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Boonen on final Flanders: ‘I want to make it count’

Belgian star Tom Boonen, winner of three Tours of Flanders, will race the monument one final time Sunday before he retires after Roubaix.

ANTWERP, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen refuses to get misty-eyed. At least not yet, anyway.

The Belgian superstar remains a professional bike racer, at least for a few more days, and he is not letting the enormity of his final Ronde van Vlaanderen overwhelm him. Sunday is a race day, and just as he’s done every year since turning pro in 2002, he is racing to win.

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“Of course, I am thinking about that it is my last Flanders, but I am concentrating on the race,” Boonen said Friday. “Flanders is always a special race, and Sunday will be my last time, so I want to make it count.”

It’s hard to believe the Tom Boonen era is coming to a close. Boonen has been there at the top, year-in and year-out. Next Sunday at Paris-Roubaix, that circle will be completed.

Boonen gathered with his Quick-Step teammates and staffers for their final pre-Flanders press conference Friday afternoon on a boat in Antwerp’s harbor. “Tommeke” was the star attraction for the last time. With just Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix remaining, Boonen’s days in the pro peloton are numbered.

“We have a few days left with Tom, and then it’s turning the page to the next thing in life,” said Quick-Step sport director Wilfried Peeters. “Tom has worked hard to be ready for these races. He’s been professional until the very end. He wants to go out on the top.”

Boonen, 36, is trying to take it all in stride, yet he admits that deep inside he knows that he’s looking at his last hours as a professional bike racer. The last time to sign in, the last time to clip in the cleats, the last time to dig deep in a race. Everything, for the last time.

“My form is better is than last year, and last year I wasn’t that far back,” Boonen said of his 15th-place result in De Ronde 2016. “Last year, I was really suffering from a lack of confidence. I am going a lot better now. We’ll see.”

Privately, Boonen is starting to appreciate just how few races he has left. One more Flanders, one more Roubaix, and one last time in Belgium with Scheldeprijs in between. Friends and fellow pros, former and active, will gather for a critérium in his hometown of Mol at the end of April to celebrate his career, but it’s the end of the line next month at Roubaix.

“In the end, I try to stay focused until Roubaix, and it’s working out. I don’t have the mentality to cry every time at the finish line because it’s my last time here,” he said. “This life stops at the end of Roubaix, then another one starts.”

For Boonen, that new life will mean more time to spend on his passion for fast cars. He’s already penned a deal to be an ambassador for a high-end custom-made sports car, and drove away from the press conference in his Porsche, one of many cars in his stable.

Publicly, however, he wants to race as he always has, to win. He’s looking lean, fit, and ready to compete. And ready to play his role.

“I am a man of the team, and the most important thing is that someone from the team wins. If that is me, OK, I will try,” he said. “I am going into both of them [Flanders and Roubaix] to try to get a good result. The main objective is to get the win for the team.”

Of the final two major monuments of his career, Roubaix has always been the race that better suits him. The hills of Flanders were always a touch too explosive for his riding style, especially the past few years, but it’s a race that’s more emotional. Expect Roubaix to be his final big thrust, with him riding all-in April 9, coming into the velodrome one last time. On Sunday, he’s committed to ride a team tactic. Flanders is the race he grew up with. The crowds Sunday on the Muur should be astronomical.

“My form is good, but so far in the other races I have been holding back, waiting for the sprint, while others have been up the road,” he said. “Maybe this time it will be. We will see.”

On Sunday, with the start of the Ronde moved from Bruges to Antwerp (near to his hometown), Boonen’s many family and friends will be at the start line, ready to cheer him on just as they always have, but for the last time. His star shined brighter than anyone of his generation, and he was the heir to a long line that went from Rik van Looy to Eddy Merckx, from Johan Museeuw, and now, to Boonen.

“I know all this is very special for Tom,” said Quick-Step teammate Matteo Trentin. “But when it comes to the race day, he will put those emotions into a little box. Flanders is too hard to think about anything else. No one wants to win more than Tom. That is part of the reason why he is who he is.”

Enjoy Boonen’s ride Sunday. There are not many left.