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Boonen using Paris-Nice to hone Roubaix form

VENDOME, France (VN) — Tom Boonen was not a happy camper Monday after a cold, long, and miserable day on the bike. Wind, rain, and even snow slashed the peloton for four-and-a-half hours, and the Etixx – Quick-Step superstar was steamed.

“They have these rules, but they don’t enforce them,” Boonen fumed as he rode the rollers after finishing sixth in the Paris-Nice stage. “It’s minus-3C, it’s snowing, and we’re out there for 200km in the cold, but is anything done about it? No.”

You can’t blame Boonen for venting. Everyone in the peloton agreed it was a cold, tense, and nervous stage, with some insisting that conditions were so cold that the UCI’s extreme weather protocol could have been enforced. With organizers adding two sectors of dirt roads and a short but steep climb over two laps on a narrow, technical closing circuit, the peloton was nervous.

And Boonen had another reason to be on edge Monday. It was one year ago, in the first stage of the 2015 Paris-Nice, that he crashed and wrecked his shoulder, an injury that torpedoed his classics campaign.

After venting, the Belgian superstar quickly admitted this kind of hard-man shellacking is just what he needs coming into the spring classics.

“I don’t like the cold. I never have,” Boonen muttered. “I am happy to be up in the front today.”

Monday’s 198km first stage saw intense racing despite, or perhaps due to, the wintery weather. With many of the riders in the peloton coming from warm-weather training camps or racing in such places as Australia or the Middle East, Europe’s wintry gusts were a shock to the system. In the closing hour of racing, the main pack fractured under heavy crosswinds before hitting two laps on the closing circuit. Etixx’s main sprinter, Marcel Kittel, got gapped on the final climb with less than 3km to go, opening the door for Boonen to try his luck.

“When the peloton split, I worked to keep the break going. After Marcel was dropped, I tried to do my own sprint,” Boonen said after kicking to sixth. “For me, it was very important to finish safely and gain kilometers before the classics. Now I’ll try to recover after this hard stage, and continue to improve in the coming days.”

Getting through Paris-Nice healthy and in one piece is essential to Boonen’s quest for historic wins at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) or Paris-Roubaix, still a month away. Boonen shook off a minor cold before Paris-Nice, but Etixx sport director Tom Steels said Boonen’s form is coming up just in time for an April peak.

“He was a little bit sick, but he’s back on the right way,” Steels told VeloNews. “He had a very bad crash at the end of last season, so the training over the winter was not like it usually is, so things are a little bit later than usual. The last few races, we’re seeing he is going well. He will be ready for the classics.”

By his own admission, Boonen’s classics preparation was delayed by his nasty crash at the Abu Dhabi Tour in October that left him with partial hearing loss. He’s since been playing catch-up, but the team is quietly hopeful Boonen can peak for the northern classics, one last hurrah. The Belgian superstar has been stymied by injuries, poor health, and bad luck over the past few seasons. His last major wins over the cobblestones came in 2012, when he pulled off his second career Flanders-Roubaix double.

“Let’s not forget he’s a special rider,” Steels said of Boonen. “He is still who is. He is very strong, very gifted, and he can recover faster than anyone else. There is no doubt that he is going to be good in the races he needs to be.”

With Boonen in a race against the clock to hit his form in time for “holy week” across the cobbles, his longtime arch-rival Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) is already flying high, taking a huge win Saturday at Strade Bianche.

When asked if he watched Cancellara win Strade Bianche, Boonen only replied, “No, I was on the train to Paris.”