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News Feature, April 12, 2008
Boonen and Devolder lead Quick Step into hell
By Brecht Decaluwé in Kortrijk
After a tremendous performance in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Belgian Quick Step team is ready to conquer Hell next Sunday. Paris-Roubaix has been a race that was dominated by the Belgian team in the past, until more recent editions where CSC took over control of the pavé.
Both Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder explained to the press in the Kennedy hotel in Kortrijk, that they are ready to conquer the cobbles in the North of France. Once again, we can expect Devolder to demolish the opposition simply by leading the peloton. Meanwhile Boonen will be sitting back to exploit his sprinting skills when a group of favourites reaches the final stretches of pavé near Roubaix.
The team's line-up for Roubaix changed a little with Barredo and Steegmans being replaced by Kevin Hulsmans and Wouter Weylandt. Popular Boonen was clearly a relaxed man as he tried to joke around the most casual questions. "How the team is going? I think they are bad," Boonen tried to sound serious. "Everybody is riding at the expected level. Maybe some people were surprised by the performances from Barredo and Wijnants, but not me."
The Quick Step riders did a reconnaissance of the Paris-Roubaix course on Friday. The riders started at the Trouée d'Arenberg and rode until the pavé section number six in Cysoing. Directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters then drove the rest of the course with newbies Maarten Wijnants and Wouter Weylandt.
Boonen produced another one of his jokes when asked about how the cobbles were. "They have been there for about 200 years, and they are still the same as they used to be; they remain cobbles." Boonen laughed. The weather situation will decide on how the cobbles will present themselves to the riders. Peeters explained that, in his opinion, the Madiot pavé section and those from Mons-en-Pevele are the worst to ride over.
The team's leader reminded the press about another factor. "The wind will play an important role. If it's a headwind then the peloton will be riding like brats and we will all wait as long as possible to start the finale. With a tailwind it will be a tougher and faster race, which I prefer as the selection will be easier to make," Boonen explained.
"The favourites? They are the same from last Sunday," 'Tommeke' continued. A lot of riders can be ranked among the favourites as it seems that this year nobody is dominating the peloton. "Not much has changed, but all the good riders are in top form and that's why so many guys can battle for the win," Boonen explained. "During the Ronde van Vlaanderen I noticed that Cancellara is no longer the super strong man from three or four weeks ago."
Boonen didn't want to make a serious comment about Leif Hoste, from the Silence-Lotto team, which is the main rival of the Quick Step team in Belgium. "I can't judge him since I didn't see him during the Ronde van Vlaanderen; he was always in the chasing group," Boonen joked. "He had bad luck and was forced to chase all day long. I saw him for a couple of seconds on the Oude Kwaremont and also the Koppenberg, but nothing more. Eventually he joined us with three kilometres to go, so it's hard to evaluate him."
Suddenly Boonen recalled that there's one man that should be added to the list of favourites. "Magnus Backstedt is totally focused on this race, and he will be one of the men to beat."
The Belgian press reminded Boonen again about the fact that he hasn't won a race in Belgium this year. Apparently wins in foreign countries aren't as important for them and Boonen has already explained last week that he can't be chasing the win in every race he starts in. Despite the win from team-mate Stijn Devolder, the questions about a poor season from Boonen were heard again. Boonen understood why it happened. "It's a game. If I give a comment then somebody else reacts on that and we've got a story going. It's an endless circle," Boonen commented when Cyclingnews asked him about the Belgian pressure.
"In the Ronde van Vlaanderen we both had our chances," Boonen said of Devolder. "There wasn't a moment in the race where I could ride away [as he had team-mate Stijn Devolder in front] as I was the watchdog in the chasing group. When the favourites attacked I was there, but it didn't go far so I sat back. It was a good position for me. If the leaders were caught then I could have a go. I was very happy with the win from Stijn, but we can't both win, can we?"
Tornado Tom further explained that he knew what he was doing although it limits his chances to have a successful year. "I realize that by focusing on this important week I'm not offering myself a lot of chances; I'm judged on these two races [Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix], but since winning and losing are so close to each other you need some luck to get the win."
"I'm good, so why would I worry about Sunday. I'm ready to ride a beautiful race," Boonen said the expected and realized he did. "It probably would've been more fun if I said that I'm ready to get dropped on Sunday," the 27-year-old laughed. "It's not that I have to win. I want to win. I've got a strong will to win Paris-Roubaix."
The blonde Belgian continued to explain how he approached the Spring Classics. "I focus on these races, but I acknowledge that I can't win one of them win each year. The only thing I can do is doing everything for it, to make it happen. I'm still improving every day, and I'm at the level where I expected to be. If everything goes my way, then I should play an important part in the race on Sunday, just like Stijn [Devolder]."
Paris-Roubaix has everything to remain a special race in the future. It's one of the few races that still finishes on a track and of course the cobbles give the race a heroic character. Then there are also the famous showers in Roubaix where everybody is considered equal, since whoever gets there managed to reach the finish which is a great accomplishment, champion or not.
Boonen likes the tradition of the French Monument although the famous showers in Roubaix aren't really his cup of tea. "When I arrive there they have run out of hot water. I could decide to ride faster and be one of the first to take a shower, but if you win then you get there as last one due to all the podium ceremonies," Boonen laughed.
"It's a bit special, that's true. Although I have to admit that I haven't been there since 2002; I always took a shower in the team bus. The team is always staying in an ordinary hotel [Auberge La Veille Ferme] where nothing is modern, but it's very cozy. Actually I think the Germans even stayed there in the same conditions," Boonen joked.
By giving the press conference in Kortrijk the Quick Step team breaks with a tradition of many years, as it was always held court in the small 'bar tabac' l'Allumette in France. "That's true, but it is because we're in a hotel close to the course, instead of Ghent like previous years."
We bet the owners of the bar tabac will see a huge loss of income in 2008, but Boonen can still make up for that if he organizes a post-race party in the not-fancy bar after a good performance in Hell. He can permit himself a small party after Paris-Roubaix since there's only the Scheldeprijs left on Wednesday for Boonen; traditionally he skips the Wallonian classics that follow after the Scheldeprijs. "A different peloton lines up in the Amstel Gold Race. I have never ridden it, and I won't do it this year either; maybe I'll never ride it," Boonen disappointed the Dutch fans that would certainly like to see Tornado Tom on the Cauberg.
Stijn Devolder, winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, again will feature as lieutenant from Boonen in Hell. The tandem proved that their partnership can be successful last week where Boonen neutralized whoever fancied a counterattack towards his team-mate in front. "We know that we will have each other in the finale again," Devolder explained. "Perhaps I'm more confident and relaxed now, with the win in Flanders under my belt. Although Tom doesn't need a win with his palmarès, as he will remain the super champion he is," he continued.
The Belgian champion didn't have a lot of sleep after his win in the Ronde, but he was still keen on a good performance. "I always long for these races. It starts in Waregem, and before you know it they are all ridden," he said of his love for the cobbled Classics. "If you have won one of them, there's satisfaction, but if you didn't then you are mad it is over again," he admitted. "I'm still hungry. I've got hunger for races."
Whoever wins the Ronde van Vlaanderen is always asked about the famous 'double', Flanders and Roubaix, and so was Devolder asked about his chances. "Of course I think about it, but it's not obvious. I have a mental advantage over my rivals, and there's less pressure. We'll see on Sunday."
The weather forecast predicts rain on Sunday, and Devolder didn't know what to think about it. "I've never ridden on the cobbles in the rain, so I'll have to wait and see. I'll tell you after the race how I felt about it. I'm not afraid of it since I think it might be an advantage for me; the race will be harder than in dry conditions."
The Belgian will not change a lot on his bike, in contrast to Boonen who will use a bike with a longer wheel base. "I don't think you should change too much on a bike. The past has shown some riders what can go wrong," Devolder pointed out that special features aren't always adding to a rider's performance, without naming names like Johan Museeuw or George Hincapie.
The latter has been a team-mate of Devolder until last year. "Hincapie will certainly be there as it's his favourite race." Nonetheless the American told Cyclingnews that he didn't want to choose Roubaix above Flanders, saying they are both very important races. Then again, Devolder isn't really the type of rider that tends to look to the opposition in a race, as he showed once again in the Ronde van Vlaanderen.