Antwerp – Tom Boonen may be a week away from retirement butthe Belgian legend still believes he can win Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Boonen is a major star in his home country and has wonBelgium’s biggest race a joint record three times – 2005, 2006 and 2012.
But at 36 years of age this will be his last ‘Ronde VanVlaanderen’ before he retires following next week’s Paris-Roubaix – the twoprestigious races being the biggest one-day cobbled classics on the calendar.
It’s three years since Boonen won a cobbled classic – theless high-profile Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – and contrary to most of his previousappearances at the Ronde, he is not one of the big favourites.
After years of battling with Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellaraat the two ‘Monument’ cobbled classics, Boonen is expected to be a bystander asOlympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and world champion Peter Sagan battle forhonours.
But Boonen doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not without ambition, even though in my mind thereis one man above the rest: Greg Van Avermaet, who is without a doubt in withhis best chance of winning this year,” said Boonen.
“But that doesn’t prevent me from believing in mychances. I’m not here for the show – I’ve come here to win and our collectivestrength could definitely help me.”
Boonen’s Quick Step Floors team always brings the mostpowerful squad to the race with several potential winners.
Boonen has often been the team leader but if he’s marked, itopens up possibilities for other riders, as Stijn Devolder exploited in successiveyears in 2008 and 2009.
Niki Terpstra did likewise at Paris-Roubaix in 2014, soloingaway to victory.
Asked then if Terpstra’s victory was some consolation Boonenhad replied: “When you put in all that effort, it’s to win foryourself.”
But strong team-mates are a huge advantage on a 261km racewith 18 climbs and 14 cobbled sections.
As well as Terpstra, a top 10 finisher in four of the lastfive years, Quick Step have Yves Lampaert, recent winner of Dwars doorVlaanderen, Zdenek Stybar, a top 10 finisher in the last two Ronde editions,and of course Philippe Gilbert.
More known for his prowess at the Ardennes Classics later inthe month, Gilbert is returning to Flanders for the first time in five years.
He was third in 2009 and 2010 and Boonen says he will beQuick Step’s main man.
“Given what he’s shown since the beginning of theseason, our team leader is Philippe Gilbert,” said Boonen.
Belgian champion Gilbert was in fine form earlier this week,winning Three Days of De Panne while he was second at both Dwars and E3Harelbeke.
At 34, Gilbert is running out of time to win Flanders and,although he only joined Quick Step this year, he is certainly not lining up toplay a bridesmaid role.
“I’ve worked very hard to be at this level. I’ve knownfor several months I’d be racing the Tour of Flanders and I’ve been able totrain specifically for this. I’m ready!” he said.
Boonen has been warned, not to mention Van Avermaet andSagan, although they too will surely have much to say in the final reckoning.
But most of Belgium will no doubt be hoping Boonen can pulloff one last heroic effort, as he almost did last year when pipped by a hair’sbreadth by Australia’s Mathew Hayman at Roubaix.