Tom Boonen believes that a new unity in the QuickStep road squad, a fresh injection of talent and the foundations laid recently at the team's training camp in Calpe, Spain, should ensure a very fast start for the Belgian team in 2009. Procycling's features editor Daniel Friebe sat down with the 28-year-old former world champion and two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix.
Speaking at QuickStep's official presentation in Kortrijk, Belgium, on Friday, Boonen said that, far from creating divisions in the team, the introduction of star Frenchmen Sylvain Chavanel and Jérôme Pineau had brought the riders closer together. "Even last year, there would always be two tables and two groups in the dining room," Boonen, the reigning Paris-Roubaix champion, explained. "That's not an unusual, or bad thing; it's to be expected. But this year, for the first time everyone's always together. I've never seen that before."
Boonen added that, while he and Chavanel hardly knew each other before the ex-Cofidis man's arrival, the pair have "gelled instantly". QuickStep team director Patrick Lefevere had earlier joked that he tried to sign Chavanel more than once before this season, but that whenever talks began, "Sylvain won a big race and put his price up!"
Tanned, relaxed and talkative, Boonen seemed a distant relation of the embattled rider who was considered a persona non grata at last year's Tour de France after a positive, out-of-competition test for cocaine. Boonen faced no formal sporting sanctions but prosecutors in Turnhout will decide on February 3rd whether he is to stand trial for the offence, which can carry the penalty of a heavy fine or even a jail sentence.
Boonen and his solicitors/lawyers in Turnhout earlier this month
Against this backdrop, on Thursday evening, as they gathered ahead of their presentation at the Park Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk, the team's riders were summoned to a behind-closed-doors meeting with Frans de Cock of title sponsors QuickStep; De Cock "reminded them that, in the current economic times, sponsorship shouldn't be taken for granted, and should be repaid with victories not scandals".
Boonen's mantra on Friday was that he wants to "concentrate on racing" – something which he'll be able to do when he begins his season at the Tour de Qatar on February 1st. "I think I've done more training than in other years," he said. "Yes, we always have a training camp but usually there are a lot of photo shoots and commitments for the sponsors. This year, at the camp before Christmas, all we did was ride our bikes. After that I went home for three weeks and rode again, then we had another camp in Spain. I've done a lot of riding and not that much resting."
A third cobblestone over another Tour green jersey
Despite his heavy winter workload, Boonen says that he intends to hit top form later than he did in the 2008 season, which he ended with 14 victories. "Last season, I was hanging on to my form a bit at Paris-Roubaix," he said. "I don't want to talk about which races I am going to win, who I'm going to beat – I just want to have a good, long season." Asked whether he would prefer to win a third Paris-Roubaix title or a second Tour de France green jersey to add to the one he took in 2007, Boonen smiled "a third Paris-Roubaix".
More than his performances in his beloved Classics, it is perhaps Boonen's sprinting that will be under most scrutiny in the early weeks and months of the season. Boonen suggested last year that his absence from the Tour was a key contributor to Columbia speedster Mark Cavendish's four stage wins, but their other encounters in 2008 indicate otherwise. The two are set to go head to head in Qatar as Cavendish begins the defence of his unofficial title as the world's fastest sprinter.
"Qatar's always a good race, with lots of good sprinters, and last year Cavendish was the fastest rider in the world," Boonen admitted. "He has unbelievable speed. But then Qatar's not just about sprinting...
"Cavendish is faster than Petacchi, for example, but he's not the same rider," he continued. "He's going to win a lot of races, but he's limited in hard races. The Tour's also different every year. Some years, you have ten stages where the last two kilometres are straight and flat, and other years there are only two stages like that."
Boonen was also asked to rate Cavendish's future prospects in two races the Briton will ride for the first time this year, Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. "I think he can get over the Poggio and win Milan-San Remo one day but not Paris-Roubaix," he said. "If you look at him and the way he's built, he's a track rider. He's quick and strong and can sprint faster than everyone else after 200 kilometres but, although you can never be sure, I can't see him ever winning Paris-Roubaix. He doesn't have the body for it."
Not exactly a war of words, but the clash of the sprinting titans and their egos has clearly already begun.