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Boonen on cusp of decisive year

Olympics, classics top goal for Belgian star

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Everything is on the line for Tom Boonen this year as the once unstoppable classics man will be looking to regain his winning touch in what could be a make-or-break season.

Boonen has been dogged by accidents and two controversial cocaine cases that knocked him off his pedestal as the “Man to Beat” in the northern classics. With a big 2012 season ahead of him, including a shot at the Olympic gold medal, the former world champion admits that this season is one of the most important in his career.

“I am on the verge of an important season. I approach it with confidence. I had a good winter and the troubles are now ancient history,” Boonen said at the Omega Pharma-Quick-Step presentation last week in Belgium. “For the first time in two years, I was able to train normally and I have rediscovered my strength.”

Now 31, Boonen is no longer the boy wonder who lit up the cobblestones in the mid-2000s, earning the adulation of an entire nation with three victories in Paris-Roubaix and two at the Tour of Flanders. His last major win came with the 2009 Roubaix.

Boonen once seemed unstoppable, but a string of accidents, poor health, including a serious knee injury in 2010, and cocaine cases derailed him. In the meantime, riders such as Fabian Cancellara and compatriot Philippe Gilbert have eclipsed him in the one-day classics that he once ruled.

A win last year in Gent-Wevelgem brought Boonen some well-needed good news, but he once again missed out on the world championships due to injury for the second year in a row, this time with a hand injury suffered during a crash in the Vuelta a España.

“Bad luck and some injuries explain my decline,” Boonen was quoted in La Derniere Heure. “My knee had me knocked on my back for four months (in 2010) and last year, I was two months without even getting on the bike. It’s harder and costs more to get back to the top than maintaining your level once you’re there. For the first time in two years, I’ve had a good winter and I feel confident.”

Boonen will be under pressure to win either Flanders or Roubaix, the season’s most important one-day classics that are always his top goals for the entire spring. Instead of racing in the Tour of Qatar, which he has won a record three times, Boonen will debut at the Tour de San Luís in Argentina later this month.

Everything from there to April will be honing his form and confidence for what he hopes will be a chance to quiet his critics, some of whom say that Boonen squandered his talent. Boonen begs otherwise and says he always lived and trained like a professional.

“I can understand why some people have doubted me, but I have always had a high level of motivation. I’ve had some bad luck the past two years, but I have lived for the sport and I have always come back,” Boonen said. “I am confident that I will have a big year. Last season, I didn’t win much (Wevelgem and a stage at the Tour of Qatar), but it made me stronger.”

After the classics, Boonen will regroup for the Tour de France and shot at the Olympic gold medal in London. During his peak years, Boonen would be among the top-tier favorites to strike gold, but now he knows he has to prove it to his critics as well as himself in what will be a big year for Boonen.