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Etixx – Quick-Step is unconcerned by criticism...

Boonen tells Etixx critics not to panic

Tom Boonen and the Belgian Etixx super team aren't concerned about criticism heading into Tour of Flanders, the season's biggest race.

KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — It’s the same scenario every spring. Etixx – Quick-Step has all the pressure to win. And when the Belgian “home team” doesn’t, it’s a national scandal.

This year, the pressure is piled on even heavier. Etixx hasn’t won Flanders since 2012. Belgian superstar Tom Boonen is admittedly off top form, and so far in the early spring classics, Etixx has done a great job of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.

Yet there’s no sign of panic inside the Etixx camp. Everything that’s happened so far in the lead-up to 100th edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) won’t count Sunday, and Etixx knows that better than any team.

“The race Sunday will tell the story,” said Etixx boss Patrick Lefevere. “Every year, it’s the same, with the media making their stories. The only story that counts is who wins Ronde.”

Despite the singular dominance of such riders as Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) so far this spring, no team can match Etixx in terms of depth and experience. With veteran leaders like Boonen, Zdenek Stybar, and Niki Terpstra, no one should discount the team come.

Hobbled by a crash last fall at the Abu Dhabi Tour that left him partially deaf, three-time Flanders winner Boonen admitted he’s short of top form, but insisted the team is better than ever.

“If I am honest, I will not be the big favorite Sunday,” Boonen said. “Let’s not panic. There are one or two guys who are one percent stronger than everyone else. This year, we have a very strong team, but we are missing that one guy who is one percent better than everyone else.”

Can the team’s collective strength make up for that small, vital difference, and deliver the win? As Lefevere said, Sunday’s race will tell the story, but Etixx is against the ropes. Boonen almost appears to have one eye on Paris-Roubaix next week. Stybar was clearly off his best at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, still reeling from the effects of crashing into a stray dog on the descent off the Cipressa at Milano-Sanremo two weeks ago. It’s Terpstra, winner of the 2014 Roubaix and runner-up last year, who could be the team’s best option Sunday.

“I won’t be helping in the chase,” Terpstra said with a laugh. “I am feeling really strong at the moment. The team is also strong. We have a strong block, and we will work together going into the final. Then we will see who has the legs.”

That strength in numbers has always been Etixx’s big advantage over other teams, especially squads like Tinkoff or Katusha, which are putting all their bets on one rider. That’s how Terpstra won Roubaix in 2014, when he attacked out of a group of 10 that included two other Etixx teammates.

The team is optimistic its “strength-in-numbers” strategy will bear fruit Sunday in what is arguably the most important week of the season. Behind the three leaders are other cards to play, including Matteo Trentin, cobbles rookie Tony Martin, and old-school head-banger Stijn Vandenbergh. In 2014, Vandenbergh followed an early attack by Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), but the team ordered him to sit on the wheel until Boonen could bridge across. This year, these others might have freedom to fly.

“I have no regrets about what happened in 2014. That’s what the team pays me for,” Vandenbergh said. “Maybe this year, if I am in the same situation, the team will tell me to ride. Together we are always stronger.”

Spin it as they may, but the reality is that Etixx has not won Flanders in four years. The team has been racking up wins across the calendar — 20 wins with 10 different riders — but so far they haven’t notched a major one-day classic win. Terpstra won Le Samyn in early March and Stybar was second to Cancellara at Strade Bianche. For a team with as much history and pedigree as Etixx, it’s only Flanders or Roubaix that truly matter.

Etixx is always close, however, and things can just as easily tip their way. Last year, only a super-fit Kristoff beat Terpstra. In 2014, Vandenbergh was fourth, with Terpstra sixth and Boonen seventh. From 2007 to 2012, a Quick-Step rider either won or finished second in Flanders.

“The strongest riders always ride away,” Boonen said. “The objective is always the same. The media likes to put their stamp on it. Let’s see what happens. There is not a big difference in the approach to the race. Some years you’re ahead, some years you’re behind. The battle comes Sunday.”