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An interview with Tom Boonen, June 10, 2006

Winning is easy when you are having fun

It's been quite a year for Tom Boonen. World champion's jersey, lucrative contracts, countless victories and the adoration of a devoted Belgian public. That blend is a potent mix and makes it all the more likely he'll keep racking up the wins. Shane Stokes reports from Baden, Switzerland, after Boonen won the first stage of the Tour de Suisse.

Boonen gives his press conference
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

Sports psychologists call it the 'inverted U hypothesis of arousal,' and while this sounds like a bizarre extract from a Kama Sutra manual, it actually refers to the optimum level of stress for sports performance. The theory is that too little motivation hampers the chances of doing well, but so too does too much pressure. Striking the right balance between the two is crucial.

Tom Boonen has another word for it. It's called having fun. When he spoke to the press after his victory on the opening stage of Saturday's Tour de Suisse, it is clear that he is very much in that mindset. "It is easy to win a race when you are having fun," he stated, with a smile. "If you are too focused, too stressed, thinking too much about preparing for the Tour and obsessing about winning the green jersey – if you think like that, it is hard to go well. But if you regard it all as a game, it makes it a bit easier."

The Belgian is certainly in the right situation to feel that way. Since the start of the year he has topped the podium 17 times, exceeding the 14 wins he took in the whole of 2005. Previous world champions may have been hampered by poor post-World's seasons; however Boonen has been one of the most impressive wearers of the maillot arc-en-ciel in a long, long time.

"If you win 17 times by the tenth of June, you certainly can't say it is a bad season!" he smiles. "I always start the season without big expectations, but I try to be in good shape then. I try to prove myself against my teammates, against myself, but I never put such big expectations on me that I need to win 25 races, or I need to win this one or I need to win that one.

"I make my main goals for the classics and afterwards I try to focus on the Tour. But that said, every time that I am able to win a race, I try to win it. It is as simple as that. Not many riders try to do that in these modern days, so I am pretty proud of that."

Tom Boonen (Quick.Step)
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

Boonen's victory on Saturday was due to two main factors. Firstly, strong driving by his Quick.Step squad and Oscar Freire's Rabobank riders means that the three breakaway riders – namely lone attacker José Antonio Redondo Ramos (Astana Würth) and the two who later joined him, Michael Albasini (Liquigas) and Steve Zampieri (Phonak) were all safely back in the fold before the line.

The second was the fact that sprint rivals Robbie McEwen (Davitamon.Lotto) and Erik Zabel (Team Milram) were both dropped the second time up the short but steep Hertenstein climb. Boonen may well have beaten then anyway, but losing those two rivals before the finishing straight made his task that bit easier.

He told the press how things had unfolded. "The last lap was pretty hard. When I saw the climb the first time, I thought it mightn't be possible that it would all stay together until the end. But when we crossed the climb and then saw the fifteen kilometres which lay between there and the finish, with those fast roads, I thought then that if I could stay in the front, no break would get clear between there and the line on the last lap.

"The second time on the climb, we went up pretty fast. First Bram Tankink was pulling and then Paolo [Bettini] at the same pace. I had no problems staying in the front when McEwen and Zabel were getting dropped. That wasn't too hard, but after the top it was a little more difficult to keep things together with only two or three teammates left."

Paolo Bettini shows the strain
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

He paid credit to his Quick.Step colleagues. "Today I have had a super and strong team and they were able to control the race in every moment. Everybody have done a fantastic job. They worked a lot on the last climb, and the high rhythm they set there affected the legs of many riders. During the last few kilometres, Tankink, Nuyens, Bettini and then Tosatto perfectly piloted me up to 250 meters to go. So this is a team success."

Boonen yesterday exceeded his achievements of last year, when he was second and fourth on stages of the Tour de Suisse. He said that it was an important confidence booster. "It is not important for the Tour [to win here] but it is important to know right now that I am building form well," he stated. "Last year I had already been in very good shape before I started here. I did a very good ride in the Tour of Belgium, but in the Tour de Suisse I was a bit tired and I wasn't able to do the training and the stages that I wanted to do.

"Now I think I did a little bit more of my own preparation, in terms of training and races. The team allowed me to do everything I wanted to do and in the way that I wanted it, and so I arrived here fit. I am not super – my condition is good but not good enough to go to the Tour. But it is getting better and that is what is important. I think for me, personally, this win shows that all the hard work I did for the past few weeks is paying off."

Tom Boonen (Quick.Step)
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

Boonen was then asked if he was set on finishing the Tour de Suisse. There are four tough days in the mountains, but he said that it was too soon to discuss whether or not he would withdraw. "I don't know if I will finish this race or not," he stated. "My main goal is not to finish the Tour de Suisse. If I have any problems, or if I feel it is necessary, I will do it [pull out]. If I feel I am getting tired or the race is getting too hard or maybe if I feel I have a problem somewhere, then we will see.

"But it is too early to talk about that - today is only Saturday, there are a lot of stages to go, and I am not thinking about retiring. It is not my objective. I will just take it day by day and see how it goes."

Of course, there are three more days left which will suit the sprinters in the field. Boonen knows that he can win again here; call it the inverted U curve or just plain having fun, but there is a strong chance he can add to this victory before this Tour de Suisse heads into the high mountains on Wednesday.

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