By Andrew Hood
Tom Boonen starts Sunday’s Paris-Nice as a man on a mission. The Belgian sprinter is building his form for his annual assault on the spring classics, where he has ruled with an iron fist the past two seasons.
A back-to-back winner of the Tour of Flanders and the rare Flanders-Roubaix double in 2005, Boonen entered the 2007 season with new motivation and maturity. After an emotional and demanding 2006 season that saw him shine as the world champion, Boonen said he’s more than happy not to have to carry the burden of the rainbow jersey.
That’s not to say Boonen is any less ambitious this year. VeloNews recently caught up with “Tornado Tom” as he reflected on success, Paolo Bettini, the cobbles and the cost of fame. Here are excerpts of the interview:
VeloNews.com: How does it feel to not be wearing the rainbow jersey this year? Is it something you have to get used to?
Tom Boonen: Once world champion, always world champion, no? I don’t have to get used to it. It’s a gift for one year, if you’re very lucky, two years. Paolo [Bettini] deserved it more than anybody. But it’s fine with me. Every world champion has to give it away eventually. I enjoyed my time in the rainbow jersey to the maximum, so it’s time to turn the page.
VN.com: What difference will you enjoy this year without the rainbow jersey?
TB: What’s sure the most hectic year of my life is over. My life was not so easy last year. There were a lot of demands, a lot of stress, a lot of media, expectations from the fans. I don’t think it will make a big difference, at least when it comes to racing. The main difference last year was we took a lot of responsibility in the races. That won’t change that much since we still have the rainbow jersey.
VN.com: You were in the spotlight a lot last year, so it’s probably nice to have that attention focused on someone else?
TB: This winter I had some more time for myself, more time to do some things I wanted to do. Last year was a little hectic. This year I am getting bothered a lot less by the media, but that’s fine with me. Everybody has been talking about me for the last three or four years. Maybe they are getting a little tired of me. The press can make a certain image about you that you don’t like. When there’s no news, they make news. They find someone to talk about you, and when you react, that feeds the cycle. Then it’s the same story over and over again for two weeks.
VN.com: Who do you see as your big rival these days? Last year it was all about you vs. Alessandro Petacchi?
TB: I don’t want to have a duel with Petacchi. When I race against [Robbie] McEwen or [Thor] Hushovd, no one talks about that. They are world-class sprinters, but everyone talked about the duel with Petacchi and nothing else. To me, it’s a sprint and the best man wins, it doesn’t matter who it is.
VN.com: How is the train coming together? You’ve incorporated some new riders, such as [Gert] Steegmans?
TB: The team is working good. We’re not training specifically on anything. Everyone knows what they have to do. Things are not set yet in terms of who’s going to be where. Steegmans looks to be a good rider to set me up. We may take a different tactical approach. Things will come together in due time. One thing’s sure is that everyone is very good. People seem to think that the last guy is the best and the first guy is the slowest. It’s nothing like that. Every position is important. It’s important to win some races early. When you get some early wins, the morale just explodes and everyone works even harder. You build up the morale for the classics.
VN.com: Looking ahead to the classics, you’ve won the Tour of Flanders two times in a row now, has that become “your” race? Bettini says he’s dreaming of winning Flanders — will there be some sort of friction?
TB: You can never say any race is your race. You win Flanders once, you’re famous in Belgium for the rest of your life. If you win twice, you become part of history. A rider like Paolo deserves to win Flanders. He’s come close before. Flanders has a natural selection. We’ll see who the teams bring as leaders and then the road will decide who the real leaders are. If you ask me, Peter [Van Petegem] is going to be the big favorite.
VN.com: Van Petegem’s arrival wasn’t without its controversy in Belgium. What do you think about his arrival and how does he fit on the team?
TB: I encourage it. He’s a legend. He competed against [Johan] Museeuw. He’s very strong. He’s capable of leading a team. I mean it when I say he’s a favorite for Flanders. I could see him winning Roubaix. Everyone is talking about me and Bettini, so Van Petegem can take advantage of that.
VN.com: Looking at the Tour de France, you’ve had some luck with stages as well as capturing the yellow jersey, but you haven’t been able to finish in the past two starts, let alone think about the green jersey. Are you still anxious about the Tour?
TB: Maybe I will start racing the Tour like Cipollini! [laughs]. This year I am going to the Tour with a different attitude, no pressure. I will try the first week, if I still feel it, I will ride the second week, and then we’ll see about the third week. I like the Tour de France. I don’t hate the Tour. Everyone keeps asking me about the green jersey. It’s a lot easier when I don’t think about it.
VN.com: Do you think you need to change your preparation at all for the Tour?
TB: Last year, for sure, I trained wrong. From the first day it went bad. I started to think about it and everything went the wrong way. I was a little too skinny last year. I lost my speed and then I got sick. I’m still young. Everyone is allowed to make a mistake. I will have plenty of Tours ahead of me to win green jerseys. Everyone will put pressure on me. I still believe I can make beautiful things.
VN.com: Looking back at last season, how would you characterize your performance overall?
TB: For me, it was my best season as a professional. I rode the entire season in the rainbow jersey. I respected the jersey. I am proud how the team handled it, how I handled it. I didn’t think it was possible to make things even better. The year before I won a few more bigger races, but last year the things we did with the team were more important. I was very happy with my season.
VN.com: Everyone now expects you to win classics every year; would you consider it a failure if you don’t win one?
TB: A failure for me would be to arrive to the most important three weeks of my season [northern classics] and you know in your mind you cannot win the races. You have to know inside your head whether you’re strong enough to win. A failure is not being prepared to win those races. It’s all but certain that I won’t win a classic. The odds are more in favor or me not winning a classic than winning one. It’s not easy. You have to prepare to perfection, you have to have great form on the day, you have to have luck, you can’t crash, you can’t get sick, you have to be attentive. But that’s sport. We are human. We make mistakes.
VN.com: From your perspective, what’s the most important race of the year for you if you had to pick one?
TB: Roubaix. If I lose Flanders, then everyone will say you still have Roubaix. If I win Roubaix, I can be relaxed for months.
VN.com: Are there any younger riders coming up that you have to be wary of for the classics?
TB: The young guys aren’t a danger in the classics. It’s rare that someone just pops up in Flanders or Roubaix out of nowhere. You have a good idea who they are long before those races. They’re so hard and so demanding, it’s rare to get a surprise winner. The ones I am watching now are [Alessandro] Ballan, [Filippo] Pippo and [Fabian] Cancellara, but they’ve already won big races and people know they’re big riders.
VN.com: You’re friendly with George Hincapie — do you think he deserves to win Roubaix? (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Hincapie crashed in the Tour of California.)
TB: In the classics, there are no presents. You don’t give them and you don’t get them. But there’s no doubt that a rider like George deserves to win a big classic. Perhaps he needs to switch in his head to become more of a killer. From what I can see, that’s the only thing that’s missing for him. You never see him attack in full.
VN.com: Last year at Flanders, some said that Leif Hoste carried you to victory in Flanders, that he should have not collaborated with you and instead waited for Hincapie to chase back. How do you read that?
TB: George just had to follow and he wasn’t there. That says enough. If someone cannot follow, then that’s the selection in races like Flanders. That’s why they’re so exciting because eventually it comes down to the strongest rider who wins. A lot of riders came within five meters but they couldn’t bridge across. Karsten Kroon [CSC] was almost there, but he couldn’t close it down. Everyone says they should have changed their tactic. They are wrong. If Hoste sat on my wheel the entire time, I still could have dropped him. It’s also a tactical move for him. He was in a great situation to finish on the Flanders podium. If you can’t beat them, join them.
VN.com: Last year at Roubaix, riders were disqualified for the controversy at the railroad crossing. Do you agree with that ruling?
TB: It was a bad decision. It would be one thing if it changed the outcome of the race, but nothing was changed by the train passing through. I finished fifth place in the race and that’s where I should be. I gave everything and the others were better than me that day. For the guys who are really making the race, you don’t make a decision like that and do that to them.
VN.com: How do you view the ongoing spat between the UCI and the race organizers?
TB: If they want to act like children, they’re doing a good job. They’re only making a joke about themselves. The problem is power and no one wants to give away any of the power they have.