Fixing Tom Boonen

Mar 27 2010

The relationship between Tom Boonen and the E3 Prijs has got to be one of the most complex in cycling. The second-tier classic was one of the Belgian’s first major wins in his wunderkind days, and he had a literal lock on the event for four straight years.

But the past two editions have not been kind. Last year’s race ended with an uncharacteristic loss in a three-up sprint, and in this year’s race, Boonen was victimized by the combination of a brilliantly timed attack and a poorly negotiated bit of traffic furniture.

It’s not like Boonen has lost a step. While he was pretty much a non-factor in the bunch sprints at last year’s Tour, Boonen has maintained—if not improved—his ability to put in race-making moves. The Taaienberg in particular has been his personal playground this season; he crushed the field over it at Het Nieuwsblad, and used the climb to make today’s selection as well.

But let’s face it—Boonen is beginning to make a habit out of bending races to his will and then coming up short in the finale. E3 and Paris-Tours in ’09, KBK and E3 again this year. Even in his biggest win in recent memory—the 2009 Paris-Roubiax—Boonen made the selecting attacks, but it was assistance from a few dodgy corners that secured him the win.

I’d hate to advocate for less aggressive racing (or tell Boonen/QS director Patrick Lefevere what to do), but a more conservative approach might better serve the Belgian champ. His QuickStep teammates were controlling the pace and shelling riders by the fistful in the run-up to the Taaienberg today.

Rather than detonating the field, QS might have done better to continue pressing the tempo, giving Boonen an armchair ride near the front of the pack while his rivals hemorrhaged teammates and burned matches jockeying to stay out of the wind. The end result would be a more rested Boonen, more battered opponents, and fewer kilometers between a decisive Boonen attack and the finish line.

Conversely, QuickStep might make better use of their numbers by putting one of Boonen’s high-octane lieutenants into the break, forcing rivals to shoulder the responsibility of pace-setting, and giving Boonen incentive to not attack until later in the event.

While quiet seasons thus far from renowned QS griefers Sylvain Chavanel and Stijn Devolder might have taken some of the sting out of that particular tactic, both Lefevere’s past performance in the classics and QuickStep’s empty slate thus far suggest the Belgian squad will be pulling out some new tricks as the meat of the classics season approaches.

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