2010: the year of Boonen vs Gilbert?
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2010: the year of Boonen vs Gilbert?

by Ben Atkins at 11:21 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Spring Classics, Fall Classics, Paris-Roubaix, Giro di Lombardia, Paris-Tours, Tour of Flanders

With all the media talk focused on the predicted duel between Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, there is another hot contest to look forward to next year; at least Belgium hopes so. 2010, if all goes to plan, could be the year that sees a rivalry between Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert – currently the country’s two biggest stars – manifest itself on the road.

After spending his entire career at la Française de Jeux, Gilbert moved to the Silence-Lotto team this year (to be known in 2010 as Omega Pharma-Lotto); Boonen has spent all but the very beginning of his career with Quick Step. Belgium’s biggest cyclists now ride for Belgium’s two biggest teams; two great rivals, especially in one-day races.

For now at least, the rivalry between the riders is a good-natured one.

"I look forward to our future duels," said Boonen to dh.be. "Philippe is someone against whom I love racing. He makes the race, which is not true for everyone. With him, his team also changes its tactics."

"I do not ride to be the best Belgian," Gilbert told dh.be. “I'm not interested. Tom is one of the greatest champions that Belgian cycling has ever had. I hope he will still win big races like Paris-Roubaix. For the rest: hopefully we can level the playing field next season. These duels: they’ll be fun.”

“Tom also has charisma; like me, I think. For a small country like ours, it's pretty amazing. We should do a study to see how many young people came to cycling because of us."

"I really wanted to turn pro,” Gilbert continued, “and when I had the chance at twenty years old I realized pretty quickly that I had the capacity to have a great career.

"It’s not for me to say whether I am a champion. I am among the elite of my sport and I hope to stay a few years. I am 27 years old [Boonen recently turned 29 - ed] and I still have some great years ahead of me, but I'm not going to move much either. A few percent perhaps, even if I was stronger in the autumn than I was in the spring."

Rivals, but with different styles and targets

Despite the predicted battle between the two riders they are very different, both in stature and in focus. Gilbert stands a fairly average 1.79 metres tall (5’ 10.5”), weighing 69kg (152lb), whereas Boonen stands at a much taller 1.92 metres (6’ 3.5”) and weighs a much bigger 79.8kg (176lb). Consequently, Boonen tends to race with his immense power and Gilbert relies more on his guile and climbing prowess.

"I will seek a fourth victory and the record [Roger] De Vlaeminck," Boonen unsurprisingly said on Sporza radio. "At Roubaix I had my first major success and my greatest victories; as the third one this year. Next season, or perhaps the one after, I can catch up with De Vlaeminck, even though I know it is a dream. From my first Paris-Roubaix in the espoirs I felt that it was the classic that suited me best. Hushovd won and I finished."

"It has always been my favourite event, but it is more difficult to win," he continued. "At Paris-Roubaix, the strongest always prevails, while the Ronde [van Vlaanderen] is more tactical; it depends on more factors. In Roubaix, if you're not good, you’re dropped."

Gilbert’s biggest target differs from Boonen’s though, and is not expected to even take the start at Paris-Roubaix. He is well capable of prevailing on the cobbles and bergs of Flanders in the north – as his 2 wins in the Omloop Het Volk and third place at this year’s Ronde show – but it is the great classic of his home region of Wallonia, to the south, that he dreams of this year. He confirmed that he is capable of aiming at the race even in the middle of a full classics campaign.

"Liege-Bastogne-Liege, of course," he said. "I can race and win all the classics. I do not need two months to prepare myself specifically to a particular race. I can ride the cobbles and then in the Ardennes hills, as I proved last year. I finished 4th in Liege after having attacked and spent my energy.

“My success in Lombardy also gave me confidence for the future," he said, referring to the incredible ten days in October year that saw him win the Coppa Sabatini, Paris-Tours, the Giro del Piemonte and the Giro di Lombardia.

Plenty of opportunities, for the media at least

While the two of them have different primary targets, Boonen and Gilbert will likely clash in their pursuit of other goals. Both are former winners of the Omloop Het Volk, and both have had podium finishes in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Boonen won in 2005 and 2006, while Gilbert was third this year) but they will meet at any number of races; the media at least will make them rivals on the road.

"I will begin [the season] quietly at the Tour of Qatar,” he continued. He will likely meet Boonen at the race in the middle east, as the Quick Step team generally uses the race as part of its preparation. Boonen has taken a multitude of stage victories in the race and won the overall in three of the last four years.

“The spring classics are what I dream of,” Gilbert went on, “starting with Milano-Sanremo, although the more I talk, the less chance I have as the others focus on me if I impose myself as a favourite. But if I win in Sanremo, I’ll have won the last three classics that I started." [After Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia – ed]

Few major personnel changes for 2010

Gilbert’s team has undergone a number of changes, most notably newly crowned World champion Cadel Evans and powerful domestique Johan Vansummeren, who have left the team for BMC Racing and Garmin-Transitions, respectively. Gilbert denies that this will be a problem for him next season though.

"I admit that the departure of Evans and Vansummeren worried me," he said. "But I realised in Benicassim [at the team’s training camp] that the team is stronger than last year. We had a very good camp, despite the bad weather. We did four rides of three to five and a half hours, many riders are much better than last year at this time, like [Jürgen] Roelandts for example."

A role model on the bike… but not off it…

Boonen’s Quick Step team remains largely static for 2010, but one of the main talking points for him is centred around his two separate positive tests for using cocaine in the last two years. The 2005 World champion has put the controversy behind him though and looks forward to the racing season.

"Cocaine only leads to poverty", admitted Boonen. "What else? I was stupid and foolish to take it. I'm not proud, but these last three years, I have no more problems. As for my role as an example for others: I did that on the bike.”

“I'm Tom Boonen, with my qualities and my faults."

Providing Gilbert’s team can give the rider as much support as in 2009, and Boonen can stay free of controversy, the two biggest Belgians of the moment should provide some racing thrills between them next year.


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