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There’s no need to introduce Tom Boonen. The 35-year-old Belgian is a living legend who co-owns the records for most career victories at both Ronde van Vlaanderen (three) and Paris-Roubaix (four). The Etixx – Quick-Step superstar enters the spring classics after another rough-and-tumble 2015 season, which started badly, with a crash at Paris-Nice that took him out of his beloved cobblestone classics, and ended with another nasty crash at Abu Dhabi Tour in October that left him with partial hearing loss in his left ear. But when VeloNews caught up with “Tomeke” at his team training camp in Spain, where he talked to a group of journalists, he said he’s ready for at least one more go.
Question: ￼Fabian Cancellara is racing for the last time. Do you look forward to clashing with him again?
Tom Boonen: It was always a big fight with Fabian, but there is a lot of respect there. We both race to win, and we’re not done yet. Fabian has his life; I have mine. I have thought about it a few times — about not riding your bike, and eating and getting fat. I will be 36 at the end of this year, and that’s not an age where you’re thinking about another 10 years. That’s why I signed only for one year. We will see.
Q: How has your approach changed compared to when you started?
TB: I am just as motivated now as I was in my first years as a pro, maybe even more so, because I won’t have that many more chances. These big races are the ones that I live for. All the training and work for months goes into just a few special days. That’s why I love the classics. There’s no tomorrow, no waiting to have a good day, like in a stage race. You either win or you do not. No one holds back. It’s all left out on the road.
Q: Will you be 100 percent after your crash at Abu Dhabi?
TB: That was so frustrating, because I wanted to race at Abu Dhabi to finish the season as late as possible, and have a short break, to prepare for the spring classics in the best way possible. And then to crash like that … I hope my bad luck is behind me. I think I deserve it after the past few years.
Q: Will the hearing loss affect your ability to safely race?
TB: If it was a question of it not being safe, I would stop. We have done many tests, and the doctors say I can race without problems. I never thought about quitting, because I would never like to quit like that.
Q: How have tactics changed in the classics?
TB: When I first turned pro, the style of racing was to wait, wait, wait. I tried to change that, but now everyone is waiting again. They are all afraid to attack and then get dropped in the final. I think some guys would prefer to lose the race and not attack, rather than to attack and get dropped. I don’t like that style of racing. Everyone is predictable these days, and the easiest way to get beaten is to be predictable. Sometimes you have to have the balls to try something.
Q: There’s been a huge surge in interest in the northern classics in recent years. Do you feel you’re part of that?
TB: It’s two weeks of madness, but it wasn’t like that 15 years ago. When I talk to my dad, he said there used to be only 50,000 people on the side of the road. The Tour of Flanders was just the name of a race. Now they really hype it. It’s on the front page of the newspapers for two weeks. During classics week, it’s bigger than football [soccer]. But for me, cycling is always bigger than football.
Q: What would it mean to win a record fifth Paris-Roubaix?
TB: It would be one more cobblestone on the trophy shelf. Winning five times would be something special. Only two have won it four times, so you would be there all alone.
Q: Do you prefer poor weather for the northern classics?
TB: For sure, when it’s wet and muddy, it’s a different race. It’s like racing over the cobbles with a layer of soap on them. I’ve always done a lot of training on cyclocross bikes in the winter, so I am not afraid of them. No one likes to race in bad weather, but it does add some magic.
Q: What do you remember of your first Roubaix, in 2002, when you finished third with U.S. Postal Service?
TB: After all these years, that is still one of my most fun days on the bike. I was 21, and being at the front of the race was amazing. Not a lot of people knew me, and the Belgian fans thought I was American. I was getting beers thrown on me because I was chasing Museeuw. At a certain point, I had to wait for Hincapie. Maybe I could have gone with Museeuw. When I reached the velodrome, I didn’t realize what I had accomplished. After that day, everything changed for me. That’s when it all started.
Q: You’ve never won Milano-Sanremo. Why?
TB: I was close to winning it a few times, but it never worked out. I was always a little too nervous in that race. I really wanted to win it, and maybe I wanted to win it too much.
Q: The worlds are in Qatar, where you’ve had a lot of success with the Tour of Qatar. How do you rate your chances for another world title?
TB: I think it will be a race for pure sprinters. People keep talking about echelons, but we only do 80 kilometers in the desert. The rest of the race is on a circuit in the city, so there won’t be much wind there. I’ve raced there during that time of year, and I’ve noticed that racing at 40 kilometers per hour at 45 degrees (Celsius) is not as easy as going 60 kilometers per hour at 25 degrees. It’s going to be a completely different kind of race than what we’ve done there at the Tour of Qatar.