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Interview with Tom Boonen: Roubaix easier to win than Milan-San Remo

After a rough year that saw him making headlines for all the wrong reasons, Tom Boonen just wants to hit the news when he wins a bike race. Last year saw Belgium’s prince of the cobblestones fall back to earth after failing an out-of-competition control for cocaine in late May and then being forced out of the Tour de France. Boonen never faced a racing sanction because cocaine is only considered a banned stimulant if detected during competition. Because he still faces possible charges in a Belgian court, Boonen doesn’t want to talk about anything except bike racing.

Northern classics remains top goals

By Andrew Hood

Looks easy: Boonen winning Roubaix last year.

Looks easy: Boonen winning Roubaix last year.

Photo: Agence France Presse

After a rough year that saw him making headlines for all the wrong reasons, Tom Boonen just wants to hit the news when he wins a bike race.

Last year saw Belgium’s prince of the cobblestones fall back to earth after failing an out-of-competition control for cocaine in late May and then being forced out of the Tour de France.

Boonen never faced a racing sanction because cocaine is only considered a banned stimulant if detected during competition. Because he still faces possible charges in a Belgian court, Boonen doesn’t want to talk about anything except bike racing.

For 2009, Boonen is intent on staying focused on racing and trying to avoid the limelight when it’s for the wrong reasons.

The new Boonen makes his season debut at the Tour of Qatar next week and then returns to the Tour of California in February before another assault on the northern classics.

VeloNews’ European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Boonen to talk about San Remo, his growing rivalry with Mark Cavendish and why he’ll never try to win the Tour de France. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: After all that happened last year, does anything change for you in 2009?

Tom Boonen: All the races are the same. I just want to have a good year, after all that happened last year. So now I will focus on the same races, Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix, just like always. After the Tour, then maybe the Vuelta. I want to see the world’s course. We’ll check it probably sometime between Tirreno and San Remo, but I will be there.

Hoping for more sun this year: Boonen won the second stage of the 2008 Tour of California.

Hoping for more sun this year: Boonen won the second stage of the 2008 Tour of California.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

VN: You’ve won two Roubaixs and two Flanders, do the races ever become routine for you?

TB: They’re hard enough that they’re always interesting. That’s not a problem. They’re the biggest races in the world. Sure, I’ve already won them, but it’s always a new challenge, new rivals. I don’t need anything extra to keep me motivated. I like racing, I like the sport. I try to be focused on the races that I am good at. I still haven’t won San Remo. I’d like to win that at least once and a few more classics.

VN: Will you be heading back to race the Tour of California?

TB: (Organizers) didn’t even have to ask. I want to go back to California. I really liked the race last year. The quality of racing and the fans were great. It’s a good race. To do 1,200km in February, you can’t find that anywhere else on the calendar. You feel kind of funny for about a week after the travel, but it worked out perfect for me ahead of the classics. It’s not easy to fly back from the United States and be ready to race. We only arrive on Tuesday and then have to be ready to race Saturday at Het Volk. The recovery takes about a week, after that, it was really good. I hope it doesn’t rain as much this year.

Right there, but ... Boonen got stuck and lost to Oscar Freire at the 2007 Milan-San Remo.

Right there, but … Boonen got stuck and lost to Oscar Freire at the 2007 Milan-San Remo.

Photo: Graham Watson

On the hunt for Milan-San Remo

VN: You’ve won a lot of races, but never Milan-San Remo, have you put much thought into why?

TB: I think it’s just a question of luck. I was already third (in 2007). It’s a tricky race to win. You have to be in perfect position and you have to time the sprint just perfect. There’s no room to make any mistakes. When Freire won a second time, I was right where I was supposed to be, right on Petacchi’s wheel. Then Petacchi just died in the sprint. I couldn’t pass him. By the time I got around him, it was already lost. If I had a bit of luck, I would have won it already.

VN: You’ve achieved most of your major goals already, but no San Remo, are you starting to feel more pressure to win?

TB: I tell you, it’s easier to win Paris-Roubaix than it is to win Milan-San Remo. San Remo is more like a casino. It’s a big mess in the sprint. It’s possible I’ll never win it. I have maybe four or five more possibilities. That’s Milan-San Remo. If it was just a question of legs, I would have won it already three or four times.

VN: So with the northern classics, it just comes down to the last man standing?

TB: In Flanders, you have hill after hill, and after four or five or six climbs, you can see how strong everyone is. After 150km into the race, you know how strong you are. By then you know if you have the legs or not to win. It’s the same in Roubaix. You have more time in those races to check your rivals and test yourself.

Rivalry with Cancellara, Cavendish

VN: Riders like Fabian Cancellara say they have a checklist and they target one or two major goals for the year and bet everything on that; is that how you race?

TB: It doesn’t always work out like that. If you obsess like that, you will do things that you wouldn’t normally do. There’s too much pressure. You cannot predict what’s going to happen. Sometimes you have to take it as it comes, rather than pushing yourself toward goals. If he’s already talking about Flanders now, then everyone will just follow him during the race. The problem that Fabian has is that he has to drop me. Then he can feel he’s the strongest, but that’s not so easy, is it?

VN: Is Cancellara the rider of reference for you in the classics, your top rival?

Old rivals: Boonen putting the hurt on Cancellara at last year's Paris-Roubaix

Old rivals: Boonen putting the hurt on Cancellara at last year’s Paris-Roubaix

Photo: Graham Watson

TB: He’s one of the strongest, that’s for sure. I’m a little faster in the sprint than he is. He’s a better time trialist than me. We were the two guys of our generation who’ve had a lot of success. We were already racing against each other as juniors. We were always rivals. We were trying to beat each other since we were 16, 17 years old. There was a good generation of junior riders, Pozzato, Popovych, Bileka, Kashechkin, Cancellara — now we’ve all turned pro.

VN: Another big rivalry this year will be between you and Mark Cavendish. Last year, Columbia built up a strong train, do you see a showdown between Quick Step and Columbia to control the big sprints?

TB: Well, whoever has the fastest train goes first. The first years that I was beating (Alessandro) Petacchi, we were trying to beat his train. I said, let’s just forget about the train. When Milram starts to pull, I told them to just put me on Petacchi’s wheel. I beat him four or five times like that. The train is not so important — it’s important to win the race.

VN: You’ve lost Steegmans, but signed Marco Velo, how do you see Quick Step this year for the sprints?

TB: We’ve added Marco Velo and Allan Davis, but the rest of the train is the same as the other years. I think we’ll be just as good. (Steegmans) is going to love the money at Katusha. We’ll miss him, sure, but it’s difficult to say how it will be. Velo is always there. He’s very experienced, he’s so valuable to this team already. We know we can count on him.

VN: Do you see any weak spots in Cavendish?

Boonen started his celebration too early at last year's Grand Prix de l'Escaut, and Cavendish took full advantage.

Boonen started his celebration too early at last year’s Grand Prix de l’Escaut, and Cavendish took full advantage.

Photo: Agence France Presse

TB: Last year he won a lot of sprints that were chaotic. He’s better at that. When he sees a gap, he has the balls to go for it. He has the legs to make gaps. It’s easier for him when he doesn’t have to fight for position. When there are four or five guys sprinting all over the place, he has that punch. You have to beat him before the sprint, tire him out, and make him work. When it’s 65kph, there are only four or five guys who can pass in the final 150 meters: Freire, McEwen, Cavendish, Petacchi and Hushovd. Everyone is a little different — each have their strong points. There’s no doubt that Cavendish was strong last year.

New maturity

VN.com: You’re already entering your eighth season and now you’re considered a veteran, how does that affect your racing?

TB: In the races, not a lot has changed. The way you approach them and train for them doesn’t change that much. What’s different is that you have more experience, you know what to expect. You’ve done them plenty of times, so there are no surprises. You know all the opponents and you know all the rivals. What changes is the way you look at cycling. You mature. It’s easier to make the sacrifices. You know what’s going to happen, so you’re not caught by surprise. It’s easier the older you get. I’m already eight years a professional — it goes by fast.

VN: Some classic riders, like George Hincapie and even Cancellara is talking about it now, have tried to make strong results in stage races, have you ever considered that?

TB: Well, I’ve never paid attention to the time trial. If I worked on it, I could improve a lot. I used to win seven or eight time trials a year when I was a junior. Then I started to focus on the classics and that became my big dream. Once you start with the classics, you’re off. To win a big tour? We have our weight. To take 80kg up those big mountains is not easy. One year I was skinny for the Tour, down to 77-78kg, but I was home after two weeks, sick! I was too weak to make it to Paris. To win a grand tour, you have to be skinny. I just don’t have the body for GC. If you give up your power to get skinny, then I pay the price.

VN: What’s more satisfying, winning a big sprint or winning a classic?

TB: It’s easier to win a sprint than it is a classic. You only get three or four classics a year, but you can sprint 20-30-40 times a season. It’s easier to sprint because all your work comes late in a race. A classic is hard start to finish.

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