Boonen’s spring campaign hangs on E3 Harelbeke test

The king of the cobbles in 2012, Tom Boonen's ride on Friday will be a strong indicator of his spring to come

GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) rested this afternoon ahead of Friday’s big test, the E3 Harelbeke. The Flemish cobbled semi-classic is his last stop before the season’s two main goals: Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.

“I’m curious to ride the final of E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem against the real favorites. Being in the final [of E3 Harelbeke] is my goal,” Boonen told Belgium’s Sporza TV today. “I want to have the good feeling that I need to be in the final of the race to fight for the victory.”

The Belgian crushed his competition in both De Ronde (Tour of Flanders) and Roubaix last year, but leaves us all guessing what will happen this year. After several setbacks, he has yet to enjoy “the good feeling.”

From the cobbled monuments, Boonen kept steamrolling through 2012. He won Paris-Brussels, the World Ports Classic and helped his team to the time trial world title and Philippe Gilbert to the road world title.

The party ended during the off-season, however.

Boonen suffered an intestinal infection in December and crashed in January while training at home on his mountain bike. A small cut on his elbow became infected, requiring surgery, and nearly saw the champion of Belgium lose his left arm.

Spending time in the hospital and off the bike disrupted his schedule. Boonen had to nix a training camp with the team in late January and his traditional visit to the Tour of Qatar.

The weather has not helped. The cold front that swept through Europe has caused havoc for races. Boonen abandoned Milano-Sanremo on Sunday when the riders were forced to stop due to snow on the Passo del Turchino.

Back at home in Mol, it has also been rough. Boonen’s training yesterday was cut short by snow and rain. He hasn’t arrived to the classics with so few race days in his legs since 2003, when he finished 25th at Flanders and 23rd at Roubaix.

All eyes on Harelbeke

The Tour of Flanders is everything this time of year in Belgium. All would be forgotten if Boonen became the first four-time Ronde winner on Sunday, March 31.

The team explained to VeloNews that everything prior to Flanders is training and that “Tom will be good for the big races.” The clock is ticking, however, with De Ronde drawing near.

On Friday, everyone’s attention turns to Harelbeke.

The small Flemish city comes alive each year with the E3 Harelbeke. The city sees off the start, welcomes the finish, and parties all night in a disco tent erected in the main square. For Boonen, though, Harelbeke is a test, not a celebration.

Omega Pharma director Wilfried Peeters wants Boonen to be with the favorites.

“Tomorrow is a normal day for him. If he doesn’t win, it’s not finished there,” Peeters told VeloNews. “If he’s in the final [with the favorites], I’ll be very happy. That’s a step in a good direction, then the week after is Flanders. I’m not saying to him, he needs to win tomorrow. If he’s in the final, I’m happy.”

Boonen needs to be at the sharp end of racing when the leaders reach Harelbeke late Friday if he is to have any chance in De Ronde. The 256km race travels over many of the same hellingen and cobbled sectors used in E3 Harelbeke. Like the groundhog seeing his shadow, a Harelbeke failure would spell a disastrous spring campaign.