Tom Boonen and Paris-Nice

Very few people seem to be riding Paris-Nice this year. Compare the starting line-ups for the two World Tour stage races taking place at the minute – Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice – and the former features pretty much everyone you’ve heard of, while the latter is being led by Andrew Talansky, a hugely promising American cyclist, but not a household name.

In fact Grand Tour contenders are few and far between at Paris-Nice and so if I’m sticking with my stance that most stage races are essentially scene-setters for Grand Tours or the Spring Classics, what are we left with?

Er, Tom Boonen, mostly.

Who’s Tom Boonen?

I’ve written about Tom Boonen before, but you might not appreciate his significance because he rules an area of cycling that is all-but-invisible to casual British followers of the sport. Big Tom is king of the Cobbled Classics.

The Cobbled Classics consist of E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde Van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix. These are punishing races for real hard men which are incredibly tough to win. Last year, Tom Boonen won all of them and he’s generally won one or two each year for almost a decade. He’s a really major cyclist.

So how’s he going?

Boonen won a stage of Paris-Nice last year, which showed he was in decent shape ahead of the races mentioned above. This year, after that skeggy elbow thing, he doesn’t seem to be in such good form. Translations sometimes come out a little weird, but he also seems to be a bit whingy, saying the route for stage one was dangerous and claiming that was why he wasn’t up there for the sprint finish.

Since then, he’s been putting in the hard yards at the front, acting like a big, Belgian windbreak for the rest of the peloton. Basically, he’s not where he wants to be, so he’s training.

If you’re interested, E3 Harelbeke is the first Cobbled Classic on Friday 22nd March with Gent-Wevelgem following on the Sunday.