Boonen battling the odds

Widely fancied to beat Alessandro Petacchi to world championship glory, Tom Boonen has not exuded co

Widely fancied to beat Alessandro Petacchi to world championship glory, Tom Boonen has not exuded co
MADRID - Tom Boonen will start tomorrow's world road race championship with the weight of a whole nation's expectations on his shoulders, not to the mention the burden of knowing that no man has ever won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the rainbow jersey in the same season. Watching those usually broad shoulders sag on Friday, it was difficult to avoid the hunch that the Belgian doesn't fancy his chances on either count. The Belgian is widely quoted as second-favourite to win tomorrow's 273km race, with bookmakers in Belgium offering 11-2 as against Alessandro Petacchi's 7-2. Boonen also refuses to count himself out, estimating that he can match Petacchi for speed in a bunch sprint. Indeed the 24-year-old Quick-Step man has hinted that he fears Robbie McEwen more than the Italian. Belgian national coach Jose' de Cauwer is also bullish about his star rider's chances, to the extent that he has ruled out any game plan not geared towards a bunch-sprint. For his part, former world champion Johan Museeuw believes that Boonen's natural flair gives him the edge over Petacchi and McEwen on a course which is not the sprinter's benefit many had first believed. "Of the three, I think that Tom is perhaps the only one who can take the initiative of getting into a break," said Museeuw. "Who would have thought that he would have attacked after the Bosberg in the Tour of Flanders, instead of waiting for a bunch sprint which was the perfect scenario for him? That's what's good about Tom: he's unpredictable." On paper, then, Boonen has every right to be ambitious ahead of Sunday's race. On another kind of paper, however - the Belgian press - the doubts seem to outnumber the reasons for optimism. If Boonen's body language this week has been far from inspiring, the same could be said of his claim yesterday that he would be happy with a podium finish. Critics believe that Boonen made a potentially crucial error when he abandoned the Vuelta a Espana after 13 stages: while Boonen returned home having failed to pick up a single stage victory in Spain, Alessandro Petacchi romped to a total of five stage victories in the Vuelta. If question marks still hang over Boonen and his form, Petacchi's outstanding form is taken for granted. Boonen's recent announcement that he is moving to Monte Carlo may have also disrupted his preparation, at least psychologically. The sprinter's claims that he is more interested in increased privacy than in tax-breaks have cut little ice with the Belgian press. Boonen seemed positively exasperated yesterday as he complained of how the constant scrutiny to which he is subjected in Belgium had left him fearing for his sanity. The headaches in the build-up to tomorrow's main event have not ended there. Despite being backed by Boonen, De Cauwer's selection of a team with no real experience of leading out sprinters has incensed some sections of the Belgian press. Many fear that Peter Van Petegem will be asked to play the unfamiliar role of pilot-fish; or that Lotto-Davitamon man Van Petegem will not be fully committed to leading out a rider, Boonen, who usually plys his trade for arch rivals Quick-Step Innergetic, and who will be battling with Van Petegem's team-mate Robbie McEwen. De Cauwer's assurances - "anyone who doesn't work for the common cause is in danger of being thrown out of the team for a long time" - have not reassured everyone. "It's been a very long and tiring season," Boonen admitted on Friday. It could be about to get a whole lot longer.

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