VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — Two superstars and only one rainbow jersey usually add up to disaster in world championships, but the Belgian squad of Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert insists there’s unity going into Sunday’s battle up the Cauberg.
Boonen and Gilbert will line up in Maastricht on Sunday morning as five-star favorites to win the world title and both say that having each other on the same team is a bonus, not a distraction.
“Having Tom in great shape on the same team will only be good for both of us,” Gilbert told journalists Friday morning. “Having Tom behind me for a sprint will give me more space to attack. We will race well together.”
Boonen sat there nodding in agreement.
Belgium will line up with a deep, nine-man squad that features not only favorites such as Gilbert and 2005 world champ Boonen, but others, such as Greg Van Avermaet and Bjorn Leukemans, two riders that can cover early moves for their team captains.
The team’s clear leaders will be Boonen and Gilbert, both of whom arrive in Valkenburg with high hopes and strong individual ambitions.
Boonen has enjoyed a renaissance this year, dominating the spring classics in a revenge season after a few sub-par campaigns. An unprecedented sweep through the cobbled classics elevated him back to the elite of the sport and though he has struggled at times since his legendary solo Paris-Roubaix win, Boonen is a top favorite for his second rainbow jersey.
Gilbert, meanwhile, has struggled following his spectacular 2011 season, only winning his first races at the Vuelta a España last month. Gilbert won the Amstel Gold Race, which features the Cauberg finish climb, in 2011 and the Spanish tour set him up nicely for this weekend’s battle.
“I won two stages at the Vuelta and came out of the race feeling very strong,” Gilbert said. “Things didn’t go as well as I hoped during the classics or the Olympics. The truth is I feel very good right now… Anything can happen at the worlds and we’re ready to play our cards.”
Gilbert and Boonen are Belgium’s biggest stars and are among the most popular and successful riders in the contemporary peloton.
That each of them is hitting his peak for this year’s world championships could create tension inside the Belgian team tent. The two have never been under the same banner when both have been at the peak of their powers.
Boonen was already world champion in 2005 when Gilbert was just finding his feet in the peloton. Boonen struggled over the past few years as Gilbert’s star took orbit.
Having them both at these worlds, close to Belgium, with so much at stake perhaps creates the most potentially explosive dynamic in the race. And having one of them the hero of French-speaking Wallonne and the other the king of Flanders creates an even more potentially volatile situation on Sunday.
Spain also has a very strong team, perhaps too strong, with too many captains, while other squads also have multi-headed attacks, including the Americans and even the Brits, but none have two top-shelf favorites under the same banner as the Belgians do. Yet Boonen and Gilbert insist that each balances the other. Gilbert’s the attacker; Boonen the pure sprinter-turned-cobbles basher. In fact, Boonen should be more of an outsider on a course similar to the one where Gilbert won back-to-back Amstel Gold Races in 2010 and 2011.
For both of them, these worlds are incredibly important. Gilbert is still looking for an elusive rainbow jersey that would help “complete” his palmarès, especially after missing out on an Olympic medal earlier this summer.
For Boonen, who already owns a world title from Madrid in 2005, a strong world championships would confirm him as one of cycling’s greats and his 2012 campaign as one for all time.
Although the Valkenburg course is not, at least on paper, ideal for his style of riding, Boonen believes he has good chances to win. After the time trials earlier this week, many riders are expecting a less selective race than originally thought over the Limburg circuits.
“I am in good shape and so is Phil. We will have our chances,” Boonen said. “I think it will all happen on the last lap. I think the Spanish will help to control the race. The fact that the finish line is almost two kilometers after the Cauberg changes everything. It will be nothing like Amstel Gold.”
While Gilbert raced in Spain, Boonen skipped the Vuelta a España in favor of another preparation. He said the 10 mountaintop finishes were “too much” for him.
In fact, this year’s challenging Vuelta parcours scared away many world champion candidates, meaning that the worlds could crown a winner that hasn’t passed through the Vuelta for the first time since 2000 when Romans Vainsteins won.
Boonen, who’s finally put three years of injuries and bad luck behind him, says he’s more than well-prepared for the worlds and ready to do everything to win.
“Gilbert can do his own thing. He can have freedom to attack. I will need the help of the team to win, especially if the race breaks up,” Boonen said. “The Vuelta was too hard for me. I decided not to go there after seeing how hard the route was. I made a perfect preparation. I haven’t been this good for the worlds in a long time.”
The general tactic for the Belgians will be for Gilbert to act as a solo agent and the rest of the team to work for Boonen to bring the race down to a reduced bunch sprint.
The big question is whether Boonen can get up and over the Cauberg with the punchy, explosive riders such as Joaquim Rodríguez (Spain) and Simon Gerrans (Australia) to truly challenge for the victory.
Gilbert says he will use the presence of Boonen to his advantage.
“If I can get into a breakaway, it will benefit me because I can say to the others I have Tom waiting for the sprint and I cannot work,” Gilbert said. “Tom will be strong for the sprint and I can try to look for opportunities.”
Of course, saying that at a press conference in front of the world’s media is one thing; doing it on the road on Sunday with the world title in play is something quite different.
What will Gilbert do if he and Boonen hit the base of the Cauberg together? Follow the attacks, naturally. What will happen if Gilbert looks around and sees that Boonen made it up the Cauberg with a chance to win a sprint? The world will have to wait and see.
The Gilbert-Boonen dynamic will be one of the most interesting dramas to play out in crunch time. Of course, the legs ultimately have the last word.