PEZ Talk: Etixx’s Tom Boonen
Rider Interview: Tom Boonen has not had the best of seasons over the past couple of years, but with only (maybe) one or two left, he is hoping for some better luck. With one of the best and longest palmarès in the pro peloton, a couple more Classic wins would put him in the record books for a long time; five wins in Roubaix and Four in Flanders would be the icing on the cake.
We caught up with ‘Tommeke’ for an update on his injuries and his hopes for this Spring season and get some secrets on riding those cobbles.
How is the form for 2016?
Tom Boonen: Now it is okay. Before the first training camp I didn’t do much, I wasn’t able to do much, so I was a little bit afraid that I had a big set-back, but in the end when I started training with the guys it all went much better than I expected I would be and now at this point I don’t think I have anything to gain on them any more. I am almost at the same level as I was last year.
Are the doctors happy with your recovery?
That depends on which doctor you talk to. The first specialist I spoke to said for the first six weeks, don’t ride, that’s the first thing they said. As you know the evolution of an athlete always goes a little faster than for everyone else, but it is not a fracture or anything you can put a date on, so that was the most annoying thing for me, the first few weeks. Normally you are told things will heal in three weeks or six weeks and you see if it hurts a little bit or it gets better, but with this you have to wait and see how it goes. The first rides I did, I would do a two hour ride and I would come home and have to stop for the day, I was so sick and tired, it was really something annoying. One day after another I started to get better and really in one week it got much better and from the first training camp I was training normally and for me thats a good thing. For me just sitting at home and waiting is not something I like.
What does it mean to you to return to the Spring Classics?
I hope, I hope I get this little present as I think I deserve it after the last three seasons, I’ve had my share of bad luck. Also now with something stupid, I wanting to ride Abu Dhabi so I could finish the season as late as possible, have a short break and prepare for the Spring Classics the best way possible and this happened again, almost the same way I started I finished the season. So I hope from now on the bad luck is behind me and I can be at the start at my best.
Does your ear problem affect your riding?
On the bike it’s okay, probably the best moment of the day. I don’t have any problem, I hear the noise of the surroundings, the cars, the wind and everything, that sort of neutralizes it so you don’t have the idea of one side is better than the other. So I don’t have any problem.
There is no orientation problems?
No, no, no, if I would have had that I would have stayed off the bike. I’m not dizzy or anything, I’ve done all the tests, several times, to make sure everything was okay, also fast movements, stops and everything. That was the first most important thing for me was that I was safe. For the first weeks they were afraid that I might have epileptic attacks, so I had to make sure nothing like that would happen and of course I’m 100% sure now.
Did you ever ask yourself ‘why do I do this?’
It doesn’t matter where you are, it could happen anywhere, training or anything, stuff like that happens. No, I thought of quitting, because I don’t want to do it like that… quitting is the easy way.
What is the best way to quit?
By winning a Classic.
Do you think it will be a special season with Cancellara retiring at the end of it?
For him it will be a special season, but maybe it will be more special for me by winning a Classic. No, I admire Fabian, he made his mind up that it was all over. I’ve thought about it a few times, it’s nice to think about not riding your bike anymore and having to stay speedy, but I like to ride my bike and being speedy as well.
You have only signed a one year contract, is that to leave the door open to retirement?
It’s not like you if you sign a contract for two years you can’t stop after one year, if you want to. But I want to keep my options open at this point, I’ll be 36 at the end of this season and that is not an age that you think you will go on for another 10 years, that’s why I wanted to sign for a year and keep my options open and wait and see. I want to do something in cycling, not full time, just a little bit to stay in-touch with the guys, stay with the team a little bit, nothing that will keep me away from home more than I am now. I have already started with some other things that I will continue with, but in the end it’s nice to have all your options open in the end of the season.
Have the new riders made any difference to the feeling in the team?
It’s always good to get fresh people in the team. Being together with all these guys over all these years, but in the end now there is only five or six people, including the staff, that are here from the first year, so in cycling everything evolves and comes back. So it’s nice to have some new riders in the team and Marcel (Kittel) is a really good guy, I will ride more races with Marcel than Dan (Martin), but it’s nice to have someone also who is at a point in his career who has to get back into position and we will be happy to help him with that.
What is it like to also have new young guys in the team?
Laurens De Plus is only 20, just 20 years old! I could almost be his dad, in theory I could. Yeah, but it’s nice, it keeps you young as well. To be 35 and have a young state of mind as well because we have the young guys coming in. Everything is new for them and we share the enthusiasm.
Do you think the Classics have changed?
No, when I turned pro, the only style acceptable was; wait, wait, wait and I tried to change it a little bit and now everyone is waiting again. Because they are all afraid of each other, they are so afraid to do one thing too much that they might get dropped in the final. I think some people prefer to lose the race, not to attack than attack and get dropped, and I don’t like it.
A couple of years ago you attacked quite far out form the finish in Roubaix, was that an example of the old style racing?
At that point I was there with Thomas and we were a little bit with the wind and there were two key points were we almost got away from the other guys and we didn’t drop them and they just came back, but I’m sure if we had 15 meters more on them, it would have been me and Thomas doing the final there, nobody else. In the end they came back and we came to the finish line with ten guys, Niki won with nine guys behind him. Sometimes you have to have the balls to try something like that. Everybody just waits for the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the easiest way to be beaten is to be predictable and everyone is predictable these days. It’s nice to have a team that does something that no one expects or a guy that does something no body expects.
How do you prepare mentally for the Classics?
I’m really good at it. I shut off the weeks before the Classics, my girlfriend says I get in my cave and I don’t come out before the race is over, I don’t know this, I think I’m normal, but I’m not talking as much and I’m just focused, it’s a state of mind you just get into and I think I need that to get in a really special Roubaix or Tour of Flanders mode; only the bike and only you and you on the bike. When I walk into the press conference before the race, that is the only time I read or talk or do anything with the press, the rest just passes by me. I just try to focus, do my training rides, do my recon and not get a bunch of things in my mind that wont help me. If I say something, they put it in the papers. I talk when I need to talk, at the press conference, like all the other riders, nobody is talking every day to the press these days. I think it’s the same for everyone, you’re aiming at the Judgement Day, the day everyone is going to judge you on and you try to keep your head as clear as possible and not put too much stuff in there that doesn’t really belong there. I understand that everybody wants to know, especially before Flanders, the week before Flanders, not only the two weeks before Harelbeke, which is considered the general exam, it’s two weeks of five or six pages a day in the papers. At the end of those two weeks there is nothing there any more, there is nothing left to write, it has all been said and done.
The Classics are now as big in the English speaking World as the Tour, do you think you have contributed to that?
I hope so. It is true a lot has changed, like you guys know that, before the Tour of Flanders, it is two weeks in the papers and when I look back at it, it wasn’t like that 15 years ago. You talk to my dad, who also did Flanders 20 years ago, was a big race, but it was 50,000 people at the side of the road, yeah it was the Tour of Flanders, but if you look back in history everyone says, ‘those where the big days’, but if you talk to the riders from the 70’s and the 80’s, the Tour of Flanders was just a name, it was a race in Flanders that was called the Tour of Flanders, the same distance we see now. But from 15 years ago till now, they have really hyped it.
Would you say that this is the only time of year that cycling is more important than football in Flanders?
For me it’s always more important! Yeah, but in those two weeks it’s the first 10 pages, it’s in all the papers, page 10 to 20.
What did you think of John Degenkolb’s win in Roubaix last year?
John took a good win, he decided on when it was time to bridge across and stay and wait, so technically he made a good move and he wasn’t afraid to ride. That’s a nice thing, you don’t see that often with the fast guys any more also Kristoff, he’s a guy like that. I was talking about everyone waiting for the Kwaremont, but that is also the parcour, the old parcour had more possibilities, there were 5 or 6 climbs before Tenbose, in Roubaix it depends more on the wind there, but everyone just waits for the Carrefour de l’Abere, everybody is afraid to go and lose the race, they can go and lose the race or win it. Every year is different.
What does the record win at Flanders or Roubaix mean to you?
Another cobble stone in the closet. Yeah, winning it four times there is only two guys in the World who have done it, so winning it five times…
What do you remember of the 2002 Paris-Roubaix?
I was 7th in Gent-Wevelgem and 6th in De Panne, De Panne was my first race in Belgium that year, I just came back from the States, they made me do a program there and then I did De Panne, Flanders, Wevelgem and Roubaix, that was it. I came 7th in Wevelgem, 14th in Flanders, 7th in Wevelgem and was picked for Roubaix. There was some wind and I rode it as an amateur a few times, so I knew it was possible an echelon would go, so I was paying attention and I was the only guy who was in the front group, so that’s when it all started and survived and survived and then the big guys came back and I had some strength left in the legs and I just kept riding. Musseeuw went and I had to wait for Hincapie, I could have gone with Museeuw, not to the finish, but I would have been able to go with him. I was a memorable day, I think. I got to the finish line, but I was not really sure what I had just done and after that it all changed.
What extra skills do you need to ride a muddy Paris-Roubaix?
It’s not just your skills, if you have to go through those first five, six cobbles stone sections in the wet, you don’t only depend on your skills, but the 50 guys in front of you as well, that is the most dangerous part in the rain. I was lucky enough to be in the break that year, we also had around 30 riders, we lost between 3 and 5 riders on each cobble stone sections and in the end there was only me left. Wet cobble stones and muddy cobble stones are really something else, it’s like having a lair of soap on them almost. A special way to ride. I’ve always been someone who rides a lot on the cyclocross bike and in Belgium in the winter we have a lot of mud and it is a case of being used to it and not being afraid makes it a little bit easier. I’m not sure if it will happen again.
For sure it was one of the most fun days I’ve had on my bike, because I was only 21 and being in front in a race like that. Even the Belgian guys there thought I was an American, no body knew who I was. I was getting beer thrown over me because Museeuw was in front and I was pulling behind. That is how famous I was at that time. Anyway I had the most fun in my life that day. I remember when we were driving home with my parents, we stopped at a restaurant and none of us believed what just happened there.
You are the last man still racing of the 41 riders who finished that day, how do you feel about that?
I’m so proud of it, I’m so proud I finished that day. 41 finished that day, those are not the sort of numbers you come across these days, a ProTour, a Monument that starts with 200 guys and there is only 41 at the finish line, doesn’t happen anymore. It does make me feel a little bit older than I feel,
When you retire, who will fill the hole in Belgian cycling?
I don’t know. Does it need to filled? In Belgium there are riders, but different kinds of riders, not the same style. But in the end you don’t know, you have to wait. When I got my first results you never know what can happen after that.
You were winning from the start.
Yeah, I was 23.
Are the World championships on your schedule?
It’s kind of strange, I hope. Everyone says ‘you have won a lot in Qatar’ and I have also raced in that region at that time of year and I’ve noticed that riding at 40K per hour in 45 degrees is not as easy as riding at 60K per hour in 25 degrees, so it’s going to be completely different to races we did in February in Qatar. I don’t think we are able to compare it and it is almost impossible to do an echelon in those conditions. Also it’s laps, you have 80K’s to get there and then you have laps in the city, so you wont have the wind. Probably it will be a sprint.
Apart from a Classic win, what do you want from 2016?
Stay healthy, enjoy my kids a little bit more than I did and that’s about it.
Are you enjoying fatherhood?
Well, I’m not at home, so I’m not enjoying it. It’s nice, they have started walking a little bit, so life has changed for good.