Belgian cycling icon Tom Boonen is a one-day racer par excellence. With three Tour of Flanders and four Paris–Roubaix titles to his name, Boonen is the co-record holder in both of those cycling monuments, a feat that argues well for his status as this century’s classics king. But Boonen excelled in another one-day race in 2005 when he became the world road champion in Madrid. Now, more than 10 years later, he is again ideally placed to shoot for worlds’ glory, because he will lead the Belgian team in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on October 16. And Boonen is unmatched when it comes to racing in this Gulf state. He’s the four-time winner of the Tour of Qatar and has accumulated no less than 22 stage wins in that early-season stage race.
By James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
Boonen is a master of racing in the heat and winds of the Arabian Desert; but, he warns, the world championship is a race like no other. And although the 35-year-old still dreams of wearing the rainbow-striped jersey awarded to the winner, he insists that regardless of the outcome, he plans to retire from competition after riding Paris–Roubaix next year.
We recently sat down with Boonen to get his views on the worlds, this year’s race and his feelings about winning the rainbow jersey.
Peloton: Why is the world road championship so different?
Tom Boonen: Oh it’s just such a quirky race. First, it is organized with national teams, which is always tricky since guys are used to racing on their trade teams…. Suddenly you are racing against guys that have been your teammates all year long and some guys, who have been opponents all year, that don’t work so well together when they are on the same team all of a sudden. In addition, guys from smaller countries don’t have as many teammates, so they can suddenly be isolated. There are just a lot of factors.
Personally I really like it and, I have to say, that in the last couple of years, the Belgian team has really raced as one. There is a great ambiance on the Belgian team and I really like the format. I know some guys would prefer to race it on their trade teams, but personally I like it. It’s special this way. It adds to the mystique and drama.
P: The worlds used to be in August, but it was moved to later in the season in the mid-1990s to accommodate the Vuelta a España’s move from sprint to late summer. Does the later date play a big role?
B: For sure. Coming late in the season, the condition of the riders is always different and it is hard to say who will really be on form. But there are always some riders who can really rise to the occasion and I think that is one of the reasons why they keep it late in the season. It really provides a focus for the late-season races and gives guys one last great objective in the year. I certainly don’t think it is bad where it is in the calendar. But if you want to be good at worlds, you sometimes have to reconsider what you are doing in the summer, and how you organize your season. You can’t be good all year long. And it is hard to be good in the Tour de France and the worlds. It’s possible, but it is hard.
This year’s race is going to be a really specific race, one of the most specific worlds we’ve seen in years because of the heat, winds and maybe even sand. You really have to be fresh for it. Hopefully, I will be one of the fresh guys. I’ve just been racing on the weekends, staying mostly at home. I’ve done a lot of specific work, but with a lot of rest as well.
The guy that wins worlds is a guy that is able to maintain his freshness at the end of a long season. And that was never more true than this year, where it could be really hot. You have to stay focused from the start to the finish, all day long. I think this year’s worlds is going to be very different. Some years you can sit back at the start and cruise through the first laps. Sometimes you don’t even know when the start has been given and you just really are cruising for the first five hours and then move to the front in the last two laps when the race happens. But this year you have to be focused for five or six hours. There will be a high risk of crashing in the first 150 kilometers or so, and then when we hit the final circuit it’s going to be like a kermesse race. You have to be even more focused!
P: When the race was first announced in Qatar a lot of people thought for sure it would be a mass sprint. But now as we look closer, we find a lot of scenarios where this year’s race might very well not come down to a mass sprint. You’ve won the Tour of Qatar four times and have won 22 stages there. What do you think the worlds will be like in that region?
B: Twenty-two stages, yeah? I can’t even remember. We’ve had Tour of Qatar stage finishes in Doha, but the worlds is completely different. The thing is, the world championships are not in February. If they were, I would know what to expect, but now it’s in October and that’s a very different time of year in this part of the world. I did the Tour of Abu Dhabi last year. It was the same week as the worlds this year. It was windy, but it was like 45 degrees Celsius (i.e., 113 degrees Fahrenheit). It was just super hot, and the thing is, you can’t make many efforts in those temperatures. You have one shot, and you have to calculate your efforts perfectly. There was a lot of wind and if it had been 25 degrees, the group would have split up. But at 45 degrees, things are very different. At that temperature, it’s just like riding against a wall. So I don’t really know what to expect. I think everybody is going there this year with a lot of question marks.
P: You’ve had so many great wins over the years. Looking back, how does your world title fit in?
B: The worlds is the worlds. Winning it at 24 years old was just crazy, and even today, it goes down as one of my biggest wins, if not the biggest win of my career. Paris–Roubaix is the same every year. Tour of Flanders is the same every year, even though they changed it a few years back. But those races come back every year. If you are good at those races, you’ll be there every year. You’ll have a few chances.
The world championships are at the end of the season. It’s always in a different place, on a different course. Not every race route is going to be good for you. I didn’t make it to Australia. I didn’t make it to Denmark. Those were two missed chances for me, so I was really happy to have won it at least once when I was young. You know, there are a lot of really good riders that never were the world champion. So it’s nice to have the stripes even once, because everything just has to come together on that day. You have to be healthy and fresh at the end of the season and the race has to go perfectly for you.
P: What’s it like wearing the rainbow stripes for a whole year?
B: Oh I can’t even remember. It’s been that long ago! (laughs). But I remember the last time I put on the jersey, thinking to myself: “Okay, this is the last time. Now it’s over!” That year just went by so fast. It was a good year for me. I won a lot of races that year as a world champion. I won the Tour of Flanders as a world champion. From the worlds on I was just on a roll and it went really fast.
P: I spoke with Michal Kwiatkowski last year and he told me about a long training ride you did with him in Spain the week before he became world champion in 2014.
B: Yeah, I think I motivated him too much! I remember we went out for a really long ride—almost seven hours—and I told him everything he had to do. I remember telling him that, if it rained, he should just put his guys on the front so he would always be in good position. And that’s what he did! The Polish team was at the front all day long. We were stuck in 50th or 60th position most of the day. They just kept it strung out all day. The Polish team is a strong team and he had eight guys working for him all day long and then in the final he was just the freshest guy.
P: Maybe you are too nice sometimes! I remember last year, moments after Peter Sagan won the title, you were the first guy to come up to him and congratulate him. That was very moving. You’ve never been teammates and yet you seemed so sincerely happy for him.
T: Yeah, I was! It was funny because most of the time the winner is swarmed with 50 to 60 people but on that day Peter turned around and was just walking back towards us as we crossed the finish line. I did the only thing I could do. I’m always happy to see someone else happy. This is bike racing. We all work hard to get results. Sometimes I get them, but sometimes someone else does. We race hard all day long. During the race, you do everything possible to get your best result. But once the race is over, it’s over. I think if you can find joy in others’ happiness you are going to be happy for the rest of your life.