By Andrew Hood

The rainbow curse is something that doesn’t exist, says Boonen. Who can argue with that?

Photo: AFP

Tom Boonen is the new leading light of cycling.

The strapping world champion seems to be the sparkle in everyone’s eye, from salty old cycling fans to Belgian beauties who swoon at the very sight of him in his rainbow jersey.

At 24, Boonen has replaced the retired Lance Armstrong as the top draw among fans, at least if crowds outside team buses at spring races are any fair barometer of riders’ magnetism.

Boonen-mania seems to be in full flight and there’s no sign of it abating anytime soon. Dubbed a Merckx for a new century, Boonen is poised to defend his double Flanders-Roubaix titles starting with this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.

VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with “Tornado Tom” during Paris-Nice earlier this month. Read a story about him in the next issue of VeloNews, here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: Winning seems to be coming easy so far this season, does it still evoke the same satisfaction?

Tom Boonen: It’s always nice to win, because it’s a different situation and different feelings. We are trying to get everything working perfectly for the team, so these early races are very important. True, it’s a different feeling than when I first started winning races a few years ago. If I win a stage at Paris-Nice, it’s very pleasing, but it’s not the same explosion of joy you experience as if you win one of the big classics. I feel that same exultation again and it’s more satisfying when I win a big race.

VN: You’ve been the center of attention since last year, how are you dealing with all the media?

TB: For me, things don’t change. I’m still the same guy I was four or five years ago, the only difference now is that I am winning big races. People like it when a champion can win important races. For me, it’s not just a job, it’s a passion. But it’s not for me to decide if I’m the new big star in cycling. That’s for others to decide.

VN: I’ve heard you’ve given more than 400 interviews since winning the rainbow jersey?

TB: You need to ask our press chief! I know we get 25 calls a day asking for interviews. The journalists ask a lot from me, but it’s okay.

VN: You’ve had a good start to the season, obviously there’s no rainbow jersey curse for you?

TB: The rainbow curse is something that doesn’t exist. If you’re able to win the world championships, you can win other races as well. What comes with the rainbow jersey is pressure, and if you’re good with pressure, you can deal with the rainbow jersey.

VN: Dealing with the increased media and sponsor demands isn’t a problem for you then?

TB: I’ve been able to grow as a rider and become more mature and I’ve been able to handle the demands. I like it. It’s not a problem.

VN: You recently moved to Monaco, was that in part to escape from some of the hysteria following you in Belgium?

TB: I was still able to live in Belgium, but people were trying to get me everywhere. And it wasn’t just that. It’s also the taxes. It’s also much easier to do good training in Monaco. There’s a 25-degree (Celsius) difference between Belgian and Monaco in the winter. It was the necessary next step in my progression as a rider.

VN: It obviously hasn’t distracted from the business of racing your bike?

TB: The goals stay the same for me. My season starts with the spring classics. These are the most important races of the year for me. Things are going well. I am very confident. Then I will take a break and come back for the Tour and the world championships.

VN: Do you ever imagine you might be able to transform yourself like George Hincapie has and race for more in July?

TB: When I go to the Tour de France, it’s to win stages. Maybe I can get the jersey for a few days. I’ll never be able to strive for the podium, I know that already. What the people like is a rider who’s winning stages in the big tours. What they care about is how he reacts when he wins.

VN: How have you changed your preparation or training ahead of this year’s classics?

TB: I’ve trained differently this season, it’s true. I’ve made specific training in my program in January and February. I feel good about it. I’m not doing those long six-seven rides any more, it’s more about intensity. At this point of my career, it’s not about getting the base strength when I was a young pro four or five years ago. Now I have the necessary endurance. I have the base to build up from. Now the workouts are more specifically based on what I need to win.