NEMOURS, France (VN) — Being gapped out of the lead group in the opening road stage at Paris-Nice might trigger alarm bells, but not if you’re Tom Boonen.
Smiles abounded at the Omega Pharma-Quick Step bus after a hectic first stage that saw pre-race favorite Rui Costa (Movistar) crash out and others, such as sprinter Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and GC contender Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), also lose contact on a tight, windblown 47.5-kilometer final circuit.
Boonen lost 1:53 and couldn’t contest for the sprint, but the Belgian veteran is clearly thinking about bigger fish over the next month.
“I am glad I didn’t crash today, it was very hectic out there,” Boonen told VeloNews as he warmed down on the rollers outside the team bus. “When the bunch split, I was happy they were gone. I could breath easier. I am here to be ready for the classics. What I don’t want to do is get into a silly crash.”
Omega Pharma has other options at Paris-Nice, including points leader Sylvain Chavanel, poised in third at one second behind new overall leader Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), and Peter Velits, ninth at three seconds back.
“For Tom, we’re not worried about Paris-Nice,” Omega Pharma sport director Wilfried Peters told VeloNews. “We are worried about the real races.”
The French might be offended by the Belgian indifference to their cherished “Race to the Sun,” but the “real” races that count for Boonen and company come on the cobbles of Flanders and northern France.
Despite the smiles and relaxed mood, Boonen is playing catch up during Paris-Nice to hit form in time to defend his Flanders-Roubaix double crown.
The 2005 world champion celebrated redemption last year after a few hard-knock seasons marked by injuries, illness, and run-ins with the law.
Last spring, Boonen’s luck seemed to have turned for the best, but his winter has been anything but smooth. He became ill at the frigid team presentation in early January in Belgium, causing him to miss his planned season debut at Tour de San Luís.
In late January, following a minor crash on his mountain bike, a cut to his elbow became infected, requiring surgery and nearly a week’s stay in the hospital. That ordeal forced him out of the Tour of Qatar.
Last year, Boonen barnstormed through San Luís and Qatar to set the foundation for his dominating 2012 run through the northern classics.
After finally debuting at the Tour of Oman in early February, Boonen has been in catch-up mode ever since.
For Boonen and his classics ambitions, Paris-Nice is a critical, eight-day training camp at race speed and with the perils that go with it.
“I want to finish with a good sensation. That’s the important thing,” Boonen said. “Until the classics, everything is training and taking advantage of the time I have remaining. I will do the maximum here. Every day will be a test to stay in the group and in the mountains. I will have to max-out just to finish. I hope to improve over the next week.”
Boonen says defending his Flanders and Roubaix crowns are the most important goals for the season.
He’s even leaving a start in the Tour de France up in the air because he’s solely focused on the spring classics and the highly anticipated showdown with Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) and rising talent Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
But will he be ready? That’s the million-dollar question that even Boonen says he won’t know the answer to until crunch time in the marathon, six-hour stampedes across the bergs and pavé.
“I have no idea. I feel pretty good, I feel healthy, but I have no idea what it will be like in the last hour of the classics,” Boonen said. “The first time I will truly know is during that last hour, when everything is in play.”
Whether Boonen blows up or can manage to blow up the races like he did last year depends greatly on what happens this week at Paris-Nice.
Milano-Sanremo becomes a ‘training’ race
With his condition uncertain, Boonen has all but thrown in the towel on the season’s first classic at Milano-Sanremo on March 17.
“That is not realistic. I will try to be there. It’s also good training; it’s 300km,” Boonen told VeloNews. “But right now, it’s not realistic [to try to win].”
Boonen has a bittersweet relationship with Milano-Sanremo, the one monument tailored to his racing style that has so far eluded him.
In 10 straight starts in the season’s first and longest classic, his best results in “la primavera” were second in 2010 and third in 2007.
With his best sprinting days behind him, Boonen all but admits he may never win the Italian classic.
“You never know at Milano-Sanremo, but condition-wise, I will not be at my best,” he said. “Of course, I will race. I need to do all those races now.”
When asked about Boonen’s prospects at Milano-Sanremo, Peters just shrugged and added with a laugh, “Tom will be good for the big races.”
The first “big” races are E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, March 22-23, less than three weeks away. Boonen will push all the way to zero-kilometer at Harelbeke to prepare for the monuments to follow.