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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Big, bad Tom Boonen didn’t lock himself inside a sauna to prepare for Sunday’s world championship. While some in the peloton embraced unorthodox preparation methods to ready for Qatar’s desert heat, the Belgian superstar simply got on a plane.
“I just came here two days ago,” he said with a smile. “It seems that people are just realizing now that it’s hot in Qatar in October. If it was in Siberia, we’d be racing in the cold. I prefer the heat to the cold.”
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For the king of the cobbles racing in his final worlds, the key to Qatar is not preparing for the heat, but rather grappling with it on race day.
“The rider who can manage his body, who can ride into the laps with freshness, they will have a chance to win,” Boonen said. “I think a lot of riders will arrive for the final laps, but I do not think a lot of them will be fresh. The heat will be brutal.”
These worlds are the beginning of Boonen’s last stand. One of the dominators of his generation, and one of the best classics riders ever, the soon-to-be 36-year-old is intent on going out at the top. Racked by injuries and setbacks the past few years, Boonen arrived in Qatar in fighting shape. His three wins in 2016 have all come in sprints, beating some of the rivals he’ll face Sunday.
At this point in his career, Boonen has seen it all, lived it all, and has nothing to prove to anyone. He’s confirmed that his final races will be Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix. Even if he wins another world title, he won’t change his mind to end his career on the cobbles he loves. He’s committed to go out on a high, with sharp form, and no room for emotions.
“I am never nervous before a worlds,” he continued. “The race is long. OK, sometimes you get nervous before the final lap or two, but I am never nervous when I’m in form.”
Looking fit and focused, Boonen will certainly be a favorite Sunday. Backed by a strong Belgian team, with Olympic gold medalist Greg Van Avermaet as co-leader, Boonen isn’t in Doha for some trip down memory lane. He’s here to race and win, like usual.
“There will be echelons. All you need is a little wind to create echelons. For sure, I’m not going to wait for a sprint finish. I’ll make the race hard. We won’t see big bunch sprint deciding the worlds.”
Boonen knows Qatar well. He’s won more stages here than anyone else, and used the week-long Tour of Qatar each February as his preparation for the classics (until his Etixx – Quick-Step team was not invited to return this year). The flat roads, buffeting winds, and warm temperatures make Qatar ideal for Roubaix prep. But a worlds in October under more intense heat is quite something else, and Boonen knows he needs a hard race to have any chance of beating the likes of Mark Cavendish or André Greipel.
“I know that after 250 kilometers, after a grueling race, I have a good sprint and I can beat those guys,” he said. “I’m not afraid of anyone and I hope to give myself a great birthday present Sunday [note: Boonen turns 36 on Saturday].”
In the twilight of his career, Boonen can still draw a crowd. Even in far-flung Qatar, where lots of media have foregone the cost of coming to the expensive Arabian enclave, “Tommeke” filled up a conference room in his Doha hotel. A training ride the previous day drew a pack of journalists following in his wake. On Thursday evening, he patiently answered questions in English, Flemish, and French, but refused to bite when journalists asked him if he was nostalgic about racing his final worlds.
“I never thought about it,” was all he said.
Boonen was more interested talking tactics than reflecting on the significance of his historic career trajectory that comes to an end in six months’ time.
“The most decisive part of the race will be coming back to Doha after the laps in the desert. Everyone will have to do an effort, or they will get dropped,” he said. “It’ll be very hard. In the desert you can’t hide, and we have to do 150km.”
When asked who was the favorite, Boonen couldn’t help himself, adding with a smile: “I would favor myself. It will be every man for himself.”
If the race does come down to a brutish, classics-style affair, Boonen could well deliver a massive victory to put an exclamation point near the end of his career. He’ll let the others explain what it all means. He just wants to race his bike, and win.