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Exclusive: Tom Boonen talks Quick-Step’s classics misery, Pogačar, and van der Poel

‘I could tell six weeks ago that Quick-Step wouldn't win a classic,’ says four-time Paris-Roubaix winner.

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Tom Boonen has tipped Mathieu van der Poel for the win in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, while adding that Tadej Pogačar is one of the best riders he’s ever seen, and that Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s classics campaign was over before it truly started due to illness.

Speaking exclusively to VeloNews at the Sea Otter Classic in California, Boonen —who now works for Classified Cycling — sat down to talk classics, retirement, and the current crop of riders who are competing for top honors in the cobbled classics.

The four-time Paris-Roubaix, and three-time Tour of Flanders winner said that he had been disappointed by his former squad’s results on the cobbles but that their inability to win outside of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne earlier in the year was down to illness rather than talent or lack of recruitment.

“I was at the Tour of Flanders and I’ve been following the classics very closely. With Quick-Step, it’s just been down to bad luck and more bad luck,” Boonen told VeloNews.

“They’ve had sickness all over the team, and I said on a podcast five or six weeks ago that they could forget this year’s spring classics. They were not going to make it. If you have seven or eight guys who are sick in your classics team then you can forget it. You can’t make up for it. If it’s an entire team, and the sickness was just inside of the classics team because they were trying to stay together, so in one week they all got sick. From then it was all over. It’s about next year.”

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Boonen spearheaded Patrick Lefevere’s teams for more than a decade and was a regular fixture in the spring classics. The former world champion saw Quick-Step evolve over the years and before his retirement in 2017, he had seen the Belgian squad evolve several times over.

At one point the team roster listed Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Philippe Gilbert but these days the classics squad revolves around Kasper Asgreen. There is still depth within the current lineup and Boonen believes that despite Jumbo Visma and Alpecin Fenix both holding more accomplished team leaders, Quick-Step still has the needed armory to compete if they are healthy.

“Kasper is more than enough and no matter what you ask about the team it all comes down to their sickness. Without illness, they would have been there and Asgreen would have been up there and competing for the win. He was almost there in Flanders but Lampaert was sick, Štybar was sick, Asgreen was sick, Declercq wasn’t even sure if he could ride his bike anymore but with all that bad luck you can’t expect results,” Boonen said.

“Also when you start getting demotivated about it, it just makes it worse. They still have a strong classics team but they just don’t have a leader like Jumbo-Visma or Alpecin-Fenix has. You can’t compare any other classics team in the world with teams who have van Aert and van der Poel. Quick-Step doesn’t have one of those but they still have a very strong team.”

One rider who lit up the spring for Boonen was two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar. The Slovenian made his Tour of Flanders debut this year and but for a ‘rookie mistake’ in the finale could have come away with his first cobbled monument. Boonen was blown away with Pogacar’s ride, especially when the UAE Team Emirates rider kicked off the hostilities on the second of three ascents of the Kwaremont.

“I was loving it,” Boonen said with a huge smile.

“I was on the side of the road when he went by on the Kwaremont for the second time and it was unbelievable. He found an asphalt path on the Kwaremont. He was really fast. He was so sure and in control. I think he thought that he’d already won it. He was trying to play with van der Poel but van der Poel used those chasing guys, and he’s super smart.

“That’s what I love about van de Poel. He doesn’t have to be the strongest, he’s just there fighting for the win and then he can create his own circumstances. He uses everything that he has to win a race. Pogačar, I think that he was sure he was going to win because he was only busy with van der Poel in the sprint and he wasn’t paying attention. Next year for Pogacar. I think he can one day win Paris-Roubaix, too. He can ride on the cobbles. He doesn’t have the natural profile for it but he’s one of the best riders I’ve ever seen on a bike.”

Boonen tips van der Poel for “Hell of the North” win

Boonen tipped van der Poel for the win in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. The Dutch rider was third last year but looks to be in the form of his life at present. With van Aert coming back from a bout of COVID-19 the race is relatively open but Boonen is most impressed with the level of the young riders who have come through since his retirement.

“I think van der Poel will win Paris-Roubaix,” he said.

“There are some good bike riders right now. I have no idea how I would compare myself to these guys but right now we have a rare combination in which we have top guys competing against each other. It was the same when I was racing, with really good guys, but the only difference now is that Pogačar tries to win classics. That hasn’t happened for a long time.”

Since his retirement in 2017, Boonen has raced cars and invested in Classified Cycling. He still works in the media at times but has no desire to step behind the wheel of a team car and run a team. He still looks lean and healthy but admitted that he stepped away from the sport at the right time, even if he had the chance to continue his career for another season or two.

“Do I miss it? I would love to wake up one morning, be in super shape and ride the Tour of Flanders but I don’t miss the six months before,” he said. “I don’t really miss it, and it was the right time to stop. I could have maybe continued for another year or two but not on the same level anymore. I still had some fire left in me, the fire wasn’t the problem but ever since I fractured my skull and had the brain injury — since then it was a struggle, every day when it came to fighting in the bunch. Seventeen years as a professional was a long time. It was more than enough.”