep cobble climbs, I feel like it is easier to stay out of the saddle. With the normal bike you have to sit down, just lean back and have pressure on the back wheel, but with this bike it is a little bit more easy to stay on the pedals. I will try on Sunday and let you know after the race if it was any good or not [smiles].

Tom, you told us after Tirreno-Adriatico there were a lot of riders who came and said goodbye to you. This week was the last week that you were on Flemish cobblestones. Was there a lot of reaction from the public, because there were already a lot of people next to those races? Can you tell us something about your last week?

I didn’t notice anything special. Maybe I just didn’t see it because I was focussed on the race. The only difference between Tirreno is that the riders of Tirreno came to say goodbye and now they push you off the road. [smiles, may be referring to Peter Sagan and this incident]. So it is a little bit different.

But from the public I haven’t seen much yet. I just don’t really think there I much time in races to look around and see what people are doing.

But what about Wednesday when you did the recon?

Yes, sometimes people say thank you and goodbye [smiles].

How is it in general – do you read the newspapers, or is it more the minor details that occur to you? I was thinking about a moment in the Omloop when you came out of the bus, you gave your jersey to a guy called Yarnel. He was fully grown but he was crying afterwards. Is it the mass hysteria that you see, or you don’t see anything at all?

No, of course I am aware of everything that is going on. I read the newspapers also every once in a while. It is like something…it is happening all the time. Everything is there happening. Sometimes you get a little bit of peace that is coming to you and then you notice.

I am just trying to focus now on the last two important races. Scheldeprijs starts in my home town. That will also be something difficult to stay focussed at as there is going to be a big kermesse at the start. Then in the end, yes, it is like the entire cycling fans are really busy trying to get all the details of the career that I have had. I am not really aware of all the things that are going on because I am trying to focus on Paris-Roubaix. Maybe it will come after that, but we will see.

At the moment I am not really emotional about it or anything. It is going really well. It is something to look forward to as well, eh? It is the start of a second life. It is not only bike riding that is important in life. You start as a young guy, you end up at this age and then it is time for something else.

Tom Boonen at the QuickStep Floors team press conference held on Friday March 31, two days prior to the 2017 Tour of Flanders. He is bidding for a record fourth win in the event.

You have won the race three times. Which performance stands out for you?

From the three, the first one. The first one was the best, like most things in life [smiles].

This morning you went behind the motorbike with Johan Vansummeren. Did you talk a bit about the cobblestones, the end of the career, because he is retired now? Did he tell you something?

No, he was riding the motorbike. [smiles, others laugh]. No, we had a little chat. I always meet him next to the canal and then we ride five, ten minutes next to each other, and then he goes in front of me. But we were just talking about the last races, not specifically about the end of the career.

But I speak to Johan quite often. It is not like we had much new things to talk about.

Can you each say something about the last races we have seen? It is really like a 100 kilometre final. Do you have any explanation for it?

I have a very good explanation for it…it is us. We are a team that always open the races, tries to make the races hard. To get a guy in front and try to be back in the second group a little bit. That is the only explanation that it is.

Teammate Philippe Gilbert adds: I think it is true [smiles]. Other teams only had one card to play or maximum two, while we had four or five or even more. So everyone can be in front and get his chance. That is why we are successful.

What are your emotions going into this Tour of Flanders? Is it different to any other Tour of Flanders?

For the moment, not yet. I think maybe on Sunday at the start it will be a little bit different also because we start in Antwerp, which is my old province. So I expect that there will be more people from my region as well.

But in the end, I will try to stay focussed until Roubaix. It is working out pretty well until now. I don’t really have the mentality to be crying at the finish line because it was my last time here. This life stops at the end of Roubaix and then another one starts.

Boonen chats to Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), a rider some see as a possible successor.

You have two more races after this. But this one is important because you are Flemish and this is the Tour of Flanders?

Yes, it is important, but the last one I think is more important.

Looking back over the past editions of the Tour of Flanders, including ones you didn’t race, which is your favourite, both as a fan and as a cyclist?

My favourite Tour of Flanders ever? I have no idea. I only started watching the Tour of Flanders in 1996. I was at the finish line when Museeuw won. I did a race there as a newling. And then after that, my best personal memory was my first Tour of Flanders in 2005.

Why the one that Johan Museeuw won?

I was there at the finish line. It was the first time I realised there was a race called the Tour of Flanders. I had never heard of it. As a kid, I wasn’t really into cycling. I was 13 years old. And then I started racing with my friends. That was only when I started getting interested in cycling a little bit.

But I didn’t grow up watching racings every week. When I was 16 years old, that was the first time I was actually at the Tour of Flanders finish line. It was the first time I realised there was a big race in Belgium.

But also it changed a lot. Back then it was just the biggest race in Belgium. But now they built it up to something almost like from another world. From my first year until now, it changed a lot.

Maybe there will be another little kid watching in Antwerp on Sunday morning, like Tom Boonen back in the day with Johan Museeuw…

I hope so.. That is why you do sports. You still need people to go out and to practice sports themselves. It is not only to entertain, it is also to stimulate people to go out and ride their bikes or do whatever [exercise] they want. If you can get somebody off the couch, it is already a success.

How is your form coming into the race, compared perhaps to other years? Do you feel that you have got the win in your legs?

Well, I think it is better than last year. Last year I wasn’t that far back, but last year I was really still suffering from a lack of confidence going into the final kilometres, going into the new Kwaremont, the descent. I wasn’t where I was supposed to be when we turned the right corner.

I am a lot better now. We will see.

Is there a special focus on these two next races? Last year it seemed like you were looking more at perhaps Roubaix. Is that an accurate description of how it was last year? This year, are you going into both, Flanders and Roubaix, to win.

Well, I am going into both of them trying to get a good result. But the key factor is to get the win with the team. If it is me who has to do it, then I will be happy to try to do it. But it will depend a little bit on the race. In the last few races it was always me waiting for the moment if they come back for a sprint.

In Wevelgem I was actually leading out Gaviria, but he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. And for the rest there was always somebody out front and me waiting. We will see. Maybe it is the same way on Sunday. Maybe not, you can never tell how it will go.

How do you handle Sagan and Van Avermaet? They seem to be the two strongest riders so far individually. How is the team going to be able to handle those guys…is it just having someone with those guys at all the key moments, or what?

All the years I have been a pro, I have never watched anyone else in a race. We make up our own plan and ride our own race and see what happens.

I never, ever plan a race following someone else or put somebody against another rider. I don’t see the point of it. You have to try to plan your own things, like they do. Then if you meet each other in the final, then sometimes you have to change the plan a little bit trying to beat them. I don’t think we have to make a plan to ride against these two riders. We have to make a plan to try to win a race.

Is it always the strongest rider who wins Flanders?

Yes, most of the time. In every race like that, it is not always the strongest that wins, but most of the time it is. In Flanders, I can’t really recall one year… Well, I can recall one year…

Which year?

[Smiles] No comment.

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