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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — The smile across Tom Boonen’s face was visible from 500 meters away as the big Belgian crossed the finish line first in Harelbeke Friday afternoon.
The win, ahead of Spaniard Oscar Freire (Katusha) in a photo finish, was meaningful on multiple levels to the rider affectionately known as “Tommeke.”
Beyond the result itself, the victory, Boonen’s fifth at Harelbeke, gives him the record, one ahead of Belgian Rik Van Looy, who won Harelbeke four times between 1964 and 1969. (Boonen won four consecutive times, from 2004-2007.)
And more than the record, it proves that the Omega Pharma-Quick Step captain is on form heading into next weekend’s Tour of Flanders, the most important race in Belgium.
Before then Boonen will head to Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday, where he will be both the defending champion and a heavy pre-race favorite.
“This takes away the pressure a little bit, I’ve already won one of these races,” Boonen said. “I can be a little more relaxed in the days that are coming.”
Prior to the race Boonen told VeloNews.com that he had been looking forward to Harelbeke “for a long time,” adding that he’d been “really disappointed” at Milan-San Remo when he was caught behind a crash on the descent of the Poggio and lost contact with the leaders.
“Harelbeke marks the start of races I like a lot,” Boonen said, adding that his form is better than it’s been in ages. “It took a lot of work to get here. This is the start of a very important week.”
Five hours later, Boonen was all smiles at the finish, hugging team staff, spectators and even riders from competing teams.
“I am happy,” Boonen said when asked about his post-race emotions. “I am very happy. This has always been a special race for me, and after winning it four times in a row, everyone has been waiting for me to get the fifth, to take the record. I’ve been beaten two times here since [and missed the race two times], and it’s made me more eager to try.”
Boonen said that part of his joy came from winning in a close sprint.
“Winning in a sprint like that is much different than winning solo,” he said. “Everything happens in a moment, it’s explosive, and so are your emotions.”
Boonen was also quick to thank his team, and sing praises of teammate Sylvain Chavanel, who — as he did at the Tour of Flanders last year — got into a late-race breakaway, allowing Boonen to sit in.
“It’s already important that we really connect, we’re good friends, we don’t have problems riding or helping each other,” Boonen said. “Chava is an aggressive rider, and it worked out because today he was not there all the time, but he got back on at the right moment and then went up the road. It’s important to have Chava there, and with a little luck he could have won today. For him it’s nice, working together with me and the other guys. The strength of this team is that everyone is on a good level,, and that we are tight, we’re all close together. I think we have already won with nine or 10 riders this year, I think that tells it all.”