Two-time Ronde van Vlaanderen champion Tom Boonen has broken with one of his annual traditions as he bids Sunday to join an elite club of three-time winners on Sunday.
Flanders is the biggest one-day classic in Flemish-speaking Belgium and the second “monument” of the season after Milan-San Remo.
While tradition normally dictates participating in the Three Days of De Panne midweek, after seeing the rain Boonen decided on another plan of attack.
His race form still brimming over following an impressive second place finish in Milan-San Remo, Boonen’s five-hour training session on Wednesday allowed him to get up close to the 15 hellingen on the course, many of which are cobbled and pepper the second half of the 262km route.
“I had almost forgotten what some of the sections of the race looked like! I really think that if you’ve not taken the time to go out and preview the course it will be a major disadvantage,” said Boonen.
Given that at least one rival, Filippo Pozzato, retired sick with flu-like symptoms on the first stage at La Panne, Boonen said he did not regret his decision.
“If the weather’s good, it gives your form a boost for Flanders,” he said. “But it’s not a good idea if the weather’s bad.”
Boonen’s fellow Quick Step rider Stijn Devolder has won the race the past two seasons, benefiting, to some extent, to the close marking of his teammate in the closing stages.
But this year Boonen, whose two prior wins came in 2005 and 2006, will be hoping Devolder plays the loyal teammate and allows him the chance to join an elite club of three-time winners first.
Going on the recent form of Dane Matti Breschel, Boonen’s tactical sense could be tested to the full by a Saxo Bank team which also boasts Fabian Cancellara.
At Dwars door Vlanderen last week, a 204km semi-classic which features 12 steep climbs, Breschel attacked a front group containing all the favorites. With Cancellara sitting on Boonen’s wheel, the Belgian was trapped, and Breschel went on to win.
Asked how he would feel in a finale with Breschel, Boonen was defiant.
“Honestly, I don’t fear anyone,” he added. “I’m not the kind who gets nervous. And I’d be even less inclined to be so given my form at the moment.”
But the Belgian all but admitted he will be hoping as many teammates as possible are at his side in the crucial closing stages to help counter attacks and ward off aggressors.
“I think it will be really tactical this year, with a difficult finale where a few of the big favorites will be paying close attention to each other,” added Boonen.
Much like the Paris-Roubaix, which will be raced next weekend, the 262km Tour of Flanders is a race riders love and hate in equal measure.
“Looking back, you get a bit nostalgic, but from a competitive point of view, Flanders was one of the most horrible races to ride but one of the greatest races to win,” said Irish racing legend Sean Kelly, who came close, but never won the “Ronde.”