Bearded Boonen is back to his old tricks in Qatar

The Belgian classics king is back and his wins in Qatar have historically foretold strong cobbled campaigns

Photo: Tim De Waele

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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — The ruler’s back.

Tom Boonen is up to his old tricks again, winning any way he wants to. And he and his beastly Omega Pharma-Quick Step team are having a good time doing it. Boonen won his 22nd career stage at the Tour of Qatar, and second of the 2014 edition, Wednesday in a fast stage 4 from Dukham to Mesaeeid. He moved back into second place on the general classification, behind teammate Niki Terpstra.

It’s not the numbers that matter, but rather the manner in which Boonen won today: in a perfectly executed sprint finish over Lotto-Belisol’s André Greipel, one of the sport’s best sprinters. It wasn’t a surprise exactly, but still seemed surprising, as it appeared the big German had it until the final inch of pavement.

“We stayed very calm. We came into the lead a little bit too early with the headwind. And [Andrew] Fenn, he did the perfect job by not going full speed but controlling a little bit. And then the Lotto guys went and I stayed calm and I let Greipel do his sprint. I waited — and I timed it right, where I knew I could still pass him. And I could pass him at 100 meters to go,” a grinning, bearded Boonen told reporters.

After his labored and lame 2013 campaign and now a dominant week of racing for him and his Omega Pharma team, Boonen seems effervescent. He’s happy, and remarkably lean. And remarkably quick.

“Doing the sprint I did, you can already see I’m confident,” he said. “He’s one of maybe the two best sprinters in the world for the moment, and if you can beat him at this point of the season, it’s very good for the morale.”

As if Omega Pharma needed a boost this week. Boonen is flying and Terpstra is poised to win the general classification, which Boonen said he wouldn’t try for. The Belgian has won the overall on four occasions here, most recently in 2012. And it’s worth noting that when Boonen does well in Qatar he does well down the line. The 2012 season saw him claim both the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix after winning Qatar. He won here in 2008 and 2009 and also won Paris-Roubaix. In 2006, he won both Qatar and the Tour of Flanders. It’s a good omen when Boonen, 33, is going well in Qatar, to say the least. Asked if he was “surprised” he had the kick to beat Greipel, he smiled wide. “No,” he said. “No surprise.”

It was all in the timing, which was perfect.

“Timing. Timing. Timing,” Boonen said. “It helped that I’ve already won one stage, so I think you’re a little bit more relaxed and you don’t make any mistakes. But it’s also being in a very good condition and knowing where you can go that gives you the confidence to not make mistakes. I just let him start and I waited until he was on speed. And I knew I had that 100-meter punch. That’s what I’ve been working on since I started training again, was to get my punch back that I’ve maybe lost a little bit. It’s still there. You just have to wake it up a little bit.”

It’s awake now, and roaring. And while this time of the year is important, Boonen knows there’s much left to come in northern Europe come springtime. He missed out last season and had to watch rival Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) own the spring. This year is shaping up to see Boonen back at his best, and as the peloton knows, that can be devastatingly good. The Belgian said he’s done more strength work this season than before, but that his conditioning remains the same. “Going into Paris-Nice there will still be some improvement. And of course it’s not that long anymore. It’s better to be in shape already than to look for condition right now,” he said.

Boonen has expressed distaste in recent years for chaotic sprint finishes, but showed he’s fast enough and crafty enough to win them against top talent. Sprinting, after all, is his first love: Boonen won the green jersey at the Tour de France in 2007 and has six stage wins at the Tour to his credit.

“I always loved it. The difference, if you have a team like this, it’s easier. It makes it easier. If you’re suffering, it’s because the team is bad. You’re always on the wrong side of the road, or in the wind. If you have a team like this and a few good captains, then it’s nothing. You arrive at the finish line fresh. And your sprint is good because you’re fresh. But if you’re in the shit behind, that’s a big difference,” he said. “The team is more mature now. There’s not many new guys. It’s all guys who have been in the team for a few years. A lot of the younger guys are evolving, they’re getting older. Every year they learn a lot from us. Also, we are getting older. But the team is really, I think, on a mature level right now and ready to do some damage.”

The damage is already occurring. It’s now only a matter of how far the Omega Pharma wrecking ball can swing.

And one other thing concerning some at the finish: That beard upon one of Belgium’s favorite faces.

“Most of the time I let it grow. … I don’t know, I like it. You don’t like it? Do a poll maybe in the newspaper,” Boonen said. “Already now in my mustache when you drink stuff gets stuck in it. I think I’ll shave before Oman.”

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