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An interview with Tom Boonen, April 13, 2006
Keep the pressure down - and the beer flowing
Victory in today's Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen looked all too easy for Tom Boonen, but according to him, that's his problem: "I make it seem easy." Anthony Tan learns a little more about the world champion's winning formula to keep the pressure down.
Today may not have been his biggest win, but it was by far the most popular. In Belgium, he is a hero. In the province of Antwerp, he is idolised. And in the region of Kempen, Tom Boonen is god.
So when the seven out of an eight-man Quick.Step team forged the winning break no more than 20 kilometres in the 94th edition of Flanders' oldest race, the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, the ever so anxious crowd in Schoten had already decided who would win - and Boonen knew it.
"I think everybody saw me on the podium 100 kilometres before the finish line, so yeah, there was some pressure - I couldn't fail," he admitted to Cyclingnews, despite the fact that, before the start of this race, he already added another 12 victories to his fast-growing palmarès so far this season.
Boonen also said he felt a lack of motivation after his ride last Sunday, where his eventual second place behind Swiss winner Fabian Cancellara was the consequence of a very controversial decision by UCI commissaires to disqualify three of the top four provisional placegetters, namely Leif Hoste, Peter Van Petegem and Vladmir Gussev. In fact, the 25 year-old still believes he should have come fifth.
"I was de-motivated on Monday, but last night there was a big celebration because it was Kevin Hulsmans' birthday, and when we were drinking, we said we would go full gas one more time. So it was the Duvel [Dutch for devil but also a strong beer, even by Belgian standards - ed.] that did it!" he joked.
Whether it was the water, malt, hops or yeast - the basic ingredients of that golden fluid Belgians consider so precious, yet drink in such large quantities - is anyone's guess, but this new blue train ripped the peloton to shreds after less than half an hour's racing.
"We did it the Qatar way with the wind, and our advantage was that six out of eight guys come from the neighbourhood, so we know the roads. Right after the start, we tried to stretch the peloton into parts. At the back, riders were dropped all the time - even in the finale, our co-escapees came and asked us to drop the pace because they were scared to get dropped, too. There was just enough wind to let everybody suffer enough, and that made it a little easier for us.
But easier didn't mean victory was a given, and even some of his team-mates questioned their tactics. "Everybody [in the team] felt their legs and they were tired, and they were saying, 'Ah, maybe we should do this...' [change tactics]. I said, 'No, no, just keep riding, you'll see' - and from the moment we took the speed up, nobody passed me at one time. From the moment we turned left and one and a half kilometres to go, I didn't see anybody [else]."
Self-confidence, or self-belief, is a wonderful thing. It's also something the man affectionately nicknamed 'Tommeke' has in spades, but according to Boonen, the times he loses a bunch sprint is when he questions his own judgment.
"Every time I take the race in my own hands and take my own responsibility, I succeed; every time I look at another guy, I fail," he said. "The best example is Alessandro Petacchi: every time I lose, I say to myself: 'You dumbass!' And every time I know: you shouldn't look at Petacchi; he's the only guy that gets me in situations like that."
With his current form still on a high, one would think Boonen could go on for a little longer; the world champion believes another week and maybe another win might be possible, but based on previous experience, it's better to quit while he's still at the top. There's also something else on his mind.
"My biological clock said 'stop'. I could go on one more week, but it's better to stop with good legs, so when you start your training again, the good legs are still there. You don't want to disappoint people later on in the Tour de France, that's the next objective of the season.
"I'm having a holiday now, 10 days without a bike - and I'm not telling you where I'm going!" smiled Boonen. "I'll try to stay off the bike, but it's not easy; I'll just have to force myself [to stop]."
Actually, he's not going anywhere. His long-time girlfriend Lore recently got a new job and can't take any leave as yet, so the couple will spend his days off at their second home in Monaco, which isn't too difficult a life, Boonen admits. "You'll see me [back] again in the Tour of Belgium," he told his league of fans gathered in Schoten.
It's unfortunate that someone who loves his country and region so much has to be away from it most of the year. However, when you have half the country following his every moment, with men trying to act like he acts, style their hair the same way and dress as he dresses, and women swooning, yelling his name as if they were bearing his child, Boonen needs his privacy.
Does he ever wish he could ride a race where there wasn't so much expectation to win?
Boonen smiled, hesitating for a moment before answering: "I passed that point already."
"I used to wish it but now it's impossible. I know if I restart my [racing] season in Belgium, it will be my first race in 40 days, but I know people expect me to win straight away. I know it's like that, and you have to start thinking that way also, because if you start thinking, 'Well, I'm going to take it easy the first week', then you get a lot of shit about not winning from the press and it makes things not so easy. But you learn how to handle [the pressure] after a while."