The Big Question

Boonen can’t be faulted for not riding aggressively enough. This attack is in Orchies.

Following last week’s Paris-Roubaix, the big question on everyone’s minds was why, when Fabian Cancellara attacked, Tom Boonen didn’t react straightaway. While  it isn’t possible to know exactly what was on Boonen’s mind, we can perhaps try to see the race through his eyes.

When Cancellara attacked, his victory was by no means assured.

And if you’re wondering why this post is just now appearing, it has something to do with the steady stream of images arriving by e-mail from John Pierce; every day for a week, I’ve received another half dozen or so images. What you see here wasn’t available the day following the race.

Leukemans got stuck with the leadout, but must have been happy just to enter Roubaix with Boonen.

When Cancellara attacked the first thought I had was that Boonen was too far back in the group to be the appropriate guy to counter the move. Even though he was arguably the strongest guy left in the group, to jump from that far back in the group would see everyone one his wheel, leaving him to play tow truck for Hushovd, Hammond and the rest. Boonen is a star and wouldn’t submit to so undignified a role as that. It’s like asking George Clooney to be an extra in a movie written for him.

Boonen should be credited for fighting to the very end.

Consider also the other information Boonen had at his disposal. Following Flanders he said he was riding at 55kph and couldn’t bring Cancellara back. That’s faster than the average TTT speed at the Tour in the 1980s and yet it wasn’t enough to bring back one man. (Okay, so that one man happens to be the current ITT World Champion.)

It was late in the race as well; even the best riders have a finite number of attacks in their legs. To counter Cancellara’s move means burning a match you planned to use later. Based on the shots of Boonen trying to rally the group to work together, it’s fair to say he realized he couldn’t pull Cancellara back on his own and knew his best opportunity was to get the group to work together to bring Cancellara back.

Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say Boonen didn’t settle for second; rather, the other riders in his group did. He seemed to be the one rider who really wanted to establish a paceline to bring Cancellara back.

After what happened at Flanders, Boonen can be forgiven for believing the only hope for victory was with the help of the group, and that without it, defeat was certain.

Images: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Champs

    Booonen burned his capital by attacking the group instead of building it by keeping the group together. Who wants to join a vain effort like chasing down Cancellara for that guy?

  2. Touriste-Routier

    Great images!

    My take was that Boonen burned a lot of matches earlier on in the race by chasing down things himself that he might view in hindsight as unnecessary. By doing so he made himself more vulnerable to Cancellara’s attack, and limited his options moving forward.

    At this point Boonen was, in a pardon the pun, a “no-win” situation. By not playing tow truck he essentially settled for racing for 2nd, as Cancellara disappeared over the horizon. If he did play tow truck, there would certainly have been a counter attack once (if) Cancellara was reeled in, and he probably wouldn’t have been able to respond to it. By gambling on an organized chase, he lost because it never really materialized, though it might not have been all that effective to begin with; after all, no one else was able or willing to follow Cancellara’s move to begin with.

    Racing for 2nd was as good as it was going to get for Boonen, and even that didn’t pan out for him. Even more indication that he ran out of matches.

    The 20:20 hindsight lessons to be learned here are to conserve something for the real fight, and that when the big man goes, you need to follow.

  3. cboss

    There was a great moment when as Cancellara passed the breakway group (~200 M ahead), the break tried to rally an exhausted effort to stay with him. Eventually one lone rider was with him and you could see him struggle just to stay in FC’s draft.
    Finally when he realized he couldn’t do it on his own he flung his right arm in the air cursing, seeming to say “Fine, drop me, go on your own!” You could see it was over right then with the collective futility in their faces.

  4. trackstar

    Certainly Boonen learned at Flanders that he would be unable to match FC’s TT effort. The only possible strategy in that case is to keep a group organized to chase. FC’s power is formidable and is a distinct advantage on the pave where drafting becomes less advantageous but he is still human and a well organized and strong group will certainly be able to catch FC given enough time. Problem for Boonen was that the chase group was neither strong enough nor organized enough and as a result the race for 2nd place began right away.
    It was more FC’s race to lose than it was Boonen’s to win.

  5. todd k

    My rear view mirror… I was a surprised at how frequent and early Boonen worked to further reduce the field given the dynamics of the race at the time. From a tactical perspective that seemed ill advised as it transformed the onus of being the primary marked rider from the strongest (Cancellara) to the most aggressive (Boonen). Ironically, that aggression also bestowed ownership of chasing down Cancellara to Boonen.

    Had Boonen succeeded in his efforts to further break the field, Cancellara likely would have been able to follow him as the Swiss rider was rarely out of position and he clearly had the form to stay on anyone’s wheel that day. In turn, Boonen would have fewer matches, less room for error, and probably no help to keep Cancellara in check for the remainder of the race. Visually it seemed Boonen was simply working to set up the similar dynamics as the week prior. Flanders suggested the likely outcome in that scenario.

    If anything, I would have thought a better strategy for Boonen would have been for him to support the preservation of a larger group for as long as possible and hope that Cancellara rolled into the velodrome, or at least into Roubaix, with the Belgian sucking Cancellara’s wheel as much as niceties would allow. Really, after what occurred in Flanders, one would not have blamed Boonen for trying to force a sprint finish of some sort. At least then he would arguably be favored over Cancellara.

    Boonen must have felt really strong prior to Cancellara’s departure because I didn’t understand the tactics he was employing. Maybe he was concerned about the numbers game from teams better represented at the front of the race working against both he and Cancellara. Maybe he misjudged how strong he thought he was in comparison to Cancellara. Maybe that it is simply not in the Flemish vocabulary to ride with restraint in a cobbled classic when you have the legs to attack.

    That said, I don’t think I can claim Boonen did not give his all to win Roubaix or even to chase down Cancellara. At best I could claim he was simply guilty of choosing the incorrect strategy to win that day. He made do with what he had when his initial strategy failed, but as the results show, it left him a very unfavorable hand to play in the end.

  6. Robot

    I thought Boonen did was Boonen does, which is to ride hard enough on the front to break the race, force a selection and then parry with lesser mortals for the win, except that Cancellara was not a lesser mortal. Possibly not even a mortal at all. So Boonen splintered the race into kindling, but it was Cancellara who put the match to the pile.

    Flecha and Hushovd cottoned onto the fact that they would never catch Cancellara and let Boonen punch himself out on the front of the chase. In a way it was lousy, but cycling is like that. They call it tactics.

  7. Souleur

    All good observations, without doubt.

    One other, along w/Boonens effort and tactic, which has left me scratching my head, is where was the remainder of his team??

    Did he piss them off and tell them to sag, he would man it up, or were they sucking hind tit? Are they looking to ride something else? Are they not on board w/the goals and DS?? It just didn’t look coordinated to me.

    Really, they are Belgian, and years past Quickstep has always led someone up in the break or w/Boonen, at times in the past I can remember 3 or 4 in the pack that left the isolated others in a pickle. So, has the dynamic of the team splintered, are they tired or is the leadership slipping?? I don’t know, but I bet before next spring roles around, it will be unveiled.

    That may not be Boonens lack.

  8. briztreadley

    Yes, I reckon Souleur’s got it. In 09, Devolder was there to cover attacks (O’Grady was there for Cancellara). And in 09, Chavanel was also in career-best form in April.

    This year, neither of that pair is going well.

    No team-mates in the crucial time left Boonen vulnerable, & deciding to do it all himself. In that sense, Saxo Bank played their cards best, using everything they had to slim down the lead group by Arenburg Forest.

    That suited Cancellara. And didn’t he capitalise on it!

  9. randomactsofcycling

    Good point Souleur. In the last couple of editions there have been team-mates of both Boonen and Cancellara that have animated the race and absolutely assisted in their Team Leader’s victory. Are Boonen’s team-mates sick of his DS’ constant fawning over him?
    That said, I recall one of my favourite DVDs – ‘A Sunday in Hell’ – when Merckx was forced to do the chasing and drag everyone with him. He didn’t succeed that day either but at least he tried, knowing full well the opponents on his wheel were conserving their energies. When all else fails, one simply must go for it on one’s own. It’s a habit Boonen has developed over the last two to three years: he sits up when he realises he’s not going to win the bunch sprint.
    For Tommeke it seems the top step is the only place glory resides.

  10. MattyVT

    After watching “the move” on Versus hours after it happened I couldn’t help but feel bad for Boonen. Cancellara (Riis?) was smart to dispatch his main rival when he could, but it seemed that Boonen was still trying for the “W” and the rest of the group were happy to be in the top 10. Hushovd had a smart race and played his cards well, but as much as I admire him I have to admit that he didn’t work to pull back Cancellara. Ditto for Pozzato.

    After his most consistent spring campaign I have to see I feel bad for Boonen and his string of near misses.

  11. Champs

    I don’t feel bad for Boonen. Why not just hang on for the sprint? Hushovd might be dangerous, but going flat out against a guy he admitted he can’t catch is suicidal.

  12. Robot

    @Champs I think the issue is not that Hushovd couldn’t have caught Cancellara. The issue is that Hushovd, Flecha, Boonen, et. al. COULD have caught him if they’d worked together to do it. For Hushovd, who fancies himself a sprinter, working with the group to pull the big Swiss back would have been the best way to get himself into a sprint finish for the win, instead of for first place loser.

  13. hüdz

    I have to heartily disagree with you. I don’t think that the race came down to a matter of an equal rider not getting reasonable assistance from the group, and I certainly don’t think that Boonen gave his best on the day. From the Forest onward you could see Tom getting irritated and impatient with the members of his chase group. He wanted to chase harder and faster and when the other members of the group who had not won P-R three times didn’t do what Tom wanted he went to the back of the bunch to sulk.

    Cancellara is both a consummate professional and the kind of rider who doesn’t let anything distract him during a race. He was astute enough to see what was happening and make his move for glory. He took the race into his own hands, and the group behind – Tom included – was not willing to make the effort necessary to level the race.

    I would have a lot more respect for Tom’s ride if he had chased hard and consistently and gotten eights out of the group rather than to chase, whine, chase, whine. When you’re the favorite, you’re a marked man and you have to do the work to win – period. It was no one else’s responsibility to drag him up to Cance and likely hand Tom a victory. Paris-Roubaix rewards the hardest of men, and on that Sunday Tom was too soft…

  14. SinglespeedJarv

    What is just as interesting is that this subject is still being discussed. Normally, unless involving a moment of great controversy, a race gets discussed for the following week and then everyone moves on to the next one.

    So why are we still discussing the race? I think it is because everyone had built the race into a Boonen/Cancellara showdown and that didn’t happen. It turned into a 50km anti-climax because everyone knew that they wouldn’t get Fab back. All this debate is just people wishing the race had panned out differently.

    The bare facts were that Cancellara trounced everyone by stealth-attacking while Boonen had a snack/nap/sulk at the back and that everyone other than Boonen decided that they’d seen enough of Cancellara over the previous few weeks and realised that they’d be better off riding for second. As Robot say: tactics.

    More importantly, what is going on with Tommeke’s shoes? Last year he was wearing Northwave, in the magazine advert for FFWD he’s wearing Bont and at Roubaix he’s got Sidi’s on. What’s all that about?

    Oh and while we’re on about shoes, has anyone else noticed Flecha is wearing Sidi branded Bont’s?

  15. Lachlan

    Seems clear everyone thinks and knows FC was the strongest rider.

    And in my book the better racer… Tom may have f-‘ed up a bit, but really in those situations the kudos goes to the guy or team that found the perfect tactical moment to make the race winning move.

    After all, pro racing and attacking in particular is not about saying “right everyone… are we all in the right gear? and near the front? Good… I’m going to accelerate and lets see who can all make it with me.” Hell no. You squeeze every advantage the group/ the road / your opponents mistakes allows, and go like hell without looking back. Otherwise you might as well have either a timetrial or a match sprint.

  16. Jonny

    Also in the Scheldeprijs on the Wednesday before PR, Boonen crashed then raced back just to loose in badly timed sprint. I dont understand why he would push it so hard with PR just days away, FC on the other hand dropped out of the main pack when the pace increased. I agree with Souleur that something is going on with the team (or management), they dont look anything like they did last year.

  17. rich_mutt

    there were at least 6-8 strong riders who could have chased, and pulled cancellera back. fabian is strong, but is he stronger than 8 riders working together? i don’t think so. i’m still at a loss as to why they didn’t all work together to bring fabian back. there was plenty of time for any of the riders to formulate another attack after cancellera was caught. boonen and cancellera were the only riders with any heart racing at PR.

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