By Jason Sumner
Metaphorically, the pan flat roads of the upcoming Tour of Qatar are the perfect place for Tom Boonen to kick off his 2010 season. The six-day UCI Asia Tour event that starts February 7 features nary a climb, making Boonen among the favorites for overall victory in a race he’s already won a record three times.
More importantly, Boonen is looking for a smoother ride following a 2009 season that spiked and dipped like the Dow Jones. Despite a steady campaign that included a Belgian national championship title and his third Paris-Roubaix crown, Boonen made far more headlines for his second positive cocaine test in two years, an indiscretion that came to light early last May.
Boonen was initially suspended by his Quick Step team, and he nearly missed his second straight Tour de France before organizers softened, allowing the popular rider to start. But clemency was the only thing Boonen won at the Tour, and after a disappointing first 14 stages, he dropped out and went home.
A year later, those closest to Boonen claim he’s a changed man — at least that’s the hope.
“I can’t say he’s a new Tom Boonen, because this year he will have 30 years in his legs,” said Quick Step general manager Patrick Lefevere during the squad’s recent team presentation at the Velofollies cycling trade show in Kortrijk, Belgium. “As a person, he did mistakes like a lot of people do. But I really hope he doesn’t repeat those stupid things he’s done in the past. He’s a very good guy, and a good rider, and I think he understands what he’s done in the past and won’t repeat it.”
His teammates concur, calling the 2010 Boonen more relaxed than in years past. “There is just something a little easier about his character,” claimed Kevin Seeldraeyers, himself a star of the future following his white jersey win at the ’09 Giro d’Italia. “We all think Tom is better this year, at least that is what we hope.”
You can’t blame Lefevere and the others for their optimism about Boonen. When on form, the former U.S. Postal Service rider has proven himself a consistent winner, boasting a resume that includes the aforementioned trifecta of Roubaix titles, two Tour of Flanders crowns, the 2005 world title, and a Tour de France green jersey.
“Despite last year, to me he is still one of the big stars of cycling, along with Lance, Cancellara and Contador,” said Lefevere.
Notably absent from that list is Mark Cavendish, the man widely regarded as the world’s top sprinter, and a rider Boonen couldn’t match at last year’s Tour. But defeat doesn’t necessarily breed respect, and Boonen is quite candid about his feelings toward the HTC-Columbia star. “He’s not my kind of person,” said Boonen. “I’m just not very into his character.”
This year, Boonen and Quick Step may also take a pass on squaring off head-to-head with Cavendish and HTC, instead opting to pick and choose their mode of attack.
“First you have to wait and see if they will be as fast as everyone seems to think,” said Boonen, alluding to HTC’s one-two punch of Cavendish and recent Tour Down Under winner Andre Greipel. “If they are then you have to change the tactic a little bit. There are a lot of good races that you can still win with a few good guys trying to get away before the sprint. And the negative side of having the two fastest guys in the world is that you are always going to have to ride. No one will work with them, and that will give us some more possibilities.”
Of course, sprinting against HTC is only a secondary concern for Quick Step, a distinctly Belgian team with Belgian title sponsors and Belgian-centric goals. As usual, No. 1 on that list is the early Spring Classics. Quick Step scored the double last year, with Stijn Devolder winning his second straight Tour of Flanders a week ahead of Boonen’s Roubaix triumph.
“Of course I would like to do well in the Tour and some other races this year, but my heart is always with the Classics,” said Boonen, who this year will have a chance to tie countryman Roger De Vlaeminck for most career Paris-Roubaix wins. “For me it’s important to take care of your first objective 100 percent and then think of your other objectives. Right now my mind is set on the cobblestones.”
If Boonen falters in April, he’s says goal No. 2 will come at season’s end, when the cycling world heads back Down Under for the 2010 world championships in Melbourne, Australia.
“I’ll have to survive the season first,” said Boonen in what was either an acknowledgment of cycling’s on-the-road dangers, or a subtle nod to the ongoing battle with his inner demons. “But I’ve checked out the worlds course on DVD and I think I can do well there.”
Lefevere also sees opportunity at the Tour de France, where Boonen owns six career stage wins and the 2007 green jersey.
“I don’t think that Tom is slower than before, it’s just that the young guys are coming up,” said Lefevere. “But we must remember that it was not Cavendish who was winning the green jersey in the Tour. It was another guy (Cervelo TestTeam rider Thor Hushovd), who wasn’t winning stages either. So I think Tom can still fight for the green.”
Lefevere also had a prediction for yellow, guessing as Saxo Bank’s Bjarne Riis did earlier in the year, that American Lance Armstrong doesn’t have enough left in the tank to knock off reigning champion Alberto Contador.
“I am a big fan of Lance, for I at one time had the same illness,” said Lefevere. “But I agree with Bjarne. With no bad luck Contador will win, no discussion about it.”
Lefevere can only hope the same holds true for his star rider, and that discussion is reserved for on-the-bike accomplishments, not off-the-bike infractions.