Belgian rider Tom Boonen meets local press ahead of this week’s Tour of Qatar which starts today. Boonen has won the Tour of Qatar title four times. The Quick-Step rider has also managed an astonishing 20 stage wins in Qatar. BELOW: Belkin Pro Cycling riders from the Netherlands Lars Boom (left) and Theo Bos (right) are seen at the Ritz-Carlton in Doha yesterday. RIGHT: Omega Pharma-Quick Step team riders including Boonen (right) prepare for a training session yesterday.
BY RIZWAN REHMAT
DOHA: Former champion Tom Boonen of Belgium starts as the overwhelming title favourite at this week’s Tour of Qatar where fierce rivals Theo Bos, Andre Greipel and Fabian Cancellara could spring a surprise.
Four-time Qatar champion, Boonen missed last year’s edition due to an arm-paralysing infection on his left elbow that put the rider out of action for six months, but the Belgian is confident of making up for the time lost this season.
Winner of 20 stages in the event’s 12-year history, Boonen has since recovered and kicked off his preparation for the 2014 season as early as September last year.
“I am fit and looking forward to my race here. I lost a lot of time last year due to that infection. I almost lost my arm due to that infection,” Boonen said yesterday.
“Last year, I lost six months. It was a really, really bad. I had a bacterial infection. It was terrible,” Booned added.
“I already did Tour of San Luis in Argentina (Jan 21 to 27). It was very good. I had a very good winter season. I started training in September. I spent a lot of time in the gym and now I already feel close to my peak form. I look forward to racing in Qatar again.
“I have already won a lot of races here. I am here to defend the title. We have a very strong team this year,” the Quick Step rider said.
“No, there is no pressure,” Boonen said when asked about his chances this week.
“I know I can manage here when there’s a little bit of wind. The wind factor is what everybody looks at. I think it is going to be like that for a few years to come, I hope.
“I have already done a week of racing. It was high intensity racing,” Boonen said.
Belkin Pro Cycling rider Lars Boom admitted Boonen was the man to beat but added he was feeling his way back into form after intense winter season training.
“I will try my best of course,” Boom said.
“It is cool at night. It was a bit less windy last year. I think it will be okay. There are a lot of strong riders, teams with good sprinters,” the 28-year-old Dutch said.
“I think Fabian and Boonen are the big favourites ... maybe Cancellara with the (individual) time trial here. Then there’s a good deal of sprinters but if you can do well in the time trial, you can do well,” Boom added.
Boom’s team-mate and compatriot Theo Bos backed his side to do well.
“I think we have a good team here. My form is good, I have been here before. I have won stages. I had fourth places in some stages. I was always close to winning. That’s what I wanted to win,” Bos said. “The time trial is long and that is not my best speciality.
“Tom Boonen is here with a really strong team. If it is windy he can do well. For sure they will try to split the peloton. He (Boonen) is always in good shape here. He will definitely be one of the favourites,” Bos said.
Despite being touted as the title favourite, Boonen could find his match in Greipel also.
The German rider was only 22 years old when he took part in his first and only Tour of Qatar in 2005, but he is back with a much better chance of beating Boonen on his ‘home ground’.
Greipel, nicknamed ‘the Gorilla’, has already made his mark by winning two stages of the season’s curtain-raiser, the Tour Down Under. Apart from the favourites, the circle of aspirants can be extended to a few other sprinters that include previous stage winners Heinrich Haussler, Greg Van Avermaet or Arnaud Demare, but they will also have to fight off Daniele Bennati, Borut Bozic, Alexander Kristoff and Elia Viviani. THE PENINSULA