By Sam Tobin
Tom Boonen still refuses to put a date on his retirement and insists he's just looking forward to the prospect of a final Classics showdown with friendly rival Fabian Cancellara in the Swiss rider's last season.
After yet another crash-induced injury - the latest, suffered on stage two of the Abu Dhabi Tour, a dislocated shoulder and fractured temporal bone, resulting in hearing damage - Boonen is aiming for the victory at either Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders that would make him the all-time most successful rider at either event.
Boonen is currently tied on four with Roger de Vlaeminck for most Paris-Roubaix victories, while he and Cancellara are tied with Johan Museeuw, Eric Leman, Fiorenzo Magni and Achiel Buysse with three wins at the Tour of Flanders.
But with Cancellara confirming 2016 will be his last year in the peloton, Boonen is keen to get one more victory over Spartacus this spring to take sole possession of the all-time record.
"[The record] doesn’t change anything but, of course, I'm at that point where there's no way back, if I win one of them I'm the solo record holder," Boonen told Cycling Weekly at the Etixx-Quick Step training camp in Calpe.
"Of course the question keeps popping up, it's not the reason that I'm still riding, but it's nice, it means you’ve won the race a lot of times."
He added: "I don’t do it to prove myself against anybody, I just do it because I like it."
The Belgian's crash in Abu Dhabi was a bad way to end an unfortunate season, but Boonen is confident that the injury has not hampered his off-season preperations.
"I’m on schedule, if you can call it a schedule. I had eight or nine weeks doing nothing, because it was a pretty nasty injury, but in the end I was still on the bike sooner than everyone expected," he said.
“The first few rides were a little bit uncomfortable, I was a little bit afraid, but after three, four days on the bike it started to get better and I did the first training camp with the team. I did all the rides that were planned and I think now my condition is not so far from the same moment of last year."
Boonen and Cancellara have seven Classics wins apiece, with Boonen taking the 2008 Paris-Roubaix by just one second from Cancellara. Both men have won Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders in the same year twice, Boonen in 2005 and 2012, while Cancellara managed the double in 2010 and 2013.
But despite the intensity of the rivalry between the two dominant Classics riders of their generation, there's nothing but respect from the Belgian.
"The first part of my career I wasn’t really racing against Fabian, he wasn’t really well in the classics until 2010 in Flanders and a little bit earlier in Roubaix," Boonen added.
"The first part of my career was more against [Peter] Van Petegem and all those guys, [Leif] Hoste, so the last few years it’s a special rivalry because he’s won the race already a few times. He’s a nice guy to race against, he’s pretty strong, [I’m going to] try to stay with him and beat him in the sprint."
Cancellara had his fair share of bad luck in 2015 as well. While Boonen missed the Classics after dislocating his shoulder on stage one of Paris-Nice, Cancellara was ruled out of the spring races after a crash at E3 Harelbeke left him with two fractured vertebrae, before he was forced to abandon the Tour de France while in the leader's jersey on stage three.
So, will Boonen have something new to talk about with his old sparring partner?
"Yeah, racing is falling and getting back up on your feet, I suppose. The last few years, everybody seems to have a lot of bad luck, a lot of guys are injured at bad moments in the season. Hopefully this year everybody can be at the start line in a normal way without any big discomfort."
Despite his age - Boonen turned 35 in October - the Etixx-Quick Step rider has set himself some ambitious goals for the coming season, targeting a third national champion's jersey, as well as a second rainbow jersey on his happy hunting ground of Qatar, where he has won a whopping 22 stages to go with four overall victories.
"[I'm going to race the] nationals, probably a pretty good race for me, and then the Worlds in Qatar. I have some very good memories in Qatar!" he said.
"It’s going to be very difficult, it's really a sprinters race this year. We've noticed in Abu Dhabi, as well with the temperature, we had some wind there where it's almost impossible to have an echelon.
"[Last year] the average was 38 [kph] on a flat stage, everybody was just dead with the heat. It's difficult to say what will happen there but we'll see. It’s a long way to go, focus on the Classics first and we’ll see what the rest of the season will bring."
The question really is whether or not Boonen's body can keep up with his mind's ambition. After more than a decade of racing, compounded by a spate of nasty injuries in recent years - and with Cancellara, a man one year his junior, retiring at the end of this year - is the Belgian feeling his age?
"It depends," he said. "Not everybody has the same mental flexibility. For some people, a big problem is a small problem, for some people small problem is a big problem, it depends who you are. I refuse to let my career end with a crash, it's just not the way I want to finish."
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