I would have told them they were crazy, the guys who predicted in Austria 'And now Tom, you will win another 99 races'. I was only happy that I've won one race: the second stage of the Uniqa Classic with the finish in Rabenstein an der Pielach. I have to admit I had to look that up...
A sprint against Davide Bramati, now my sports director, then rider with the Mapei team. His team worked all day long, launched the sprint and saw Brama raising his arms. Only.. I won. With a serious difference, although he won't admit it till now and keeps saying I passed him in the final meter. On the photos it looks kind of funny. I'm always teasing him with that.
The price in Rabenstein? A gigantic sausage of 12 kilos which I got on the stage. We never ate from it, but made some funny pictures at the hotel. Christian Vandevelde still has the pictures and mentioned it during the Tour of Oman. 'Do you remember that time in Austria?' Fantastic memories. Nothing is that intense as your first victory. Never have I felt the same emotions as I did in the Uniqa Classic – even when I won the Ronde and Roubaix.
'You get never used to winning' they say, but that isn't all true. You get a little used to it. It will never get as pure as during the youth, when grandpa and grandpa were standing behind the line with their hands raised in the air.
Was the Uniqa Classic the most beautiful of it all? No, I don't think so. On that point I'll follow 59% of the people who voted on the World Championships in 2005. It's still on top of all races. The Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix... somewhere you can imagine it as a young rider, because you ride these races young rider. But world champion? Never thought about it. Not for one second. Even the first 3 months when I had that jersey I still couldn't believe it. I'm very happy that I took that chance in Madrid, because many great riders couldn't say that. So: becoming world champion is number 1.
Eventually that is the most important on your palmares: the quality of the race. One hundred races is beautiful of course, a milestone in my career. Just like I can win a third Ronde this year or Roubaix for the fourth time. Then you will find yourself between the biggest names of cycling. I would lie if I said that doesn't matter to me. But the numbers are not a motivation by itself. The motivation is still the same like 10 years ago, like there in Rabenstein: the drive to win.
This blog is part of the blog series by Het Nieuwsblad