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Boonen ‘not the same’

GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Belgian Tom Boonen is not the same after his crash in Abu Dhabi last year and it will be touch and go if he is ready to contend in the upcoming monuments, says team Etixx–Quick-Step.

The classics great, who counts three Tour of Flanders and four Paris-Roubaix titles on his palmares, crashed last October in the Abu Dhabi Tour and fractured his skull.

“This isn’t the same Boonen,” sports director Wilfried Peeters said Friday at the E3 Harelbeke in Belgium.

Boonen quickly became Belgian’s best one-day cobbled cyclist. He has won a world championship title and stages and a green jersey from the Tour de France, but favors the harsh races of northern Europe. If he wins either Flanders or Roubaix this year, he would set a record. He already holds one for E3 Harelbeke, where he won five times. Yesterday, he managed 14th.

It seems that the rider that Belgians considered their classics king no longer has such a sparkling crown. Despite a stomach problem that knocked him out of the E3 Harelbeke, Belgian Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) appears more brilliant. Or even Swiss and long-time Boonen rival Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo), who is racing his last season.

Such mediocrity raises questions with Belgium’s Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) right around the corner next Sunday and Paris-Roubaix over the border in northern France the following Sunday.

“It will be close if he will be there for the monuments,” team boss Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews. “He’s close, but he needs some luck as well. He will be ready, maybe not yet for Flanders, but a week later in Roubaix.”

Sports director Tom Steels told of a complicated comeback for Boonen, who has already suffered setbacks with a knee injury, crashes, and last year a fractured collarbone. Due to the setback, he was behind a month in training.

“It was a big bang and took a while for him to recover. He then had to work on his condition,” Steels explained while Boonen climbed on his bike before E3.

“At the first training camp, he suffered in the first three days, but then began to follow the guys. Is the winning edge there? I think so. He’s a winner. He will always be a winner, that’s not going to change.”

35-year-old Boonen last won a cobbled monument in 2012. The landscaped changed since the days he and Cancellara went head to head for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Now a range of other riders can challenge for the win as well. Easily, a handful of riders comes to mind: Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Van Avermaet. Last year’s Roubaix winner John Degenkolb (Giant – Alpecin) is out after a training crash.

“It’s a very competitive field. You can at least count 10 riders with different qualities and tactics that can change the way of the course,” Steels said. “No longer just Cancellara and Boonen … It’s much more competitive. It was competitive before, but now you see the competition is a bit level.”

Insiders also question whether Boonen will continue past 2016. His contract ends this year, and Lefevere did not want to offer a renewal that only ran through classics. Instead, they will sit down later this summer. How those talks go will depend much on the upcoming monuments over the next two weeks.