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