Fairy Tale Endings in Roubaix

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.

50 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Endings in Roubaix”

    • “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.” This beautiful statement could be said of how we cycle through the partially examined life.

    • There are others too but Wiggins never painted the finish line of his career in Roubaix, he rode on 2015 and then continued with road cycling in 2016 too, eg Tour of California, it wasn’t quite the retirement or last chance it was billed/marketed as and nor did it have the magic ending that the likes of Hayman enjoyed.

      • The big “what if” in Wiggins’ career was 2014 Paris-Roubaix. What if he had jumped when Terpstra did? He was tactically conservative and that cost him his best chance of a classic. (Says me watching from the sofa.)

          • Please don’t, I love that this is a site where you can read articles without someone vomiting doping accusations all over the comments.

          • What if ballerini/museuw/etc. didn’t have not so mysterious bags – ok guys, let’s ignore this for the sake of this article. We could be here all day discussing who was clean who wasn’t how much did they use yada yada. The guy who crossed the finish line first is all that matters right now.

          • Not impressed with the TUE’s, but Sir Brad does deserve full credit as a TdF contender who fared quite respectably at Roubaix, though the goals were in different seasons. So much talk about how that NEVER happens these days…

        • It wasn’t only Wiggins that day. Both he and Thomas were paralysed with doubts coming off (iirc) Carrefour and the opportunity disappeared off up the road. If ever there was a moment which defined the term ‘Skybots’ it was this one.

          • Yeah, that’s true, although I’ve just read Thomas’s (very slight) autobiography and he basically says he was there to work for Wiggins who didn’t go when he should have. It’s a pretty soft criticism but reading between the lines I think Thomas feels he missed the boat playing support to Wiggins.

          • That said, Gelibet was shouting in the radiology his DS “what do I do?” after getting off the front in Flanders. Maybe the Sky DS is less capable/determined/trusting in his riders.

  1. It’s a good story and a nice thought.
    But could the dream turn to a nightmare, in the form of Mr Sagan seeking revenge?

    I wanted to ask, Inrng, bearing in mind that we unfortunately couldn’t get your thoughts on the Ronde last weekend, what you have thought of the Quick Step / Sagan dynamic this Spring so far?

    For me, it’s been fascinating to observe. There feels to be an air of animosity between QS and Sagan, is that apparent on the circuit, so to speak?
    I’m not well versed in the history of the sport, but I’ve never known an entire team pay so much attention to one man. I’ve watched many other team sports and don’t think that I can recall this happening to such a degree. Perhaps it’s a dynamic more peculiar to cycling?
    There almost felt to be an air of desperation about Gilbert’s long-range move last week, a last throw of the dice if you will. Brave but foolhardy was how I saw it as Sagan, GVA and Naesen were bearing down on him. However, it worked in the end.
    It may take more of the same this weekend, another momentous move?

      • 8m EUR and jobs for friends and family says that’s exactly what happened, substitute Quickstep for any of the numerous teams that solicited him

    • Far from being a desperate last throw of the dice I saw Gilbert/Quick-Steps moves in Flanders as a proactive way of taking Sagan out of the game. Desperation might have come into it if Sagan had dominated and won E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, but he didn’t. I think Quick-Step knew from Dwars, E3 and De Panne that Gilbert was on top form but that wouldn’t matter if it came down to a three up between him Sagan and GVA, so they had to use their superior numbers to engineer something. Circumstances meant Gilbert went probably a bit earlier than anticipated, and lonelier than anticipated, but I think it was certainly a plan of theirs to make the racing a lot earlier than normal. It wont have been coincidence that they were on the front on the Muur and when they noticed Sagan and GVA weren’t there it was common sense to try and distance them.

    • To this North American sports fan, it feels a lot like how Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky were treated – Sagan is an athlete of the same calibre. Completely dominant at their prime and able to topple the strongest of collective efforts. Quick Step is right to have a strong anti-Sagan strategy.

      Sunday will be awesome.

    • @Inrng – I shouldn’t have raised the question on this article, sorry, on what is a tribute to the great man. Catch you again some other time maybe. Apologies again.

  2. Boonen would appear to have the form, he seems sharper than last year, and he definitely has the nous but as you’ve said a large chunk of luck/not having bad luck is needed for any winner here. It’ll be interesting to see how Sagan goes after his fall. After he and GVA were upstaged by Gilbert at the Ronde they might decide to take it out of anyone’s hands and go for it themselves here. Any news on the weather forecast?

    • Weather forecast says warm, 20°C even. There hasn’t been a lot of rain either over the last few weeks so we’ll get a dusty edition.

  3. Great piece! This is why we come here. I have a cherished memory of being there in 2012 and seeing Boonen make the turn off the last cobbles into the velodrome solo. I’d love to see a fairy-tale ending on Sunday, but can’t help but think about what one wag posted elsewhere – the spring-loaded stem gizmo on Tommeke’s Big-S bike is to protect his arm as he bangs on the bars in frustration after his bike’s chain falls off (again)!

    • The suspension stem returns? I liked them over a decade ago for the minor contribution to comfort over fire roads. Now that riding dirt roads on a road bike is a new niche, maybe the market will be bigger this time.

      Specialized marketing for the product is ridiculous, as usual.

      • That would be the only negative aspect of a fairy-tale win by Boonen – all the hype from Big-S about how their gizmo won the day for Tommeke. Same as Duclos-Lassalle and the RockShox fork…took awhile for word to leak out that it was “locked-out” for the entire race!

  4. Now for a certain type of cycling enthusiast there was a certain Beatles or Stones vibe around Cancellara/Boonen – be in thrall to one, yes, both, not so much. Never warmed to Cancellara much, he didn’t toil like others, it was all rather bloodless. Tomeke sprinting like a rodeo bull, working people over on the Taienberg for the hell of it, his zenith at 2012 Roubaix – now we are talking

    • The ironic symmetry being that it was on the Taaienberg that Boonen’s race ended last weekend.
      And on a day when the famous climb had been barriered off to prevent use of ‘his’ gutter.

  5. I’d love to see Boonen win, although Kristoff seems to be flying a little under the radar. He’s had top 10s at Roubaix in the past and won the bunch sprint at Flanders (despite looking in real trouble on the climbs). It’s such a great, random race though, so who knows.

  6. I think if good wishes could win bike races, Tom Boonen would cruise in ahead by an absurd distance at Roubaix next weekend.
    Doubtless there is always the odd dissenter, but in general he is to be seen as a rider who has carried a Croesean wealth of goodwill throughout his career. This has derived from his generous talent –which means great ability allied to unfailing sportsmanship through thick and thin.
    Physically, his long levers also mean he has always looked good on the bikes he has ridden, with a pleasing reach out over the frame. It has left him at a disadvantage for the racing at which he has been supreme, since his weight distribution across the frame of his bikes is so good it plants the front wheel. Fine for a sprinter, but he has been denied the natural ability to climb seated on the cobbled ascents of some of his toughest races –a necessary technique according to so many cobbled specialists, putting the weight down over the rear wheel and letting the front end skip.
    He has been an undeniably class act. But even though I do not think Paris-Roubaix will provide his final win, by taking the start line he cannot lose.

  7. It may probably not be a fairy-tale for a fabulous rider but Bilmo’s comment about the also-great de Vlaeminck and rain-dances calls to mind that we have not seen a really mucky Paris-Roubaix for some years. (I leave it to the Master- Gabriele -to tell us exactly when, and I expect nothing less than a full data set (sett) of temperature extremes, averages, dew-point, wet-bulb temperature, precipitation, station and sea-level pressure, wind speeds, sheer, chill; cloud conditions and visibility. ) Last year there were dire weather warnings beforehand but in actuality there was just about one damp patch on the course which Sky managed to find and wiped out three of its riders in one swoop, if I recall. More Paris Hilton than Paris-Roubaix in that respect. But it was surely the best race of the entire year last time out from the point of sheer human competition. Nonetheless, it would be enthralling to see some mud-caked, soaking battle put up by the course as a reminder of just how stupendous this race can be in that element of its epic grandeur. After all the race was originally conceived as some sort of Easter sufferfest.

      • You may find this surprising but in W-Europe April is (one of) the driest months of the year so statistically speaking there’s nothing so strange about a dry P-Roubaix. Factor in that the plants and trees are gaining biomass fast because of the sunshine and good temps and sucking dry the soil in the process and you understand the general dustiness of the Flemish (and N-French) flats in this time of the year. Some of the greatest historical wildfires in my home area ( Belgium’s north, where all those muddy cyclocrosses are in autumn and winter) happened in April, not in the dead of summer.

        Wikipedia on the nord pas de calais climate: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climat_du_Nord-Pas-de-Calais

        • Dang was to quick on the pedantry, of course INRNG had already explained this… Anyway. April = Dust most years. I mean the wettest Roubaix ever was probably that TdF stage Lars Boom won right?

      • Its an odd quirk that we have fairly regularly had rain soaked races in Belgium and some pretty catastrophic wind yet a couple of weeks later just down the road seems to have a similar sort of climate as northern Africa. Surely to god we must be due a good few wet ones, though not this year apparently. Not that I’d imagine riding through clouds of dust is all that pleasant.

  8. There is a nice little video on Boonen available on Eurosport Player at the moment, be quick though as its not available for many more days.

  9. I don’t usually much care who wins races, but romantic soul that I am, I would like to see Boonen win.
    I’d also like to see some rain, but that’s not looking likely.

    • Also in that case Boonen is not very likely to win I’m afraid. Somebody ought to do the stats but Boonen is quite the fair-weather rider I’ve always had the impression. (which may be a part of the explanation as to why he never won Het Volk?) Unlike Gilbert for instance who seems to get better in bad conditions.

      • Not that much. I don’t have time for an exhaustive list, but his first Roubaix might be a perfect case study. He won Gent 2004 which was a very wet race, for example. Another textbook case, even if it ended with sunshine (which might condition our memories), was the 2006 Ronde which Boonen won wearing the rainbow jersey although it was affected by rainy weather, with a delayed start because of the rain and slightly slippery cobbles on the Koppenberg, which risked to be taken out from the course (they were sweeping the mud away until late the night before the race). It was precisely on the Koppenberg that Boonen stroke with a powerful move.
        I think that most of Boonen’s big victories happened in dry weather because of the dry spell in recent years, but he more than proved that he was effective under the rain, too.
        Het Volk is more than anything a question of form (the black legend of Het Volk says that whoever wins it won’t have a successful Spring Campaign – a myth, but perhaps with some physical reason behind it). He regularly got top-five placings – about once out of every three times he rode it! – which is more about lacking the “Spring spring” than about suffering on wet cobbles.
        Cancellara admittedly preferred dry conditions, even if his riding style looked like quite suited to the wet cobbles, on paper at least (sitting, high RPM).
        I believe that, on a wet course, Boonen is able to take advantage of his incredible and unmatched riding skills on the cobbles. A very balanced weight distribution allows him to keep way more control of the steering wheel, and the “bridge-like” position of his torso accounts for a better distribution of vibrations and hits along the whole reach of the bike. As somebody pointed out elsewhere, he might lose adherence with the back wheel, especially if he climbs out of the saddle, but his pedalling style on the bergs, makes for that (it seems as if he’s able to bring on the peak power of the pedal stroke more downward and “backward” than most other riders, granting continued traction – Koppenberg footage, again, is generally the best example for that).

    • Insightful comment there, I’m the same, I have no favourite rider, or riders even. It might be because whoever crosses the line first, I just assume they’re doping; I think the same for each and every other rider who subsequently crosses the line too. But I ignore that issue to a degree, because the spectacle of a bike race is just wonderful.

  10. Nice article, referencing some great memories. Hope Sunday works out well for Tom!
    (Slight correction needed with ‘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’: Knaven won in 2001.)

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