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Omloop looming, Boonen waves good-bye to Middle East

Tom Boonen leaves Tour of Oman winless but feels his preparation is on track for the looming spring classics.

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MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — Tom Boonen, who retires after Paris-Roubaix on April 9, says that he is going to miss the Middle Eastern races in Qatar and Oman. Sunday, he boarded an airplane leaving the Tour of Oman for Belgium and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race.

In the arid and hot Arab states, the Belgian former world champion and classics star dominated with his Quick-Step team over the last 15 years. That chapter finally closed Sunday in Oman’s capital city of Muscat.

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With the Tour of Qatar called off this year, Boonen trained in Spain after debuting in Argentina’s Tour de San Juan and raced Tour of Oman over the last week. They are his final build-up races before Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.

“It’s a different kind of racing,” the 36-year-old said leaning against the hood of Quick-Step’s team car in Oman.

“This race has been harder than other years. I think you noticed there was no Qatar. Normally, you have 70-80 percent of the riders from the Tour of Qatar and they’re already a little bit more tempered after a few days in the desert, but now everybody came here fresh, and it was hard racing.”

The Qatari owners canceled their race through the peninsula state in the Persian Gulf for 2017. It left many teams scrambling to find other races. Boonen, who won four editions of the Tour of Qatar, trained in Spain ahead of the six-day Tour of Oman.

“I think it’s nice to have a program where I do Argentina then have three or four more hard days of racing [in Qatar] and come here [to Oman], and normally it’s little bit more relaxed and you have some climbs.

“Now I came from Argentina, and I had to do a training camp in Spain. Yeah, I kind of missed it.”

Belgians and cycling fans worldwide were worried in stage 1 Tuesday when Boonen fell as the bunch built up speed in the final kilometer for the sprint. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha – Alpecin) won and Boonen crossed the line over a minute later, scrapes down his back and on his right arm.

He said he is “a little bit sore in spots, but it’s healing well” and is only truly bothered when he sleeps. The rest of the time, he is focused preparing for Belgium’s ‘opening weekend’ races Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne next weekend, and his big farewell in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and then, one week later, Paris-Roubaix.

Boonen already jointly holds the record for number of wins in both races, three in Flanders and four in Roubaix. Last year, Mat Hayman (Orica – Scott) edged him out in a sprint for victory on Roubaix’s velodrome.

“There was not a moment in Oman where you could tell for the classics that ‘this guy’ is better than ‘the other guys,’ it was just hard racing all day long with big bunches to the finish line,” added Boonen

“I think Saturday [in Omloop], we have a new day and you have to look at it as the first real race of the classics spring season and then we have to look in the race who is good and who isn’t good. We don’t have to look at who is good now.”

Boonen turned to the focus of the Belgian press, who keep track of the number of days until Roubaix and the close of one of Belgian cycling’s biggest chapters.

“Having to talk about it every day for the rest of the 49 days is going to be a little bit crazy,” Boonen said. “49 days until Roubaix? Yeah, they remind me well of that in Belgium.”