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Interview with USPS's Hot Prospect, Tom Boonen
By Jaime Nichols
Date: 6/11/2002
Interview with USPS's Hot Prospect, Tom Boonen

Belgian wunderkind Tom Boonen joined USPS this year after a very successful career in the espoir ranks. Before joining the USPS pro team, young Tom raced for Postal as a stagaire, and had seven victories, including the U-23 Belgian Championship, and finished in the top five in five of the prestigious Belgian Top Competition series. At 6'4", and at the tender age of 21, Boonen is a powerful one-day rider. In 2001, he finished in the top ten of the espoirs versions of Paris-Roubaix, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and one week after winning his National championship, Boonen placed ninth in the U-23 World Championship.

In his first spring campaign as a professional with USPS, Boonen rode beautifully in the Classics, achieving an amazing result in Paris-Roubaix after team leader George Hincapie hit empty, and faltered with 41 km to go. Boonen soldiered on, placing third on the day. On the podium, Johan Museeuw told Tom that he would be "the next Museeuw."

The Daily Peloton caught up with Tom at the USPRO race hotel in Philadelphia over the weekend, and found him to be well-spoken, intelligent and charming. He gave us his thoughts on USPRO, life with Postal, what it's like to be such a hot young prospect, and what he thinks about racing in America.

How's life with Postal?

Good! I've been enjoying it.

I did my first two years as a stagaire with Postal, as a try out, and I did it when I was 19, so I kind of get to know the guys and see how the system works, and I liked it. When they made me an offer to do a two year contract, I right away signed it, and was really happy to do it.

I had a few offers from good teams, like Domo, Mapei... those teams; but Postal is really good for me. I have George with me, and that's a nice guy to be with, and grow in his shade, so I think it's all to my advantage.

What are the biggest differences you've experienced racing with Postal, versus racing as an amateur in Belgium before that?

The difference between the amateurs and Postal is huge. It's different worlds!

The team is totally different, but the racing is different too, even though amateur racing in Belgium is at a pretty high level, the races now are harder, longer, more good riders there... And when you're with a team like Postal and it's huge- you have all these good guys looking after you, taking care of you, you don't have to worry about anything but racing. That's the only way to do it at the moment, because it's becoming very professional right now, and you need 100% focus at the racing and I can do that with Postal.

They take care of me and will let me grow slowly...

It looks like you're growing fast though!

Yeah... [laughs] I'm taking it a little faster than I'm supposed to be.

Tell us about your excellent ride at Paris-Roubaix.

Yeah, that was good.

I saw your ride and that was great, but I felt a little bad for George!

Yeah... that was bad. For me, it was just... finish, finish, finish! At the point when it was me and George after Museeuw, at that moment, I still thought we had the race under control, like we could have won... but Museeuw was so strong, and there was no way we could have closed the gap.

Museeuw looked like he was floating over the cobbles!

He was flying... he was just... vrooooom... engine on!

But it still looked good for you guys at that point?

Yeah. I was still fresh, George was OK, but then he had a little bonk. There's nothing you can do about it. It's a long day... it happens. If you're there in the front, you're good anyway, but maybe under different circumstances we could have been first and second, but another year. We've got some years to come.

Did it surprise you to ride so well there on your first start?

I was surprised to become third in my first Paris-Roubaix with the big guys, but I did it three times as an amateur, and it's the same cobble sections and it's only about 60 km shorter. It's 200 km, we don't do the first 60 km, but it is all the same cobble sections, and that was a big advantage when you know the roads and the cobble sections. I can ride it with my eyes closed.

Paris-Roubaix is a race you have to have experience in, that's the most important thing of it. I had a little experience there [as an amateur] I came in sixth in my first, then fourth and third... but still, it's about 70 km longer, and you're with the big guys riding.

The weeks before, Three day of de Panne, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem went ok, and I felt pretty good. I finished with no problems. I finished Tour of Flanders, and felt like I didn't race, so I felt kind of confident, like this wasn't going to be a problem.

I read that on the podium, Museeuw told you that you would be the next Museeuw. How did that feel?

Yeah, he said that! That felt pretty good, especially coming from him, because he's a nice guy, but he doesn't say much, and when he says something, he means it. So, that's like, a real great honor just to be compared to him, and by himself.

It's a big honor.

I've also heard you compared to Eddy Merckx! Does all that hype put any pressure on you?

There is pressure. There's no way of denying the pressure's there, but it's the way you handle it. I mean, the pressure's always going to be there, but some people take the pressure the wrong way and they snap, or they lose it. I don't really mind.

I'm into cycling for myself, for my family; and I have a few guys like Dirk Demol and Johan Bruyneel who I really trust, and I cycle for myself and for those guys, and all things that come are good, but they can't expect me to ride 100 races and win 80 of them, and win the Tour de France the first year. It takes time to get that, and time is what I have at this moment.

If you realize that, then you're a step further.

How long have you been racing?

I started racing when I was fourteen years old... when I was a kid.

Is your family supportive? Are they into cycling?

Yeah, my Dad was a professional rider for like, 8 years, but there was never the pressure of cycling, because he retired when I was three years old, so I have some vague memories, but it wasn't that it was all bike racing at our place... but then my friends started cycling, and in Belgium, it's not strange. In America, if you start cycling, it's strange, but in Belgium, you have cycling and soccer, so it's not a big thing to start cycling. Everyone does it every once in awhile.

So I just tried it out, and it worked out good. I won my first race and just kept on going.

You won your first race?

Yeah. I didn't ride a bike before that, but I got a bike, rode it like, three times, started a race, and I won!

So you're a natural!

[laughs] I think so...

This is your first time here for USPRO, right? How do you find it?

Yeah, for this race it's my first time. It's going to be great. I saw the course a few times, and rode up the hill with Christian, and I think it's going to be a hard race, but it will suit me. I hope I can have a good day. We'll do fine there.

It's always a big question mark for me when I come over to the states, if I can get the system going again... it takes me a few days. I came over on Sunday night, and Tuesday was just not so good, but Thursday I was fine and Sunday I should be better. Maybe not 100%, but good. It looks tough though, especially the distance is going to make it tough.

On the course, most of the guys riding here are not used to distance like that, and its going to make it hard for them. It will be hard for the riders who race only in America. It's tough for us [Europeans] too, we only do it a few times a year, but even those few days, it makes a difference, and gives you a little of an advantage. You know your limits better. The last few hours of the race make the difference, that's where the race is decided.

Have you raced in America other than this?

Yeah, I was in Redlands and Sea Otter this year. But there was no rush... no worries, I just rode it. There wasn't a lot of racing in that moment in Europe, and I had like, 10 days of racing over here just to keep us all in training.

This is my fourth time over to America this year. We did like, two training camps before. Also, four years ago I was here for Univest, and that was my first time over, so it's like, my third time racing in the US.

What are the biggest differences between racing here and racing in Europe, to your mind?

I think it's strange to say, but they ride faster over here!

A lot of guys have told me that.

The first time I came over in Redlands, I didn't know what I saw! In Europe they start... not all the time, but a lot... and they take it easy, and after half an hour or so, they get it going and start racing, but here it's different, they get going right away. From the gun, everyone is just going and going and going, and they don't stop until the finish! It's like, no brakes!

Tells us what the rest of your season looks like.

I go back Sunday night after the race, and I go home, and Friday I go to Catalunya. Then we have the National Championships in Europe on the June 30, and then The Tour starts. I'm not doing the tour, so I get a big week off, and then I start to train again. I have a 4 day stage race in Austria during the tour, and then after that stage race, my preparations begin for the fall classics... Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, all those things, and I'm trying to get ready for the worlds, so I have a long season ahead.

Are you going to specialize in the classics and one day races in the future?

Yeah. It's a big thing to know what you can do, but it's a big thing to know your boundaries, too. This body is what I have and it's made for the classics, so... I'm going to do big stage races in the future; you need it to become a more complete rider, but I have the possibilities to win in the classics, so I'm just trying to specialize in that.

What do you love about bike racing? Do you love it?

I love it. It sounds strange, but it's just my passion. I think it has to be your passion to become a good bike racer, because you have to sit so much on that bike. If you don't like it, you're not going to make it. Nobody trains for you, you've got to train for yourself, and I just like riding bikes.

Thanks, Tom!

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