Paris Roubaix is a race. It’s good to remember this because everyone had Fabian Cancellara as their favourite before the race and after the race everyone saw him holding the winner’s trophy. If you’d missed what happened in between it would possible to shrug and accept that the obvious result occurred, a victory for logic as much as for Cancellara.
Only the 254km race was so good that the result wasn’t known until the final three seconds when Cancellara came out of Sep Vanmarcke’s slipstream on final straight of the Roubaix velodrome to pass the Belgian and lift his arms in celebration. This was the moment the race was won.
Yet again the race started with cold conditions but for once without any snow. An early move went with 13 riders and both Radioshack and Omega Pharma-Quickstep placed a rider inside, leaving Cofidis and NetApp-Endura to chase. The big move only held a small lead as they covered 49.9km in the first hour. Onwards and they did 45km in the second.
A succession of moves saw Stuart O’Grady (Orica-Greenedge), Matthew Hayman (Sky), Gert Steegmans (OPQS) and Clement Koretzky (Bretagne-Séché) head into the Arenberg forest with a lead of 1.30 but by the end of this sector their advantage was down by a minute, proof of the power behind with BMC’s Taylor Phinney leading the charge whilst Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas was spotted on the side of the road.
It was after the Arenberg forest that the constant moves began. Our lead four were almost caught as Blanco’s Robert Wagner did a big ring cycle to close them down but the gap wasn’t closed. The excitement over, Radioshack took up the tempo, easing the pace enough to let the gap go back up, in part because Steegmans and Hayman drove on together.
BMC, OPQS and Sky lead
At this point BMC Racing’s Michael Schär was bridging across to the leaders and it looked like the top teams had a plan. BMC, OPQS and Sky each had a man up the road with Radioshack forced to work, the perfect scenario for the big teams. Little did they know it would come to nothing but such is racing. The bunch didn’t want to let anyone go, even the forceful Damien Gaudin got reeled in, his pedalling style reminiscent of a worker with a shovel.
Fabian Cancellara accelerated hard on the Auchy cobbled sector. It looked good because he was lighting up the race but once the dust cleared we saw he’d dropped most of his team mates and he was now isolated. Fate also claimed Jurgen Roelandts, surely this season’s most regular puncture victim?
It was on the next sector, the five star 3km long Mons-en-Pévèle cobbles that the main selection happened, a group of 13 riders were towed away by the OPQS tandem of Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra. The group included Cancellara and immediately his presence was taken as a threat with riders trying to escape up the road and others forming a queue for his slipstream behind. With more moves the 13 saw four men up the road, this became eight and then Cancellara came across solo, closing the gap like he was a motorbike in the race convoy. Did word get out that he was coming? At this point Stijn Vandenbergh (OPQS) and Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) took off together.
The Belgian duo were riding well together although Vandenbergh was slugging a big gear. As they crossed the Bourghelles à Wannehain pavé Vanmarcke looked comfortable. Behind Cancellara went for it and only Zdenek Stybar (OPQS) could hold his wheel. With Vandenbergh up the road Stybar was glued as tightly to Cancellara’s real wheel as the Radioshack rider’s FMB tyre. With 20km to go Cancellara caught the lead two with Stybar to form a group of four, by now clear ahead and meriting most of the TV airtime because the chasers were far behind.
On to the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbles where legend says he who leads wins. Vandenbergh was quickly detached, he looked tired and wobbled into a spectator, crashing hard. The fan was clearly leaning into the road but Vandenbergh was taking risks trying to ride so close to the side of the road. A similar fate then struck Stybar only this time the spectator looked more to blame, even if once again riders can avoid the risks by taking the crown of the cobbles. Suddenly OPQS had gone from half the front group to nothing and Stybar must have been more than a cross rider.
Cancellara and Vanmarcke rolled on with the Belgian taking turns on the cobbles as if to say he could match any moves. The two drove on and shared the work, building up a lead of over a minute. With 4km to go Cancellara launched a serious attack but Vanmarcke was ready and plunged into his slipstream to close him down. The two kept riding, arguably Vanmarcke could have sat back saying “you attacked, you broke the rhythm” and playing on Cancellara’s fear of being outsprinted. But the Belgian was generous and they kept going, in fact Vanmarcke tried a small jump with around 2km to go.
The pair arrived into the velodrome after 253km, a cute warm up for a track sprint. For the first time all day the race slowed as the pair almost came to a stop on the track. Cancellara’s banking skills allowed him to put Vanmarcke into the lead. The Belgian looked at ease on the track, taking a good line and watching his rival with more alertness than you’d expect given the accumulated fatigue.
As they went round the final bend Vanmarcke launched the sprint and for once in his life Cancellara was being towed to the finish line. Vanmarcke was fast even if his line was getting ragged and Cancellara came past to offer a victory salute on the line.
A great race. If Milan-Sanremo brought excitement over the Poggio and into Sanremo, here saw the uncertainty and drama last for hours. There can be a guilty feeling watching a race like this with its monstrous cobbles, seeing riders felled by road signs or going head first into the ditch all in the name of sport and entertainment.
Yes the favourite rider won but despite whole teams calculating their tactics on him, the longer the race went on, the less likely his win became. At first outnumbered by other teams, then heavily marked in a group, he was even sitting up. This was wheeled poker. Even as the sprint duel with Vanmarcke came closer Cancellara looked like an underdog, remember he’d outplayed Tom Boonen for the 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Niki Terpstra saved the day for OPQS with third place, you wonder what could have happened if Stybar had not been stymied. The media will probably ask question Team Sky and BMC who once again miss out but perhaps any interrogations need to be seen across the classics because this one race is a random event. Note Radioshack had trouble too with Stijn Devolder dropped and Cancellara’s acceleration on the cobbles got ride of his own team mates. But this made the race so much better than last week’s the Tour of Flanders as we treated to many attacks and an ever-changing scenario.
Vanmarcke finished the race in tears. He’d crashed and punctured earlier in the day, but salvaged his classics campaign after recovering from injury in Tirreno-Adriatico. The only time Cancellara fell today is when he tried to get off his bike but exhaustion got the better of him.