Roubaix Wrap

I watched yesterday’s Paris-Roubaix twice. There were so many pivotal moments, I needed the second viewing to make sure I’d seen what I thought I’d seen. To my eye, it looked as though with 30kms to go and the gap to the breakaway plummeting, Fabian Cancellara sat up and decided to have a chat with his team car. At that juncture the gap was 25 seconds. When the big Swiss decided, in concert with his director, to put his head down again and ride on, the gap was back up to 1 minute 10 seconds.

I don’t know for certain what Cancellara wanted to talk about, but I would guess he was concerned that, in bridging up to the break, he would merely be towing his companions, Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan, up to their teammates in the lead group, thus burning all his matches to double the strength of his opponents.

Sitting at home, I was finding it very hard to believe that Garmin-Cervelo’s endgame was to sacrifice Hushovd’s chances to give Johan van Summeren a shot at victory in the velodrome, but that’s exactly what happened. Shortly after Cancellara’s team meeting, van Summeren attacked the lead group, forced a gap and rode solo to victory.

Behind him, Cancellara seemed to have resigned himself to defeat until a frantic, late attack saw him dash to the front of the race, albeit behind van Summeren, and snatch 2nd place from a small group of breakaway survivors. Ballan settled for 6th, Hushovd for 8th.

In effect, Garmin-Cervelo won this race when they were able to put van Summeren in the break and keep Hushovd on Cancellara’s wheel. From the time Cancellara forced a selection from the chase group, a move that eliminated everyone but Hushovd and Ballan, he was stuck. He couldn’t bridge for fear of linking his opponents to strong teammates, and he couldn’t sit in and draft, because Leopard-Trek had no one in the break. This was the triumph of tactics (and luck) over pure strength.

All of this sells short the effort van Summeren made to take the biggest win of his career. From a lead bunch that contained experienced powerhouses like Lars Bak, Lars Boom, and Gregory Rast, finding the strength and resolve to attack and win off the front was nothing short of breath-taking. Van Summeren found himself in a break full of top lieutenants and showed that, on a team that boasts Hushovd, Tyler Farrar and Heinrich Haussler, he was more than worthy of being promoted to captain.

Some other observations, it must have broken Hushovd’s heart to think he had the legs to stick with Cancellara all day, the strength to outsprint the Swiss, but had to sit-in and slow his roll to allow a teammate to win. He gave up his chance at winning Paris-Roubaix in the world champion’s rainbow stripes to watch a teammate climb to the top of the podium. Bittersweet.

Maarten Tjallingii? Rabobank? 3rd Place? Yeah, that happened.

Ballan must be the big loser here. He showed guts to fight his way back up to Hushovd and Cancellara when they’d dropped him, but his teammate in the break, Manuel Quinziato, didn’t justify Ballan’s sacrifice in sitting on the Leopard-Trek rider. Ballan made the same sacrifice as Hushovd and took 6th place for his trouble.

Next to Ballan, crying in the corner, you’d probably find QuickStep’s dynamic duo of Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel. Both of them found it necessary to kiss the pavement multiple times, the former crashing out altogether, the latter finishing in 38th, next to his brother Sébastian. Consolingly, Chavanel did get an inspiring cameo on TV, fighting back from his crash, bloody and torn. That shot is sure to make it into race promos for years to come.

Speaking of broken hearts, if you’d told me two weeks ago that Belgians would win in both Flanders and Roubaix, and that neither of them would be named Gilbert or Boonen, and that neither of them would come from teams based in Belgium, I’d have chuckled. Nuyens and van Summeren are top pros, for sure, but nobody saw these results coming. Nobody.

A final note for the DNFs. This year’s list of non-finishers includes a lot of big names: Stuart O’Grady, Roger Hammond, Heinrich Haussler, Geraint Thomas, Matt Goss, Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen, Pippo Pozzato, Leif Hoste, Bjorn Leukemans, Allan Davis and virtually all of Movistar and Euskaltel (each team finished one rider).

Thanks also to the guys at Pavé who allowed me to join in on their Live Chat of the race. It was a lot of fun, and I hope some of you got to chime in.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. adam

    Go back and read the comments of the ‘Paris-Roubaix Preview & Group Ride,’ I picked VanSummeren as my dark horse (though I thought it was Boonen’s to lose). I was in velodrome in 2009 – when Hoste crashed with Hushovd, he waited for his captain and single handedly tried to bring him back up to Boonen and Pozzato. He didn’t manage that, but he did hold the gap. Evans also singled him out in his Lotto days as his best teammate.

    1. Padraig

      Well Adam, while you didn’t outright nominate van Summeren for the win, that you even mentioned his name is worth a pack of stickers. Huzzah.

  2. Bob

    This was my first P-R, aside from watching “A Sunday in Hell”, or youtube videos. It was as exciting as I’d hoped for. I need to scheme someway to get to France and see it live.
    It was great to see an “unexpected” winner. But I couldn’t help but also feel bad for Cancellara. Everyone knows he’s the strongest, everyone rides against him and he clearly doesn’t have the team support he had last year. What’s a strong guy to do?
    With that said, he is a classy guy and was willing to bury is frustration enough to congratulate JVS. That stands for something too.

  3. grolby

    Bob – I’ll briefly echo a bit of an argument I made over at Pave. Cancellara had a choice when he was at 25 seconds to the leading group, with an uncooperative Hushovd and Ballan on his wheel (and rightly so, in the former case! Possibly also in the latter.). He could have taken on the burden of a champion, which is to win when everyone is riding against you; he could have acted boldly, bringing his main challengers up to the front but preserving his best shot at going for the win himself. Doing so would have been dangerous, yes, but Cancellara was still strong enough to make a run for the win from that position – he very probably would have achieved at least the podium that he got anyway, but with some hope of standing on the top step as well. He could have taken the opportunity to win grandly.

    Unfortunately, he chose to be petulant and abandoned the opportunity to win altogether. I don’t blame him, and maybe it was the best choice, but it wasn’t the boldest choice. He lost well, but I think he could have lost better.

  4. Big E

    I would say Robot’s synopsis of the race was spot on except for Cancellara sitting up to talk to his team car. He sat up because he wasn’t getting any help (Not that I blame either Ballan or Hushovd for sitting on if they had teammates up the road.)to bridge the gap.
    It was better for him to wait for a larger group to bounce another attack off of than just tow them along. Although that being said, Cancellara still obviously had a lot left in the tank. If he had the juice left it might have been better for him to continue to bridge the gap up to the second group on the road without help and bide his time for a more decisive attack with a few kilometers to go.
    But that’s the fun tactical decisions that make up a great race.
    I think it’s pretty interesting how slammed Garmin was for doing the same sort of tactics in Flanders. And yet now they are praised for it this time because it worked. LOL
    Got to love bike racing….

  5. Champs

    What’s weird is that Van Summeren is praised, and Nuyens is mocked. Tactics, then strength, won both days, but the former was gifted by circumstance, the latter used it in the sprint. Were he born a Farrar or McEwen…

    Cancellara won the side race. To hell with negative riding, he denied the podium to anyone who marked and burned a whole new pack of matches for 2nd place.

  6. Plod

    When is Hushovd going to start to show that he deserves the Rainbow Jersey? Making up the numbers at the Ronde and wheelsucking at Paris-Roubaix dosn’t count in my book.

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