Can Tom Boonen win Paris-Roubaix this Sunday? Just thinking it about seems indulgent and sentimental, like the start of a day dream. But if there’s one race where dreams come true it’s Paris-Roubaix thanks to the brutal course and the importance of good luck. The Roubaix velodrome has been the finish line for many careers and over the years it has supplied several fairy tale endings.
Want a fairy tale? Look at last year’s race where Mat Hayman won at his 15th attempt. He went in the early breakaway, got swept up by the main protagonists in the final and then beat them all in the velodrome finish. It was one thing to reach the Roubaix with the leaders but imagine beating Tom Boonen, Ian Stannard, Sep Vanmarke and Edvald Boasson Hagen in the sprint? If you think fairy tales are baloney then let’s express the story another way, in cold terms of probability the chance of Hayman winning
In fact Roubaix often rewards the long shot or even the romantic choice. Take 1997 when the Française des Jeux had just started under the management of Marc Madiot, a Paris-Roubaix obsessive and the short story is that a group of eight riders reached the velodrome including Jo Planckaert, Johan Museeuw, Marc Wauters, Fred Moncassin and André Tchmil only for FDJ’s neo-pro Frédéric Guesdon to win the race. Frédéric Guesdon’s bookended his career with a ride to Roubaix in 2012 but he broke his hip in the Tour Down Under but still managed to start the race and made it to the finish in Roubaix, outside the time cut but determined to lap the track one last time, another cute touch.
In 1998 Johan Museeuw sustained a horror crash in the Arenberg forest cobbled sector, smashing his kneecap to pieces and contracting gangrene and doctors wanted to amputate his leg. Or so the story goes, perhaps one doctor once said that if the condition worsened then amputation was a possibility and maybe the gangrene was aided by the doping that Museeuw later confessed to, the viscous blood causing circulation issues. But never mind, a broken patella is gory enough and the fairy tale is that Museeuw’s leg was saved and he came, saw and conquered in 2001 to enter the velodrome solo which allowed him to make the famous victory that celebrated his knee.
The 1992 and 1993 editions were won by Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle who had turned pro in 1977 and that’s not a typo. He would finish second to Francesco Moser in 1980, second to Hennie Kuiper in 1983 before finally tasting victory twice. Duclos-Lassalle narrowly beat Franco Ballerini in 1993, it needed a photo finish and Ballerini had initially celebrated only for “Gibus” to be declared the winner. Ballerini himself went on to define his career with two Roubaix wins and finished his career in the Roubaix velodrome in 2001. He finished 32nd that day but the result is an anecdotal detail, the moment was more memorable for his tribute to the race as he sat up to cross the line and contrary to all those victory salutes he unzipped his jersey to reveal an undervest that read “Merci Roubaix” in tribute to the event.
Not that all fairy tales have a happy ending. Last year Fabian Cancellara saw the race say goodbye to him rather than him saying goodbye to it as he was caught in a crash and the field split with him on the wrong side but perhaps that was all part of Hayman’s luck?
Maybe Boonen had his fairy tale last year? He finished on the podium just as he did in 2002 in his first go at the race as a neo-pro. Indeed Boonen was supposed to retire at this point but decided to continue for another year.
Boonen’s pre-retirement procession has gone well he’s avoid injury and for someone who embraced the media during his career the send off has reflected his celebrity status in Belgium but hasn’t been over-hyped with commemorative nonsense from, say, his bike or shoe sponsors trying to cash in all over the cycling media. So can Boonen can win this Sunday? Yes, the form seems there and he’s got the experience. He’s also got a very strong team but this has been bothersome thought lately. The Quick Step team is so good and their tactics are simple: throw men forward. What happens if a rider like Niki Terpstra or Yves Lampaert is up the road in the final tactical phases, must Tom Boonen sit tight for the sake of the team? The day dream gets complicated by the likely scenarios.
Anyway, fairy tales? There’s no such thing, least of all amid the fields of Le Nord, this is hardly a wonderland where dreams come true. The severity of the cobbles makes this a very random race where punctures, crashes and other moments of misfortune regularly define the race. This is central to the charm because it ensures the contest is much more than watts and aerodynamics, the chaos creates drama. 1981 winner Bernard Hinault said at the time that he never liked the race because it demanded so much effort yet only for this to all come to nothing because of a puncture, an errant race motorbike or some other factor beyond his control. It’s from this soup of misery that we humans work backwards to find the stories, threading the series of deliberate and random events into a coherent and satisfying narrative.
As for retirement in Roubaix? There are comforting stories like Guesdon recovering from a broken hip to finish his race or Ballerini bowing out with a message of thanks but in both cases these riders set their own terms, they could reasonably hope to make it to Roubaix for old times’ sake. Winning is altogether different. Tom Boonen has chosen the place and the date for retirement but as for the rest, there’s 200 riders, 257km and millions of cobbles to overcome.