By Andrew Hood
Tom Boonen leaned back on the hood of the Quick Step team car on a sunny morning in San Benedetto del Tronto before the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Life was good. The sun was out, his form was closing in on its annual spring peak and, most importantly, his left knee wasn’t giving him any problems.
“My bike crashed, but my foot stayed in the pedal and my knee was twisted,” Boonen tells VeloNews, pointing out the sensitive area below his thigh. “I was lucky to not have any bigger injuries, because a knee is a delicate part of a cyclist. It hurts a little, but after racing for one hour, once some blood works into the muscles, it doesn’t affect me anymore. I’ll be fine for the classics.”
With those few words, a sense of relief sweeps through the Quick Step management. Boonen is the team’s franchise rider and the big Belgian classics specialist is taking special notice of Milan-San Remo this year.
Like most of the San Remo pre-race favorites, Boonen’s road to la classica di primavera went through Tirreno-Adriatico.
Boonen didn’t win a stage, but he really didn’t need to. At this point of his career, Boonen has nothing to prove and only wants to win the biggest and most important races.
Boonen dodged a bullet in the stage-two crash at Tirreno, where an accident or mishap can derail months of work and preparation in one unlucky moment.
“There was water on the corner and it was a stupid fall. It’s normal when there are 200 riders and everyone is trying to squeeze onto a small road,” Boonen continued. “There are too many crashes in this race, but that’s Tirreno. Before a classic you never want to risk a crash.”
With Milan-San Remo just days away, Boonen was in no mood for any more unnecessary surprises.
So much so, he didn’t even contest the final stage.
“I want to win on Saturday, not the final stage at Tirreno,” Boonen said. “It’s not worth taking a risk and lose months of work and the classics.”
Closing in on San Remo
Boonen has some unsettled business with Milan-San Remo.
The Italian classic is missing from his otherwise stellar palmares that includes two victories in both Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, not to mention another bundle of other semi-classics.
“I’m not joking around this year,” Boonen continued. “It’s a big objective for me, if you already won two Flanders, two Roubaix, you want to win San Remo.”
Expectations are high for Boonen, who will be starting his seventh San Remo to win.
On paper, Boonen will share leadership duties with Sylvain Chavanel and Allan Davis, but the team’s first priority is to set up Boonen for a sprint into San Remo.
Chavanel will be the team’s option to cover attacks over the climbs at La Cipressa and the Poggio, while Davis – second in 2007 behind Oscar Freire – will be the team’s second option for the sprint if Boonen isn’t on his best day.
In six previous starts at Milan-San Remo, Boonen’s reached the podium just once, with third in 2007 behind Freire and new teammate Davis.
Boonen couldn’t make it over the late climbs to finish with the favorites in his first two San Remo’s in 2003-04, finishing 78th and 75th, respectively.
The next year, he was right in the mix for the sprint, but a superior Alessandro Petacchi drove home an emotional victory relegated Boonen to eighth. That strong performance foreshadowed his spectacular season capped by the Flanders-Roubaix double ahead of stomping his way to the world title in Madrid.
In 2006, he was fourth in the bunch behind his attacking ex-teammate and winner Filippo Pozzato.
Last year, he was 28th in a wild race won by Fabian Cancellara in a final-kilometer attack.
When asked by VeloNews how he would rank the importance of San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix, he gave a surprising answer, at least considering that he’s from the heart of Flanders.
“Each one is equally important – 33 percent each,” he replied. “Flanders and Roubaix are not sissy races, but San Remo is more dangerous because it’s more riders in the finish. At Flanders or Roubaix, it’s easier to have a smaller group in the final. At San Remo, it’s like a field sprint to the Poggio.”
Boonen already has a clear idea of who his rivals will be.
Among the dozen top sprinters and breakaway artists, he zeroed in on two as the most dangerous: Alessandro Petacchi and Daniele Bennati.
“They’re both really strong right now,” he said. “They both can climb and they both have strong teams.”
Boonen’s confidence is sky high, but he realizes winning Milan-San Remo takes more than superb form and the support of a strong team.
“I tell you, it’s easier to win Paris-Roubaix than it is to win Milan-San Remo,” Boonen told VeloNews in an interview earlier this year. “San Remo is more like a casino. It’s a big mess in the sprint. It’s possible I 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.”
Off to Mendrisio
There’s more to Boonen’s season than the spring classics and he’s already laying the groundwork for a run at a possible second rainbow jersey.
Before Milan-San Remo, Boonen will travel up to Switzerland to scout the Mendrisio world championship course Thursday.
Boonen said he’s committed to racing the worlds, but said he’ll have a better idea of what to expect after taking a good look at the course.
“I hear it’s a hard course, but you never know until you see it,” Boonen told VeloNews. “Once you inspect the course, then you can make the decisions on what is the best way to prepare for it. Perhaps it’s too difficult and you can change your season to aim for some other goals.”
Boonen’s next immediate goals, of course, are the northern classics.
The two-time winner of both Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix said he’s on track for a strong showing.
“We will have a strong team again this year. These are the races I live for and train for all year,” he said. “Of course I want to win, but it’s not easy to win. Everyone wants to win these races but only one can be the winner. That’s why they’re so great.”
Following a short break after the spring classics, Boonen will regroup for the Tour de France and then likely race the Vuelta a España ahead of the world championships.
Quick Step for Milan-San RemoTom Boonen (Bel)
Allan Davis (Aus)
Sylvain Chavanel (F)
Jerome Pineau (F)
Carlos Barredo (Spa)
Matteo Tossato (I)
Marco Velo (I)