Tom Boonen has had one of his worst lead-ups to the Tour of Flanders. His partner miscarried their baby and, adding to his problems, he landed on his thumb in a crash last week. For the Flemish champion and three-time winner of his region's biggest race, the timing has not been ideal.
"These are the most important weeks of the year for him, so he has no choice but to race," Omega Pharma-QuickStep general manager Patrick Lefevere told Cycling Weekly. "He will not put [the miscarriage] behind, but what can he do? Stay at home? That's not an option."
The 33-year-old blonde Belgian always smiles and takes time to talk to journalists, who he knows by first names. That was the same when he returned to racing last Wednesday in Dwars door Vlaanderen, a Belgian one-day classic, even if he admitted it was a terrible week for him and his partner Lore.
"Lore and I have had a very difficult week, a terrible week actually," Boonen said at the start in Dwars. "You never really forget something like this."
Boonen was slated to lead Omega Pharma's two-pronged attack at Milan-San Remo last Sunday with Mark Cavendish. Things quickly unravelled, however, when Lore had to go to the hospital in the week leading up to the Italian classic. Such was the situation, 'Tornado Tom' took the race off his programme and focused on his private life.
"I couldn't have cared less about cycling. I had something else on my mind," Boonen said. "On Tuesday, the gynaecologist told us that child was dead inside her belly. On Thursday, she had to go to the hospital for labour. It was a very difficult delivery, which took 25 hours."
Despite the ordeal and the grief that accompanies it, Boonen now turns his attention to the Classics. He has already won three titles in Flanders and four in Paris-Roubaix, the French classics one week later.
"At a certain point, I really didn't care anymore," he said. "I have worked too much in preparation of these races to just go and sit in a corner. Nevertheless... you never really forget something like this."
"Maybe it was better he missed San Remo given the weather. In fact, many guys were sick afterwards," one of the team's sports directors, Wilfried Peeters told Cycling Weekly.
"However, his mental state is going to be very important after this bad week at home. At least now he can take his mind off of it as he focuses on the races."
If Boonen is able to put Lore's miscarriage behind him, at least for these two weeks, then he will only have to overcome the discomfort in his right thumb. He crashed on it the midway through the E3 Harelbeke on Friday and stretched a ligament. On Sunday for Ghent-Wevelgem, he raced with it bandaged and padded to withstand the pain.
"Maybe he feels it but Sunday is four or five days away," Lefevere said. "What got me, though, was that he was disappointed to lose the sprint. That shows that he has a good attitude and has his mind on racing ahead of Flanders."
Of the Flanders favourites, only Peter Sagan and Boonen's team-mate, Niki Terpstra race in the Three Days of De Panne this week. Boonen trains at home in Mol, near Antwerp, ahead of the biggest race of his season and a test of both his mental and physical state.
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Gregor Brown is an experienced cycling journalist, based in Florence, Italy. He has covered races all over the world for over a decade - following the Giro, Tour de France, and every major race since 2006. His love of cycling began with freestyle and BMX, before the 1998 Tour de France led him to a deep appreciation of the road racing season.
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