With the 2016 season over time to reflect on the racing and pick a handful of highlights. Paris-Roubaix comes first. It can be an easy pick because of extremism and eccentricy, it stands out because it’s so unlike anything else but this year’s race was gripping from start to finish and it was all live on TV too.
The race celebrates the mining landscapes and ancient roads but begins with a touch of bourgeois conceit in Compiègne amid the elegant Haussmanian architecture. It’s fleeting and as soon as the race leaves the town the landscape opens up and, depending on how generous you feel, could be described somewhere between exposed and bleak. The wind was up teasing the peloton to break into echelons. The attacks were flying and it was all live on TV.
The moves were not the usual wildcard bids for airtime but contained big names from big teams, the kind of moves that either send lieutenants up the road as longshot bids for victory or merely to act as a lure to force others to chase. Strong riders like Sylvain Chavanel, Mathew Hayman, Imanol Erviti and Salvatore Puccio were away. Etixx-Quickstep weren’t and were forced to chase, a springtime theme for them. Team Sky joined them, a squad still hunting for that first Monument classic despite spending on all those millions.
In time a big crash blocked the peloton and suddenly race picks Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara were caught on the wrong side, bad but the ruin came from a lack team support. Sagan’s lack of team support has been obvious for years – 2017 isn’t going to solve this either – while Trek-Segafredo’s problems were less structural and more sudden after crashes took out valuable helpers before they could get to work. Etixx and Sky continued their chase but it was now as much about containing the move ahead as it was distancing the riders behind and Lotto-Jumbo joined in.
The final survivors of the morning’s breakaway were finally caught before the Orchies pavé with around 70km to go and Tom Boonen decided to provoke a selection over the cobbles. Behind Fabian Cancellara was in full pursuit mode and it made for several simultaneous contests, Boonen and Co. at the front, the chase group behind and further back Cancellara in full flight.
With 20km to go Sky’s Ian Stannard accelerated on the Camphin cobbles and the lead group was down to Stannard, Boonen, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke and early breakaway survivor Hayman still there. Surely it was a matter of time until Hayman got dropped? With hindsight you may think “no, he stuck with them” but actually he was ejected following a savage attack by Sep Vanmarcke, ankles flailing like nobody else, on the Carrefour de l’Arbre. However Boonen did the work to bring Vanmarcke back and Hayman clawed his way back.
The excitement continued as the lead five traded more attacks in the final kilometres including a strong move by Boonen. Of the quintet Hayman seemed the least likely to win. Boonen and Boasson Hagen have both won bunch sprints, Vanmarcke’s beaten Boonen in a sprint and Stannard’s got ham shanks for legs and a track background too. Hayman? Well it’d be grand if he made the podium, no? In the moment all eyes were on Boonen and his bid to become Mr Paris-Roubaix and silence Roger De Vlaeminck’s taunts once and for all. Hayman led out the sprint and nobody came past. For a moment it felt flat, the lesser rider triumphing. Harsh? Perhaps but Hayman himself was just as stunned.
It was all live on TV. In isolation this alone is a highlight, an entire classic in HD is a great thing, or rather having the option to watch it all is good. Had the race turned out differently with a break of no-hopers not taking much time then it could have been five hours of boredom but this first attempt was great because it offered action and suspense for the best part of six hours.
Each claim in the Roubaix velodrome like “if I’d only I’d sat tight on that earlier section” or “I should have used that corner on the road before Arenberg to move up a few places” isn’t just the coulda, woulda, shoulda of a loser but the sound of lessons being learned, human capital banked for next year’s race. It helps explain why Paris-Roubaix is country for old men, winners are regularly in their thirties. Mathew Hayman has spent 18 years as a pro and finished Paris-Roubaix 15 times with two top-10 performances before winning this year. None of this made Hayman’s win inevitable, far from it, but it helped him be in the right place at the right time again and again on the day. Similarly this experience and affinity for the race explains why most of his spring campaign was spent… in the garage doing Zwift sessions after breaking his wrist in Het Nieuwsblad, he wanted to be back just for this race. Replay the race over and over again in a sporting Monte Carlo simulator and surely Boonen and Vanmarcke would win more often. But they lost this year. There’s also the small satisfaction of a Hayman’s win on a standard team-issue bike, not for him the legion of “Roubaix” branding.
One rider who could go back but won’t is Fabian Cancellara. His spring campaign wasn’t the fairy tale ending, a win in the Strade Bianche and then second in the Ronde and reduced to chasing his way to Roubaix before a pride-wounding crash on the velodrome banking. The Giro didn’t work out and nor did the Tour but perhaps this was just training for his Olympic gold in Rio. Cancellara’s retired now while Boonen’s proximity to the win encouraged him to ride on for a year and Hayman will be back too.
Why the highlight? A vintage edition of a classic race. The result was a surprise and uncertain right until the final metres, the final act of a long day’s sport that began with the early attacks.