KORTRIK, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is only thinking about one thing come Sunday, and that’s victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
Forget the hype, the personal trauma, or the hint of a thumb injury. His rivalry with Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing)? Doesn’t matter. Come Sunday, the 33-year-old Belgian superstar will have tunnel vision toward the Flanders finish line.
“Winning the race is what’s important, that’s what’s playing in my mind,” Boonen said Friday at a press conference. “The way you win is not even important. Against whom or how, I really don’t care about. First you try to get on the podium, then you try to win the race.”
Omega Pharma is hopeful its powerful and deep team, that also includes Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra as co-leaders, can deliver a victory.
Boonen stands tall, thanks to his record-tying three victories.
His approach to the 2014 classics was unfolding ideally until a few weeks ago, when his partner suffered a miscarriage that sent Boonen into the dumps. He skipped Milano-Sanremo before returning to racing at E3 Harelbeke. Then he crashed early in the race, injuring his thumb in what could have been a lot worse.
“His thumb is OK, but we were lucky. It was blue and swollen, but there was enough time to recover,” said Omega Pharma sport director Wilfried Peeters. “Tom is ready. Now we see on Sunday what happens.”
Much like his archrival Cancellara, Boonen is only motivated by major wins and cementing his place in history. Collecting trophies is not what’s important. Winning more monuments is.
“To win again? It’s the highest achievable goal. It’s why I still do it, all the hard days of training, getting up, going to the gym,” Boonen continued. “You don’t make all the sacrifices to win more stages in a small race. You want to win the big classics.”
Boonen is intent on reasserting himself in the classics. After a stellar 2012 campaign, he crashed out of Flanders early last year, missed Paris-Roubaix, and then ended his season early to deal with lingering problems with saddle sores.
A fit and motivated Boonen roared into 2014, taking some early wins and putting his rivals on notice. He seems intent on pressing forward despite his personal drama, simply because the classics are so important.
These races have defined his career, and he knows he doesn’t have that many more chances to win.
“Knowing it’s the second or third to last chance, it makes it worse,” Boonen said of pre-race nerves. “It’s a healthy sensation at the race start, but it’s worse than it is before.”
Yet at the same time, Boonen knows his place in history is secure. With three Flanders trophies and four from Roubaix, Boonen is the undisputed king of the cobbles.
When asked if he feels pressure to win what would be a record fourth Ronde trophy, Boonen replied that rather than feel the weight of expectations, his past success serves as a type of liberation.
“I don’t see it as a pressure. It’s kind of relaxing, knowing I’ve won it a few times already,” Boonen said. “Everything is possible. If I don’t win, it’s my fault.”
Sitting beside him in Friday’s packed press conference were Stybar and Terpstra. When asked who could surprise on Sunday, Boonen replied, “Maybe one of these two guys.”
Terpstra is clearly on good form, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen and taking second at E3 Harelbeke. He was poised to win Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne), but struggled with problems with his pedal and missed the podium.
Stybar, too, is another strong podium challenger. Last year, he posted a breakout ride with a sixth-place finish at Paris-Roubaix, but he said Flanders is a race that suits him even better.
“I am really looking forward to Sunday. I feel good, I am ready,” Stybar said. “Last year, I had a nice race at Roubaix, but as I said before, Flanders is better for me than Roubaix. I still need confirmation to see which race suits me in the best way.”
Boonen described Omega Pharma’s depth as a “luxury,” adding that, “it’s always better with a few teammates. It’s not always me who has to win. The team has to win.”
Boonen also criticized changes in the route for the third year in a row, saying that classics courses should remain largely untouched through the ages.
In its latest version, most of the decisive climbs are packed into the final 50 kilometers of the race, a change that Boonen said could have a major impact.
“It could make it difficult to start racing earlier in the final. It will be difficult to race before 50km to go, many will be waiting,” he said. “It doesn’t make the race any harder. We just have to wait to see how everyone races it.”
Boonen said he will line up Sunday focused on winning, secure in his palmares, yet nervous about the possibility of becoming the first man to win four Flanders titles.
With time running out on his career, he wants to make the most of the opportunity. Boonen, more than anyone, knows that everything has to go just right to have a chance to win.
“If I take the start, I am always capable of winning,” he said. “I am not the big favorite for Sunday. I was back on the right sensation mentally to do the race in Gent-Wevelgem. I had good sensations Wednesday in a training ride. I am looking forward to giving it my best on Sunday.”