OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen’s form has been hanging in the balance all spring, with last year’s king of the cobbles battling back from an infection he sustained mountain biking over the winter. On Sunday, he abandoned Ghent-Wevelgem after a crash.
On Tuesday, the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider found himself at VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne). He was at the front at times, taking long pulls and stretching out the main field in a fruitless hope of bringing the race back together for teammate Mark Cavendish. It was clear the Belgian was inflicting pain on the elastic peloton, but it was less obvious if he was putting himself into difficulty following Sunday’s crash that injured his knee.
Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, though, said Boonen still must be considered among the top favorites for Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
“You saw him many times in front of the group, on the hard part of the route. He showed he’s going with the condition,” Sagan said Tuesday. “I think we have to put Boonen in the group of the favorites for the Flanders.”
Boonen won Flanders last year and went on to win Paris-Roubaix, highlights of a dominant spring in which he also triumphed in Ghent–Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke. This year has been much more difficult for Belgium’s national hero.
“He still has a little pain. Like you know if your fingers are sleeping? This little bit of feeling in his knee,” said Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere. “He raced [Tuesday], went really, really deep.”
If he can make it through Wednesday’s 206-kilometer stage 2 at De Panne and feel strong, Lefevere said, “then we have to think about how we can beat the beast Sagan on Sunday.”
Omega Pharma, however, has more cards to play other than Boonen, although none are as successful on the cobbles. Lefevere wasn’t sure of his status for Sunday’s race, not just yet.
“The difficulties that Tom had with [his] health since December, it’s not so sure,” Lefevere said. “He’s still there. If you see when he was pulling [Tuesday] in the final, the whole bunch was like, ‘One kilometer. It’s Tom Boonen.’ But that means that he had good legs.
“But on Sunday, maybe for us it’s OK if [Niki] Terpstra, [Sylvain] Chavanel, [Tom] Boonen have the shape they have today, we can play different cards. Of course, [Fabian] Cancellara and Sagan are racing. But it’s not me to give him advice. I think it’s to us to think, ‘How are we going to beat him?’”
That’s been a riddle difficult to solve.