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Boonen, 35, remains confident after classics drought

CALPE, Spain (VN) — Tom Boonen patiently made the rounds at media day during Etixx-Quick-Step’s pre-season training camp. First TV, then the Belgians, and finally the English-language press. At nearly every stop, he got the same question and, whether he said it in French, Flemish, or English, he gave the same answer: yes, I believe I can win another monument.

“I still think I can win,” Boonen said. “If I didn’t, I would have stopped already.”

At 35, Boonen clearly has nothing to prove. He’s won the rainbow jersey, worn the yellow jersey, and won more northern classics than anyone riding in the peloton today. With three Flanders, four Roubaixs, and five Harelbekes, he is already considered one of the greatest classics riders ever.

Yet he’s still driven to train and race. Why? Because he says he loves it.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like it, and still didn’t believe I could win,” Boonen said. “I have thought about how nice it would be to not have to worry about weight, but I am still motivated. I don’t want to be sitting at a desk yet.”

Yet it’s been three years since his last major wins — in 2012, he won the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix back-to-back for the second time in his career — but Boonen clearly enjoys his job.

Boonen admits he feels snake-bit since his 2012 double, and hopes he can enter this year’s spring classics in fighting form.

“After the bad luck I’ve had the past three years, I deserve it,” he said. “I am working to be ready for those big races that I love.”

Boonen certainly has his fair share of bad luck. In 2013, he suffered with an off-season infected elbow that nearly resulted in his arm being amputated, an injury that set back his preparation. That year, he did not finish Milano-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem, or Flanders, and he did not start Roubaix. The following year, Boonen looked thinner and fitter than ever, delivering his fifth career win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, only to see Fabian Cancellara roar away with a Flanders victory. A long-distance bid at Roubaix fell short, and team dynamics opened the door for Niki Terpstra to ride away from an elite group of 10 to win Roubaix. And last year, once again looking trim, he missed the entire spring calendar after injuring his shoulder at Paris-Nice. Goodbye cobblestones.

Last fall, just when he looked to be back in form after notching four mid-season wins, he was knocked to the ground in an innocuous fall at the Abu Dhabi Tour in October. Proving yet again that any crash can have consequences, Boonen landed so hard he was bleeding from his left ear, and has even lost some of his hearing as a result of the crash. He was off the bike for eight weeks and doctors were initially saying it might be six.

In November, he received the green light to resume training, and he said he’s feeling as good as he did this time last year. His fingers are crossed.

“I am not 100 percent right now, but I am about where I usually am this time of year,” Boonen said. “I will be ready for the big races. I’d love to win another Roubaix. I’ve already won it four times, more than I ever expected. It’s a race that’s given a lot to me, and I’d love to have another cobblestone [trophy].”

At 36, Boonen knows retirement is looming, but he’s not putting a date on it yet. The Belgian superstar can still draw a crowd. In what could be his final year — he isn’t giving too much away — more than 65 journalists showed up at the Etixx-Quick-Step media day, and at least half were Belgian.

Boonen sounded optimistic about his immediate future, insisting he will be in top shape for the spring classics despite his nasty fall in Abu Dhabi. He’s signed a one-year contract through the end of this year. There’s speculation he could race another half season in 2017, saying farewell after one last rumble across the pavé, but Boonen insists he’s not thinking too much about that.

“I have two days circled on my calendar,” said Boonen, referring to Flanders and Roubaix. “I’d love to win another big one. I am just as motivated as I was when I started.”

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