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KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — The king is down, but he’s not out.
Tom Boonen seemed at ease during the Omega Pharma-Quick Step press conference Friday afternoon, the weight of expectations seemingly gone from the Belgian’s shoulders.
Last year, he won everything on these cobbled streets, from E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem to De Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix. This year, he suffered an elbow injury that become infected over the winter, and a crash at Ghent that ultimately led to him abandoning the race.
Boonen displayed some fitness at VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne) this week, working to hold the race together for teammates Mark Cavendish and Sylvain Chavanel, but he abandoned before its final day to recover for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. It wasn’t an ideal run-up, but Boonen isn’t counting himself — or his team — out of De Ronde.
“I have a lot more question marks, that’s the thing,” Boonen said. “Last year, I was really on form and that was the time when you have to win. The stress was different. Now, coming into this period is very stressful trying to get on a decent level again.
“It’s not looking that bad either, given the circumstances. We will see on Sunday if it’s enough to get a result in the race.”
Boonen enters his Ronde defense as a man everyone knows can win, but someone who isn’t named Peter Sagan (Cannondale) or Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), around whom the pre-race buzz has orbited.
Cancellara demonstrated his fitness by riding away from the Harelbeke field last Friday with more than 30 kilometers to go, and Sagan won Ghent-Wevelgem — his first classic victory — with an attack from 4km out. Sagan, in particular, has seemed unbeatable at times this year, though Boonen doesn’t think so.
“No one is unstoppable, it seems that way. [Sagan is] a dangerous guy to have in the final; he’s fast in a sprint, he’s a good climber and hard to drop, he’s probably the guy who climbs the Paterberg the fastest,” Boonen said. “We don’t have a big favorite, but we have a strong team. We don’t have to be the strongest, but the smartest.”
The riders will climb the Oude Kwaremont (where Cancellara rode away from the E3 field last week) three times. In the closing circuits immediately followed by the Paterberg, a short, steep climb could either snap the elastic that binds the favorites together, or make an attack up the Kwaremont stick. Boonen thinks the winners will attack near the race’s end, and that the overall fitness of the favorites is too formidable for moves to stay away if launched early.
“The last lap, I think it’ll be on the Kwaremont. I don’t think the decisive move will come before the last lap,” Boonen said. “There’s so many guys on a decent level, it’ll be hard to escape from them before the last 20km.”
Although he’s not a favorite, Boonen sees himself as absolutely capable of winning.
“I think I’m able to, we’ll see,” he said. “Everything’s possible. I’ve won everything with less condition than this.”
Said Cancellara: “[Boonen] will be ready. I hope for me but also for himself. Tom will be up there, but what nobody knows is how long and how strong. With the experience he has, he will play his cards, that’s for sure.”
Omega Pharma manager Patrick Lefevere said his team enters the race free to play one of its many cards: Boonen, Chavanel, and Niki Terpstra. Chavanel won the overall at De Panne on Thursday on the strength of a stage-winning time trial.
“Last year it was quite clear Tom Boonen was the leader, he was winning all the races,” Lefevere said. “We started with him as the absolute leader, next to him with Niki and Sylvain. I don’t have to repeat myself with what Tom went through, we were hoping he’d be 100 percent.
“We’ve seen Sylvain Chavanel in great shape in the last days, Niki is always there as well. All eight of our men are strong. It’s up to us to find a key to beat the others.”
That means, presumably, that Terpstra and Chavanel are free to ride their own races.
“They were always free. We don’t have to race to be in the front, we have to race to win,” Lefevere said. “They may not take wild risks; we have riders to make the race tough. If Niki or Sylvain is in the front with (Filippo) Pozzato or Sagan, who are fast in the sprint, it’s not up to them to ride with them to the finish. If needed, they can go alone.”
Chavanel, coming off a second win at De Panne, may do some damage in his own right.
“I feel good and I’m ready to do a good race,” Chavanel said of his condition. “The team is really strong and balanced but also the competitors are fearsome. We don’t have to focus only on two riders but pay attention also to other riders. Here we have all the best riders of the world for this kind of competition.
“In any case, it will be a great race once again. I’m expecting a difficult race with, as usual, a big fight to take the climbs in the first positions.”
At Omega Pharma, where the one-day classics are as important as a grand tour, no one is panicking. Certainly not Boonen.
“Panic is the worst thing, why should you? You have to build your condition step by step, it’s not possible to speed it up,” Boonen said. “You can’t go from zero to 100 percent in two weeks. In January, it all looked well, then in a week it changed again.”
Change it did. But the cobbles have a funny way of changing things themselves.