PEZ Chats: Tom Boonen!
Tom Boonen is on the come-back trail after an illness ridden 2013 season. He’s been training since his full recovery from a tricky cyst on an important part of a cyclist’s anatomy and wants to start the season with a bang and he’s already proved that in Qatar. We caught up with the Belgian multi-champion in Spain as he piled in the kilometres.
Tom Boonen had a brilliant 2012 season with a string of victories; he was the first rider to win the E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year. He also equalled the records of three wins in Flanders and four wins in Roubaix and finished the season off with a win in Paris-Brussels. 2013 was a different story, he spent a week in hospital with an infected arm, crashed out in Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders and didn’t start Roubaix due to a broken rib, and then in August he called a halt to the season due to a perineum cyst. So what can we expect from ‘Tommeke’ in 2014?
PEZ: How many days have you been home since December?
Tom Boonen: Since December, seven! I’ve been here (in Spain), first we stayed in Oliva 45K’s from here, in December with the team and then I went home for four days for Christmas, came back here to this hotel (Calpe) and stay here till now. I go back home for three days and the team presentation, then it’s off to Argentina and until the 25th of February I will be away.
PEZ: Is that normal these days?
Tom: It’s busy, but actually I don’t mind, I put the plan together like this because the last three years we have had really bad weather, so you had to be in a foreign country to train. So to avoid that I wanted to make sure I always had the possibility to train, that’s why we chose to stay in Spain and to have a busy race program in some nice sunny countries.
PEZ: You started training early this winter, so are you ahead of schedule with your fitness?
Tom: No, it’s good. I started pretty early with a lot of gym work because I had the time and I was bored, which was the only reason, so I had 12 weeks in the gym, combined with some cycling and some running and everything. In October I started my specific bike work, combined also with gym work until now. So I’ve been training a long time and I’m waiting to start racing again.
PEZ: You have said you had to retune your body, what do you mean by that?
Tom: I was out for two months; I didn’t do anything, not a lot, almost nothing for two months. In two months everything is gone so you have to start from zero again.
PEZ: Are you looking forward to battle again with Fabian Cancellara in Roubaix and Flanders?
Tom: Yeah, with everyone. I’m looking forward to be at the start line at 100% fitness and then we will see who the contenders are for those races, first objective is always to have good health and if you have that you can prepare yourself 100%. As always we will see who is in good shape for those races.
PEZ: Who else would you be worried about?
Tom: I’m not worried about anyone, I’m only worried about my own health, if I’m 100% fit and I have a good mind. I like it when the good riders are good, but you have to only consider yourself and think about yourself and you don’t have to think about too many riders.
PEZ: Have you been getting help with your gym training?
Tom: I have a personal trainer who I have worked with for many years and I always work with him, he isn’t a cycling specialist, well he is now after all these years, but he also worked with Kim Clijsters, the tennis player, it’s a different approach and I like it. If you work with cycling trainers everyone has the same vision and it’s really, really not broad thinking, so it’s sometimes better to have someone from outside the sport to help your training. Normally we never have time to do stuff like this, you finish the season, you’re tired, you go on holiday and then you come back and its half way through November and you think “oh shit I have to start training again.” So now I had some extra time and I’ve been working with this guy for some time, but normally we don’t have that much time, it was always a few weeks, maybe after the Classics. Normally they say six weeks is enough time, so I did two times six weeks to really build my strength and do some extra training to really regain that strong body, it was a good approach, and it was really nice.
PEZ: Were you training the whole body or specific areas?
Tom: No it’s the whole body, a lot of core exercises, leg exercises and a little bit for the arms, but I have to be careful not to do too much or I’ll be weighing 90 kilos!
PEZ: And do you feel a difference on the bike?
Tom: Yeah, you know when you feel it? Accelerating out of the saddle in the sprint, the first four or five punches, they are like, boom, you hit them right on the target. Normally when you get tired at the end of a long race you start to lose control a little bit, that’s when this training kicks in and you stay more stable on the bike and the initial acceleration, that’s when it really kicks in and is really helpful.
PEZ: Were you depressed with all the problems you had last year?
Tom: After 30 years I’ve had a lot of good times and some bad luck also. I was really mad the first few days because I had just come back from altitude training and had been training my ass off for three weeks, I came back two days before the Tour de Wallonie and on the second day this was starting. Finished in Wallonie and won a stage and everything, but I knew it was going to be bad because I had this in 2011 at the end of the season and it cost me eight weeks or something like that. So if you have the same problem when you are 32 years old you know it’s not going to be healed in a week, so I was really worried about it. They said we will see, but I was already sure the season was over at that point, it was the end of July and in eight weeks it would be the end of September and then you have to start training again. I said straight away I will stop now and let this heal properly, because it’s a serious injury that can end your career, if you are not lucky. Then I started training again properly for this season, the team said it was OK, I took my time for it to heal properly and we are here now.
PEZ: Did you watch much cycling?
Tom: Yea I saw a lot of cycling actually, I was watching the Tour when we were in Levigno, I watched a little less racing when I was sitting at home with my injury, but it was the summer time and normally we don’t get the chance to do something nice in the summer and now I had some more free time, so it wasn’t all bad.
PEZ: What was the most difficult moment of this bad year?
Tom: The start of the year, especially when I had the bacteria in my arm. It was right after the training camp we had the team presentation and I had this little cut in my arm that I hadn’t even noticed, then suddenly two days later they nearly had to cut my arm off. It was really bad and then I was in hospital for almost two weeks on heavy anti-biotic all the time and then I knew all the work I had done was for nothing, that was the hardest moment. And then you’re trying to regain your strength and trying to think positive and you say “maybe it’s too early for Flanders, but maybe for Roubaix” and then I crashed again. So it was just a year to forget, there was nothing really good to remember about it cycling wise.
PEZ: Was there anything about the year that was good?
Tom: Like I said I had the whole summer off! Which is not something that happens very often, normally we are suffering somewhere in a bike race. It was not all bad. Once you take the decision and you say “OK we are finished for the season” then it’s better for your mind, and when you keep thinking and setting time limits, that’s when you get stressed and you keep worrying.
PEZ: This year you have the chance to set the record in Flanders and Roubaix, is this a goal you’ve had in your head since you started?
Tom: No, I started my career not knowing if I would ever win a bike race as a professional, so for sure you don’t have the idea I will try to compete for a record in a Classic like Flanders or Roubaix. But right now the moment is there, I’ve won them three times and four times, so it’s not like I will be more motivated because that’s not possible, I will go 100% on both of them, of course they are my big goals because it’s maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity.
PEZ: And if you reach this goal, what else after that?
Tom: Maybe one more then, no we will see. I have, for the moment, two more years with the team and the team is beautiful and everything is well balanced, I think we have guys for every race so for the moment it’s really fun riding here, so at least two years and maybe another one and then we will see.
PEZ: Will you have another shirt on your back this year?
Tom: Yea that’s the objective for this year, ever the National championships are a nice par course for me and I’ve heard from ex-colleagues that the World championships are also good, if you look at the figures; its 4,000 and a little bit metres of climbing, it’s like Madrid a little bit. So we will see, I’ll go there well motivated and well prepared.
PEZ: Is it important for you to start the 2014 season in good form?
Tom: I like to start strong, maybe not as strong as is possible, but I like to start strong. Straight away put a stamp on the start of the season, show everybody that I am back. Not only for the rest of the world but for me, for the team as well. If I have a good season I always start strong and then I just keep going a little bit. That’s also my objective since I started training again; I want to have a really proper good season, and every month maybe have a victory, like always.
Tom: The Best Bits.
PEZ: Is this the most motivated you have ever been?
Tom: Motivation, of course if you have bad luck it sort of nibbles away the motivation, the better you are and the better it goes, the easier it is to stay motivated. So when I started training again I was really lucky that my trainer started pushing me and then you start growing again and thinking again that its coming back. And as soon as you hit that then it’s all a matter of time until before you have the good condition again and the motivation is bigger than it was before. Even in 2013 after all that bad luck I kept believing that it was possible, but of course it’s in the back of your mind you know that it’s going to be very difficult. Right now everything is at more than 100%, I haven’t been sick at all, nothing, no little injuries, so until now it’s been very good preparation for this year.
PEZ: What about your confidence about getting back to the form of 2012?
Tom: I know everything has an expiry date, so you never know when it’s going to hit you, but right now I’m afraid that it’s not already there. In 2012 I had the impression about myself that I had never been stronger than that year, so I was still evolving, maybe I wasn’t getting stronger, but I could use my energy better and more economically and you’re getting smarter. When I had the problem with my elbow, just before that I was flying, so I was actually better than I think I was the year before at that point, so I was going to have a good season. Now I think I am on the same level again as I was in ‘12 at this moment. All I need now is competition and a few victories and I will be going again.
PEZ: Were you pleased about the numbers when you did an on the bike threshold test?
Tom: Yeah I’m always happy with the numbers, I hate those tests actually. I set the record on that thing when I was 23 years old and never broke it. That means that the older you get the less you care about it.
PEZ: What impact did Mark Cavendish have when he came to the team last year?
Tom: I would never ever have had the chance to rest and recover as peacefully as I have now, if this had been a bad team. These guys took away a lot of pressure and they were winning and everyone was happy, everybody left me alone and that was what I needed at that moment. It was kind of the same with Tony (Martin) in 2012, he really wasn’t having a good start and I was winning everything and afterwards he said; “if this had been another team they would have cut my head off,” but now nobody looks further than the victories, so we have peace and quiet and you can train and try to find good shape again, so I was very happy to be a part of this team. And Mark; if he wins as many stages as he won last year he will have had an incredible season
PEZ: What kind of relationship do you have with Mark?
Tom: We are really friendly, he’s a good guy and we have a lot of contact as well. I’m looking forward to maybe doing more races with him, we have so many guys for the sprints right now, of course nature is going to decide that someone is going to get sick or injured, but I think we have a really, really strong team to set up a good train and it’s also something that keeps you busy and motivated and its nicer to have that than finishing Roubaix and saying; “well see you in six months back in January at the training camp”. It’s nicer to have something to look forward too.
PEZ: In the Tour de France is your main goal to be working for Mark?
Tom: For the moment the program is fixed until Roubaix and then we can talk about the rest of the season.
PEZ: What do you think of the loss of Sylvain Chavanel, is there someone in the team who can take his place?
Tom: Everybody is always talking about Stybar, but he is actually a different kind of rider. For sure he is worthy of the place of Chavanel, but he is more explosive, he can go boom in 300 metres, Sylvain didn’t have that. If you take Stybar into account you have to put him in a different role, but he is going to be a guy to beat in one or two years, he has the same points as Sagan has on the climbs and he has only been on the road for a couple of years. He can only get stronger and smarter
PEZ: How can the team compensate for Chavanel in the finalé of the Classics?
Tom: The team is strong enough I think to fill his role, maybe shared with some riders. We have guys for every part of the race right now, I think Sylvain might be missed, but we have enough riders to have a strong team in all the races we compete.
PEZ: Were you surprised by the level of Vandenbergh last year?
Tom: No, Stijn is somebody who is very, very strong and he was really underrated when we took him in the team, nobody really knew him, but I knew him. If you look at his pure engine; he is like a big train, so strong. So if you have him in perfect conditions and you can put him in the final of a race, for sure he’s going to the finish line, but the only thing is he doesn’t have the punch to get a gap or to win a sprint, so it’s difficult for him to win a race. He’s found a very good role in our team and for sure he will be rewarded for that one day, he’s going to win a race one day
PEZ: Was there anyone who you spoke to during your problems last year?
Tom: I’m a strange guy on this, I’m better left alone. I’m serious about it. I don’t really like people calling me all the time. If I walk down the street in Belgium and I have a problem; 8 out of 10 people will come and ask me about it, so I have to talk about it all day long. So after a week of that, then friends call me and they ask me about it. So it’s better to just talk about normal stuff in life and their problems and what they like, I like that more than thinking and talking about my own problems, maybe that’s the reason.
PEZ: Is there another Tom Boonen out there?
Tom: I don’t know. I never liked to be compared to Museeuw and I still don’t like to be compared to anyone. There is a lot of talent coming up right now, but it’s a pity I don’t follow the youths anymore in Belgium or anywhere, there are good guys in the Etixx team and the other young guys. I know a few good guys in Belgium, it’s just I don’t know their names, but for sure there are some good talent coming up. But with the professionals at the moment in Belgium I don’t think there is anyone you really need to take care of, to look at.
PEZ: What about on the World stage?
Tom: I’ve been out for a while, come back to me after the Classics and we will talk again and then maybe I’ll have some good names.
PEZ: You said you dream about being able to do a wheelie like Peter Sagan.
Tom: I really do, I’m serious, I dream about it. I dream that I’m crossing the finish line like Peter does, but I can’t.
PEZ: Is there a little piece of you who would like to see him fall off?
Tom: He is so good he doesn’t do that. One time in Liege in the prologue of the Tour de France he stayed up when the front wheel went. He he is a really good bike handler, he can do things on a bike that not many other guys can do. I like it, for sure if one thousand kids are watching him do a wheelie over the finish line, then eight hundred of them will be trying it that evening and out of that eight hundred, fifty of them are going to start racing. So it can only be good for cycling.
PEZ: Is he at the same level as you and Cancellara or has he still a little bit to go?
Tom: It’s so difficult to say, he still has a whole life in front of him, a whole life with ups and downs and injuries and it all depends on how it goes, if he has a worry free life and everything stays like this, then he is going to be one of the greats. But if he breaks a leg or a hip, you never know. The talent is there.
PEZ: But you need experience on the cobbles, he needs to learn?
Tom: Yeah, but Sagan is one of those guys that the natural laws don’t really count for him, he just has this special…I don’t know, he just goes into his own on a bike and it looks like he doesn’t care and he just follows, he’s really something special. I’m sure if he is in Roubaix, he will be at the final, he doesn’t need experience.
PEZ: Do you think the Belgian riders on the team are using too much hair gel?
Tom: Yeah, for sure!
Tom Boonen might be coming into the autumn of his career, but his motivation should carry him to many big wins for a few years yet. He is such a classy rider that just about anything is possible for the man from Mol, hopefully he will be exciting the fans for many a year yet, with or without the Belgian hair gel!