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89th Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT
Belgium, April 3, 2005
An interview with Tom Boonen, April 4, 2005
"You have to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen solo"
Boonen comes of age as a classics rider
By Jeff Jones in Ninove-Meerbeke
For 24 year-old Tom Boonen, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen was a career ambition achieved, and he did it in the best possible way. Last week, he was extremely impressive in winning the E3 Prijs in Harelbeke, where he beat Andreas Klier in a two man sprint after the pair had escaped with 60 km to go. On Sunday, April 3, he went one better: escaping on the Valkenberg with 32 km to go together with Andreas Klier and Peter Van Petegem, the trio caught Zabel, Ballan and Petito. They then destroyed the rest of the peloton on the run into Geraardsbergen, as Discovery and Rabobank missed the bus.
Boonen accelerated at the top of the final climb of the Bosberg, and only Van Petegem was really strong enough to hold his wheel. After the regrouping, Boonen attacked again and again, before finally getting away with 9 km to go for a magnificent solo effort into Ninove-Meerbeke. Although he gained 50 metres with his first jump, the chasers knew the danger and worked hard to bring him back. They couldn't, and Boonen won the Ronde.
"Until the last kilometre I was just fighting with myself, looking at my speedometer to gain as much speed as possible," said Boonen in the post-race press conference, and described his feelings in the finale. "There wasn't a lot of time to think. But in the last kilometre, I was sure I was going to win. Then it started to break through to me, to get through in my head. In the last 500 metres, it was a strange feeling. I thought I was going to be extremely happy, but I was just sitting on my bike. It was very strange. It wasn't like I was very happy, or just sitting there. I had a lot of emotions in my body but I couldn't tell what it was. And after the finish line it was just one big yell, and 'I won the Tour of Flanders'. I think I'm going to realise it tomorrow.
"It was a big relief. With a team like this, I know the expectations are to win races like this, and not to come second or third. The week before the race, when everything was falling into place, I realised it was only me who was able to win. In the beginning I was a little bit afraid that without Bettini it was going to be difficult, without the strong guys. But I prefer it like this, I prefer to have a team around me with all the guys I have a thing about. I said it yesterday in the meeting, that this team was going to go very far. They would go through a fire for me, and that was the only way for me to win the race I think, with a team like this.
"As for the pressure, I tried to keep as low as possible. I did it by having a lot of work in the last few days and not have a lot of free time, so I didn't have a lot of time to think about the race. But then yesterday evening, it's normal you start thinking, to look at the course and start having some points in the race where you say, things are going to happen here. You start thinking about everything, how it's going to go.
"I wasn't nervous, but I was thinking about the race. That's not one of the things I normally do. I normally just lay in my bed, wake up in the morning and say 'What day is it? Ah, it's Gent-Wevelgem', so it's the normal thing for me. Pressure, there's always pressure. This year was the first time I was the real leader of the team, not in third or fourth place, and I'm very happy that I took my first chance in a race like this and I could immediately win this race."
Boonen's tactics may have surprised the others a little, because he was still considered the fastest in that six man group. But Boonen had other ideas: "If I just stayed in the group I was sure I was sprinting for second place. With six top guys like those in the breakaway, nobody wanted to go to the finish line with me. With two [T-Mobile] teammates, and Andreas and Van Petegem are very good friends; Petito - he didn't ride for a metre; Ballan was sitting in the wheel. So I was sure there was going to be some moment that someone was going to get away. So that had better be me...And you have to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen solo. At least once."
Boonen recalled his recent victory in the E3 Prijs-Vlaanderen. "Last week was also a nice win, I think. And I've always said that I'm not just a sprinter, and I have become a classics rider. In the last few years I've won bunch sprints, so I've been branded a sprinter. This is actually my preferred way of racing. In the future, maybe I have to make a choice, not to participate as much in the bunch sprints that are always dangerous, but I'll leave that for a while."
Was it a childhood dream come true to win the Ronde? "Yeah, but I've never dreamed of racing," was Boonen's quick reply. "But it is the dream of a cyclist and you see how I've worked. As a rider, normally it takes 10 years to put your mark on these sorts of races. In the past years, I've been building up, I've worked with the right people. Through all the small percentages, I've won here today. This year I was ready to play a role. I had good legs, I wasn't as super as last Saturday - I think I didn't have really the same feelings as then. But in the final when we rode away on the Paterberg, then I knew it was going well."
Not the next Museeuw
After three-time Ronde winner Johan Museeuw retired last year, Tom Boonen has been seen as his natural successor. He can sprint well, as Museeuw could early on in his career, and he can also ride the others off his wheel, like he did yesterday and in Harelbeke. But Boonen will always say that he is not Museeuw's successor. "I'm sure that when he said that to me on the podium to me in Roubaix [in 2002] it was an honour for me, but I think since last year, I'm having a different career than he is. I'm younger, I started winning races at a younger age, and I think I'm a different kind of rider to him."
Boonen's team manager Patrick Lefevere steps in at this point. "I don't like to compare different generations. I think Rik van Looy had his style, Merckx had his style, it's just the way he races. He won three, Johan, but I think Tom was in the front, or second position on the Oude Kwaremont and the other hills. I think Johan was riding a little more quietly, he was catching himself and waiting longer. Tom expressed himself very early in the race, with the team, that he was good.
"I was a little bit afraid because he was always with two or three guys in front. On the Oude Kwaremont, Nick [Nuyens] was riding the whole climb. It was 110 kilometres from the finish. We were a little bit afraid that Tom would be alone in the last 50 kilometres. Don't forget, we didn't have Bettini, Zanini, Paolini. I think a big chapeau for the guys who were here in their place. They raced really like the finish was on the next corner. I think it's a lot of motivation for Tom, to see the team only thinking about him."
Boonen won't have much time to celebrate his win, as there are two big races coming up for him this week: Gent-Wevelgem on Wednesday, which he won last year, and Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, which he would like to win.
With his form at the moment, what does Boonen think about his chances this week? "These races should suit me better," he smiles.