When Fabian Cancellara signed in last this morning for the start of Paris-Roubaix, he was the overwhelming favourite. But being the overwhelming favourite means that you’re a marked man, that no other team helps you, no one wants you behind them and everyone wants to ride against you. In the past, this has often scuppered Cancellara’s chances for the top step on the podium. Today, not much of that happened at all. Cancellara used his team to perfection, kept his cards close to his chest, seemed to be welcome in the final breaks, bluffed it out with a cunningly timed drop back to the team car and used experience over brute force to take his third title with a velodrome sprint finish. Yes. A sprint finish.
In crystal clear, cold conditions, the race started out with a 13-man breakaway which, with riders from both RadioShack and Omega Pharma-Quick Step among the group, was allowed to go up the road without ever proving a threat and were caught before the first set of cobbles. From this came a break of four – 2007 winner Stuart O’Grady (Orica-GreenEDGE), Gert Steegmans (OPQS), Mathew Hayman (Sky) and Clement Koretzky (Bretagne-Seche) – which got away around the 125km mark, and built a 2:10 lead before reaching sector 18, the Forest of Arenberg. Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), who lit up the Ronde last week with a similar solo break, went off the front of the peloton to try to bridge but the Gorilla never quite got there, getting reeled in before the break hit the famed five-star cobbled section.
The chase through Arenberg was led by BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who had been tipped as a contender for a podium place. He looked strong, whittling down the break’s advantage to 37 seconds, while his teammate Thor Hushovd, the stated leader of the team, suffered mechanical after mechanical. Geraint Thomas (Sky), another rider who was tipped for glory, found himself in the mud of the ploughed-up side of the Arenberg – the first of a handful of falls that would plague the Welshman.
By the end of the sector, Steegmans and Hayman were the only two left of that original break and continued to work together, taking advantage of the feedzone to extend their lead to 50 seconds. At 70km to the finish, in sector 15, the ditch once again played host to Geraint Thomas, when the middle of the peloton went from riding to sprawling and the ditch caught the over-spill. From here, little attacks came off the front of the peloton at regular intervals and in various combinations: Michael Schar (BMC), then Europcar’s Damien Gaudin, Ian Stannard (Sky), Matti Breschel (Saxo-Tinkoff), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Niki Terpstra (OPQS).
Cancellara stayed quiet until he started ramping up the pace on the front of the peloton in sector 11, splintering the peloton, never to be put back together. By sector 10, the break was caught and a group of 13 riders formed, including Cancellara, Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS), Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), Luca Paolini (Katusha), Bernie Eisel (Sky), Stijn Vandenbergh (OPQS) and Heinrich Haussler (IAM). An unfortunate mechanical just after the 40km mark took Chavanel out of the equation and the pace and the attacks split the group into three smaller ones: the first with Vanmarcke, Vandenbergh, Seb Langeveld (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Gaudin; Flecha, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Paolini and Zdenek Stybar (OPQS) in the middle, and the third group of Cancellara, Terpstra, Eisel and Lars Boom (Blanco). At this point, Cancellara went back to the team car as though he might be in trouble. He had a chat, winced a bit, took a sticky bottle, let everyone ponder what might be wrong and then put the pedal to the metal to catch the Flecha group, just as Vandenbergh and Vanmarcke went off the front on their own.
With 22km to go, Cancellara put in an attack that only Stybar could bear and they went off in hot pursuit of the two Belgians in front, catching them just ahead of sector five. Unlike other races, the break seemed happy to work with Cancellara as opposed to making him sit on the front and drag them all to the line. Sector four, the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre, was where Vandenbergh hit an oblivious fan who strayed too close to the side and was sent sprawling over the cobbles, whittling down the leaders to three. Just seconds later, Stybar hit another fan on the roadside, losing contact with Cancellara and Vanmarcke (but his cyclocross skills ensured he didn’t hit the ground). He lost more time by taking a corner too hard and having to unclip. In no time, he was 30 seconds from the two leaders.
The smart money for the win at this point was heading towards Vanmarcke, the better sprinter of the two. But Cancellara was playing a wily game and Vanmarcke was happy to take his turns on the front, giving him time to regroup. Vanmarcke took the lead on the cobbles of sector two with Cancellara sitting comfortably on his wheel. The Swiss rider had a dig at 4km but Vanmarcke was able to neutralise it. When they reached the Roubaix velodrome, they nearly came to a standstill as Cancellara forced his opponent in front. When Vanmarcke wound up the sprint, Cancellara powered by him to take his third Paris-Roubaix and his second Flanders-Roubaix double.
Cancellara fell to the ground with exhaustion, Vanmarcke leant on his bike in tears and Niki Terpstra took the third step of the podium.
Analysis & opinion
There was nothing called instinct at the end, it was just a fight. I went to a level sometimes you don’t know how you can do it. I went beyond my limits. I’m happy but I was probably more happy that the race was finished. Then I had a minute to lie down on the grass, back to planet earth. I damaged myself probably more than ever.
The only thing that was correctly predicted about this race was that Fabian Cancellara would add a cobblestone trophy to his collection. Whereas Cancellara has been seen in the past few years as a one-trick pony – attack, get a metre and never look back as he time-trials to the win – today saw a more patient, more cunning, more calculating Cancellara. With his team finally coming together and able to help him through much of the race, he was able to keep in the pack without having to single-leggedly chase down breaks all day.
Later, when he couldn’t shake Vanmarcke, the power he used seemed to be that of Jedi mind-tricks as Vanmarcke willingly worked with Cancellara almost up to the velodrome. From there, the brute force that Cancellara used was simply to make sure Vanmarcke was in front on the boards so he could sweep past him for the win. A little rope-a-dope, a little intimidation: Spartacus might be getting older but he’s also getting more ruthless in his tactics.
But certainly, if there had been four coming into the velodrome, chances are that Cancellara would not have won. It’s said that the best equipped, best prepared riders win Roubaix – but only if they have luck on their side. Or rather, as long as Lady Luck hasn’t turned her face away like she did with Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar. If they hadn’t hit those two spectators, what would have happened? Two OPQS riders working together to neutralise Cancellara … it could have so easily been a very different result.
1. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) 5:45:33
2. Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) same time
3. Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0.31
4. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) s/t
5. Damien Gaudin (Europcar) s/t
6. Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0.39
7. Sebastian Langeveld (Orica-GreenEDGE) s/t
8. Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t
9. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) +0.50
10. Sebastien Turgot (Europcar) s/t