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Tom Boonen hit the beach this week with his kids to try to forget the oh-so-close world championship race last weekend in Doha.
The Belgian superstar raced a near-perfect race in his final world championship, but he came up short to Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. Backed by a powerhouse performance by his Belgian teammates who blew up the race in the crosswinds, Boonen scored a well-deserved bronze medal. He still can’t get over the close call.
“I am disappointed,” Boonen said. “We did a lot of work, and sometimes you pay for that. We came to win, so to be third is not what we came here for.”
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The fact that Boonen is so disappointed with third place reveals much about his character as well as his ambitions coming into Qatar. Despite having less than six months remaining in his racing career, Boonen is not soft-pedaling through some nostalgic farewell tour. He was racing to win and wanted desperately to go out with the rainbow jersey on his shoulders.
Before the race, Boonen reconfirmed he would not extend his career even if he defied the odds and won. His last racing day in Belgium will be Scheldeprijs, and his final farewell will be over his beloved cobblestones at Paris-Roubaix next April.
After the race, Etixx – Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere told Belgian journalists he had never seen Boonen so disappointed in his entire career. “Tommeke” came to Qatar to win, there’s no doubt about that.
“Third doesn’t count for much. If you’re in the sprint for the world title, you want to win,” Boonen said. “Anyway, if you’re fourth, you have nothing, so third is better than fourth.”
Belgium’s tactics were textbook. They swarmed the crosswinds and provoked echelons, putting six riders into an elite group of 25 — more than any nation. That also meant Belgium had to take control of the race. Jasper Stuyven, Oliver Naesen, and Jens Keukeleire took huge pulls to make the break stick.
They saved Olympic gold medalist Greg Van Avermaet for the closing laps to follow any late-race attacks, especially from Niki Terpstra. That only left Jurgen Roelandts to set up the final sprint for Boonen, something made even more complicated by the late-race attack from Dutch rider Tom Leezer with under 3km to go.
“Tom was third. OK, it’s not winning, but it was still a really good result against these sprinters,” Van Avermaet said. “I had to follow the attacks from Terpstra. Leezer surprised us a little bit, and I thought maybe Niki would go later, so I waited for him.
“Sagan is fast, eh? It’s not a surprise. He can sprint in finishes like these,” Van Avermaet continued. “I can beat [Sagan] on an uphill sprint, but like this, it’s pretty hard to manage with him, so it was a good choice to go with Tom in this finale.”
Belgium had huge pre-race pressure. The crosswinds of the Qatari desert were ideal for the big Belgian classics riders, and not only did the team want to deliver Boonen the stripes, they were hoping to cap the dream season that also included the road racing Olympic gold medal with Van Avermaet.
“We had a lot of pressure before the race, so to come home with at least a medal is payback for the work we did,” Naesen said. “We wanted to win, but at least we are not leaving empty-handed.”
That was little consolation for Boonen, who couldn’t hide his frustration or disappointment. When asked if it is impossible to beat Sagan, Boonen snapped back: “What kind of question is that? He’s won a few races, but he hasn’t won everything. Everybody is beatable.
“In the last kilometers, it was just me and Jurgen left,” Boonen continued. “We were one guy short for the leadout, so I had to wait for the others to start. The result is the result, you cannot change it anymore, so it doesn’t matter.”
After a short break, Boonen will begin preparations for the northern classics. It will be interesting to see how the disappointment in Doha will affect him. Boonen wants to go out on a high, and after a few frustrating seasons and close calls, nothing less than victory in Roubaix will satisfy him.