Antwerp - Tom Boonen may be a week away from retirement but
the Belgian legend still believes he can win Sunday's Tour of Flanders.
Boonen is a major star in his home country and has won
Belgium's biggest race a joint record three times - 2005, 2006 and 2012.
But at 36 years of age this will be his last 'Ronde Van
Vlaanderen' before he retires following next week's Paris-Roubaix - the two
prestigious races being the biggest one-day cobbled classics on the calendar.
It's three years since Boonen won a cobbled classic - the
less high-profile Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne - and contrary to most of his previous
appearances at the Ronde, he is not one of the big favourites.
After years of battling with Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara
at the two 'Monument' cobbled classics, Boonen is expected to be a bystander as
Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and world champion Peter Sagan battle for
But Boonen doesn't see it that way.
"I'm not without ambition, even though in my mind there
is one man above the rest: Greg Van Avermaet, who is without a doubt in with
his best chance of winning this year," said Boonen.
"But that doesn't prevent me from believing in my
chances. I'm not here for the show - I've come here to win and our collective
strength could definitely help me."
Boonen's Quick Step Floors team always brings the most
powerful squad to the race with several potential winners.
Boonen has often been the team leader but if he's marked, it
opens up possibilities for other riders, as Stijn Devolder exploited in successive
years in 2008 and 2009.
Niki Terpstra did likewise at Paris-Roubaix in 2014, soloing
away to victory.
Asked then if Terpstra's victory was some consolation Boonen
had replied: "When you put in all that effort, it's to win for
But strong team-mates are a huge advantage on a 261km race
with 18 climbs and 14 cobbled sections.
As well as Terpstra, a top 10 finisher in four of the last
five years, Quick Step have Yves Lampaert, recent winner of Dwars door
Vlaanderen, Zdenek Stybar, a top 10 finisher in the last two Ronde editions,
and of course Philippe Gilbert.
More known for his prowess at the Ardennes Classics later in
the month, Gilbert is returning to Flanders for the first time in five years.
He was third in 2009 and 2010 and Boonen says he will be
Quick Step's main man.
"Given what he's shown since the beginning of the
season, our team leader is Philippe Gilbert," said Boonen.
Belgian champion Gilbert was in fine form earlier this week,
winning Three Days of De Panne while he was second at both Dwars and E3
At 34, Gilbert is running out of time to win Flanders and,
although he only joined Quick Step this year, he is certainly not lining up to
play a bridesmaid role.
"I've worked very hard to be at this level. I've known
for several months I'd be racing the Tour of Flanders and I've been able to
train specifically for this. I'm ready!" he said.
Boonen has been warned, not to mention Van Avermaet and
Sagan, although they too will surely have much to say in the final reckoning.
But most of Belgium will no doubt be hoping Boonen can pull
off one last heroic effort, as he almost did last year when pipped by a hair's
breadth by Australia's Mathew Hayman at Roubaix.