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Boonen promises to deliver as pressure mounts ahead of Roubaix

Belgian is dreaming of a record fifth Roubaix victory as pressure mounts for Omega Pharma-Quick Step ahead of Sunday's "Hell of the North"

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KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — The pressure is on Omega Pharma-Quick Step to deliver the goods Sunday at Paris-Roubaix.

Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere says he’s only interested in “big fish,” yet so far during this year’s northern classics season, his boys have only come back with nibbles.

After a consistent yet unspectacular run across the northern classics, Tom Boonen expressed optimism Friday that he’s ready for a winning ride in Sunday’s final cobblestone classics showdown.

“I usually react well under pressure,” Boonen said Friday. “When I feel the cobblestones under my wheels, I usually go fast.”

The pressure will certainly be on. The team has had the numbers, riding into the winning moves at E3 Harelbeke and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), but has been unable to deliver a win. Victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen for Niki Terpstra just doesn’t cut it for a team as deep and experienced as Omega Pharma.

“I’ve been a pro long enough to know that sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. It’s like that,” Boonen said. “You can have the best team in the world, but it’s no guarantee you can win a classic. That’s what makes the sport so beautiful.”

For Sunday’s pavé pounding at Paris-Roubaix, the team will rally around eternal captain Boonen, who is also hunting history with the chance to become the first rider to win “The Hell of the North” five times.

Omega Pharma will also count on Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, who’s been relatively quiet so far this classics season compared to last year, and hard-working Stijn Vandenbergh, who carried team colors with fourth at both Harelbeke and Flanders.

“I wasn’t at my best level at Flanders for circumstances of the race, but I think I will be better at Roubaix,” Boonen said. “We are working together well as a team. We have many strong riders, and that gives pressure to the others.”

No team comes to Roubaix with a roster as complete as Omega Pharma.

Trek Factory Racing will be leaning exclusively on Fabian Cancellara following the announcement that two-time Flanders champ Stijn Devolder has withdrawn due to injuries suffered at Flanders. Belkin will back 2013 runner-up Sep Vanmarcke, with Lars Boom as a second-tier back-up player, but no team equals Omega Pharma’s firepower.

Yet no team has as many expectations piled on its shoulders as Omega Pharma. The Belgian super-team is the New York Yankees of the spring classics. As Lefevere said earlier this week, it’s only victory that counts.

“This is our last chance,” Boonen said bluntly. “Things haven’t happened as we had hoped so far, and things have not been good for me over the past few weeks, but I feel myself growing again these past few days.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Boonen. At 33, he’s poised to make history if he can win Sunday on the velodrome. He is tied with Roger De Vlaeminck with four Roubaix trophies. Cancellara could join that club if he wins Sunday, but Boonen seems intent on forming a one-man club of his own.

“I want to win Roubaix again, so if you’re at four, then next is the fifth,” Boonen said. “If I win a fifth time, it would make everything more special, to go to that next level.”

Many expect to see a classic showdown between Cancellara and Boonen over the 28 sectors of pavé. Between them, they’ve won seven of the past 10 editions of Roubaix. Cancellara finessed his way to victory last Sunday in Flanders, but he was unable to ride everyone off his wheel, giving hope to the likes of Vanmarcke and Boonen that the race will be wide open.

“There are a lot of other riders at a high level over the past two weeks, so it would be stupid to look only at Fabian, which I never do,” Boonen said. “We have a history together, and it would be nice to have a duel together. I have to have a good level Sunday, because it’s no fun against Fabian if you’re not at a good level.”

Omega Pharma lines up with four potential winners. Boonen is the team’s outright captain, but Terpstra, Stybar, or even Vandenbergh could ride away in the right situation.

Sport director Wilfried Peeters said legs and luck dictate tactics until late in the race.

“When you have a strong team, you can make a game,” Peeters said. “In Roubaix, anything can happen on any corner. We need to be [in] a good situation. I hope we can be up there in the first group. Then things can happen.”

Terpstra and Stybar would probably be outright leaders on any other team. Both are on good form, with Terpstra riding into the best condition of his career. He won Dwars, rode to second at Harelbeke, and sixth at Flanders. Third last year, Terpstra could be given wings, especially if Boonen struggles.

“My condition is there, and this race suits me well, so I am pretty confident,” Terpstra said. “You can talk about tactics, but you have to see how the race is going, who’s in the front group, and see how everyone is feeling, then you can play the tactics from the front of the race.”

Stybar, seventh in Milano-Sanremo, has not quite been at the same level as his breakout classics campaign last year, but he’s hoping to see a return to form, albeit without the late-Roubaix collision with a fan that knocked him out of contention for the win last year.

“I usually forget what happens in a race very fast, it’s always the press who reminds me about it,” Stybar said about last year’s Roubaix. “I hope to get in the same position again on Sunday, but without the crash. I was very disappointed about what happened last year, but a week after the race, I was already thinking about this year’s Roubaix.”

Omega Pharma despirately wants to get one of its big guns in position to win, and if we believe what the riders and staff say, it doesn’t matter who is first across the line, so long as he’s wearing team colors. But if they could choose, it would be Boonen. He’s been the team’s franchise rider for more than a decade, and Lefevere has stood by the Belgian superstar through the ups and downs of seven monument victories, a Tour de France green jersey, and two cocaine-related suspensions. Personal tragedy seemed to knock Boonen off his best over the past few weeks, but he promised Friday to be at his best come the final showdown of the cobbles season.

Boonen looked confident and fit this week, and there’s no questioning his motivation. He worked hard to be in top condition coming into the classics season this year, and it all comes to a head Sunday.

“Roubaix is the last authentic race,” Boonen said. “It hasn’t changed at all.”