For most of the peloton heading into the Tour of Flanders one-day classic this Sunday, surviving the cobbles and 'bergs' and rallying the finish in Merbeke in one piece will be the main priority. Not so for Belgium's former world champion Tom Boonen, who will be desperate to prove to fans that he has recovered, both physically and mentally, from one of the biggest defeats of his impressive career.
Boonen has twice won the race known popularly as the 'Ronde' (Tour), the second of the five cycling 'monuments' and which is held one week before the even more grueling French cobbled classic Paris-Roubaix. However a brutal acceleration by Fabian Cancellara - on the Mur de Grammont, one of the many small cobbled climbs on the 256km race – which preceded the Swiss's stunning and controversial victory for Saxo Bank last year left its mark on the Belgian ace. Boonen finished in second place over a minute behind Cancellara, who now rides for Leopard-Trek.
A week later Switzerland's world and Olympic time trial champion, who has become one of the most feared one-day racers in the world, left Boonen in his wake again to win Paris-Roubaix with another brutal acceleration that caused confusion in the peloton, which ultimately failed to organize a chase. Worse, this time the Swiss's impressive speed caused a comparatively giant ripple in the cycling world when he was accused of having used a hidden engine in his bike – accusations the Swiss laughed off.
Boonen is said to still be mystified, having pored over the video footage of his performance on Flanders last year and concluded that he had never climbed the Mur de Grammont so fast in his life. The 'Ronde', however, is part of Belgian folklore and Boonen knows it's time to forget and focus on the present. Still, he isn't counting on the peloton clubbing together in a bid to squeeze Cancellara out of contention.
"Everyone's speaking about that (possibility), but it's something that just doesn't happen in the big one-day classics," Boonen told L'Equipe Friday. "Everyone rides his own race."
That means Boonen will have to go it alone with a Quick Step team which, nonetheless, will be boosted by the presence of solid Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, who will make his Flanders debut. "For our team the Ronde is one of the most important moments in the season," Quick Step sports director Wilfried Peeters said. "We're lining up for the start with a team that's growing, built up around Boonen and with some individuals who could really make their mark."
After a week of riding in some tough warm-up races, such as A Travers les Flandres, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Three Days of De Panne and GP E3 Harelbeke, it's not just Boonen and Cancellara who will be fighting on the narrow, cobbled climbs which pepper the course from Bruges to Harelbeke. Belgians Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma), Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank) and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil), Italian Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) are all likely to be in the mix. As well as keeping a close eye on Cancellara, Boonen admits his other big worry is spending the day watching the Swiss if the peloton fail to organize a chase in the event of an early breakaway.
"That's my only fear, a four or five-man breakaway," added Boonen. "It would leave us behind in the company of Cancellara. And in that case, no one is going to want to chase."