Tom Boonen: Time Trial Specialist?

Tom Boonen is a cross between a sprinter and a strong cobbled classics rider. He’s a multiple winner of both major cobbled classics, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. He’s also won six stages of the Tour de France along with the green points jersey in the Tour and the rainbow jersey of World Champion. Add to that most of the other cobbled races, Gent-Wevelgem, Grote Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Dwars door Vlaanderen and he’s won most of the races that a rider with his abilities would be capable of winning.

Notable races that he could win but hasn’t are Milan San Remo, Het Volk and Paris-Tours, although he has finished on the podium in all three. He has now come out and said that he would consider targeting the World Time Trial Championships in Australia next year. Can Boonen really adapt to becoming a time trial specialist in one season and challenge Fabian Cancellara for the World Time Trial crown?

The fact is that Tom Boonen has only ever won one time trial in his professional career. That was a 5km prologue in the 2.3 category Ster Elektrotoer in 2004. He has racked up a few good placings in prologue time trials down through the years, but so have a lot of sprinters. The power output required for a very short prologue tends to suit the abilities of powerful sprinters. Boonen’s main sprint rivals Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar have all won prologue time trials. It is a massive leap to go from being a sprinter who can churn out a good prologue to a full-blown time trial specialist who can challenge over distances of 40km or more.

Although it must be said that when there is a long time trial during a stage race, sprinters tend to treat these stages as a rest day. They will just go through the motions, not over exerting themselves, conserving energy for when the next bunch sprint comes along. Perhaps Tom Boonen has never really given 100% in a long time trial before. His best ever result in a full length time trial came this year in the Vuelta a Espana, where he finished 11th in a 30km test against the clock. Not exactly sensational, but certainly an improvement on his previous efforts.

Perhaps Tom Boonen has taken a look at his sprinting rivals, most of all the two young phenoms Cavendish and Farrar, and thought to himself that he might never win another Tour de France stage or green jersey ever again. He might feel that he needs to shift his focus from sprinting to time trialling in order to keep his focus throughout the racing season. The cobbled classics are all done and dusted by April, the only races Boonen is likely to win after this are stages in minor stage races, that may not be enough to feed the ego of Belgium’s greatest sports star.

Bradley Wiggins proved this year that changing one’s physique and specialty is entirely possible with training, diet and preparation. But is it possible for Tom Boonen to become a time trial specialist whilst maintaining his dominance on the cobbles? Fabian Cancellara is the living answer to that question. Cancellara is amongst the perennial challengers on the cobbles and has also dominated the World Time Trial Championships in recent years. He even won both the World Time Trial and Paris-Roubaix in the same year back in 2006, showing that specialising in both disciplines is quite feasible. The two riders are also quite similar physically, there’s only six months difference between them in terms of age, according to their official websites they both weigh 80kg however Boonen is slightly taller at 6′ 4″ compared to Cancellara at 6′ 1″.

The general consensus is that next year’s World Road Race Championship in Geelong is going to be one for the sprinters. I can’t help but wonder why Boonen isn’t channeling his efforts towards this rather than the time trial. How can he think he’ll be capable of beating Cancellara when the rest of the world’s time trial specialists, who’ve been focusing on time trials their entire careers, can’t even get close to him? I don’t think any amount of time in the wind tunnel over the winter is going to help Boonen reach this most lofty of goals, he should stick to what he knows, cobbles and sprints.

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