Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) was in a different situation one year ago. He had already won E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, and was the favourite for the Tour of Flanders. This year, sitting in a pre-race press conference in Nazareth with zero wins, the attention was on his younger Slovak rival, Peter Sagan (Cannondale)
“No one is unstoppable even if it seems that way,” Boonen said to the packed room at Omega Pharma headquarters.
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“He’s a dangerous guy to have in the final, he’s fast in a sprint. He’s a good climber, as well, and hard to drop. He’s probably the guy who climbs the Paterberg the fastest. We don’t have a big favourite, but we have a strong team. We may not be the strongest, but we can be the smartest.”
Boonen closed his press conference in the Kennedy Hotel last year and went on to win Flanders for a record-tying third time.
After an off-season wrecked with an intestinal infection and elbow infection, the attention is on Sagan. Sagan, by chance, is meeting the press this afternoon at the Kennedy Hotel.
“He’s not new, he was already there last year and we’ve seen him coming for the last three years,” Boonen added.
Sagan, 23, won Ghent-Wevelgem last week, was at the business end in E3 Harelbeke, took two hard-fought days in Tirreno-Adriatico and made a significant impression in his short four-year career.
Adding to his charm, he varies his victory celebrations, including the running man or wheelies.
“It’s good to have someone like him. If you look back over the last 10 years, not many big names have been able to win these classics. There were some guys that got lucky, but in general, it’s been the same top guys.
“I love it [how he races]. There’s nothing better than something new. If I could do a wheelie, I would do it as well. I dream about it sometimes, that I’m very good at it, even if I’m not.”
‘We wouldn’t change a thing’
Boonen’s boss, Patrick Lefevere, assembled an impressive classics squad. Not only does he have strong helpers, like Stijn Vandenbergh, but they multiple cards to play with Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel – overall winner of the Three Days of De Panne yesterday – and Niki Terpstra.
“Some people always look to someone else’s grass to see if it’s greener – and he has a green jersey – but I’m happy with the people I have,” Lefevere said.
“In my eyes, image wise, you have Sky who came out of nothing, of course. We’ve been here for so many years. I think marketing-wise, we are number two in the world, for the moment. Maybe in the classification we are number four, I don’t remember, but I’m quite happy with what I have.”
Lack of experience
As Boonen pointed out, Sagan is hard to beat. He is fast in the sprint, beating Mark Cavendish in Tirreno-Adriatico, and good on the short climbs that dot the Flanders parcours.
“He doesn’t really have a weakness,” Terpstra explained. “Maybe he’s too [eager] on the bike. If someone attacks, he’s immediately on the wheel. He’s strong enough to do that.
“We are experienced team, we know how to ride a final, we know the roads perfectly and maybe that’ll help on Sunday.”
Boonen also said that experience may work in Omega Pharma’s favour. However, the new parcours introduced last year almost puts everyone on the same level.
“He’s still young, but the good thing for him is that it’s only the second year on this parcours,” Boonen added. “Of course, if you’ve done it for ten years then you know the roads and where the wind comes from after the climbs.
“He’s a good student and learns quickly. Fabian Cancellara is a little stronger, but I don’t see him dropping Sagan.”
Boonen may be unable to drop Sagan as well, but as he said, no one is unstoppable. Flanders travels for 260 kilometres from Bruges to Oudenaarde and presents many chances for the unthinkable.