Talking Tactics: Cancellara on track at Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix is referred to as ‘the Queen of the Classics’ and ‘the Hell of the North’ with good reason. Every year it delivers a spectacle of high drama and derring-do, the stuff of cycling legend. 2013 was no exception, providing thrills and (literally) spills that left the result in doubt until the closing metres. Rather than focus on the reasons for Fabian Cancellara‘s third Roubaix win  – he was stronger and just that little bit luckier than everyone else – I’ve picked out six points that shaped the wider race.

The top three (l tor): Vanmarcke (second), Cancellara and Terpstra (third) (image: Paris-Roubaix website)

The top three (l to r): Vanmarcke (second), Cancellara and Terpstra (third) (image: Paris-Roubaix website)

1. One tactic to rule them all. Many of this spring’s classics have been dominated by the tactics of one team – Cannondale at Strade Bianche, RadioShack-Leopard at the Ronde van Vlaanderen – but here several top teams employed the same tried and trusted tactic of putting men into breakaways to force others to chase. RadioShack, BMC, Sky and Omega Pharma-Quick Step all did it, although ultimately it was RadioShack who missed out to the benefit of the other three – in particular OPQS, who would have finished with two men in the top four if not for the impact of (and with) spectators. Even more so than in Flanders, it meant Cancellara had to be patient and pick his moment as his team faded after doing sterling work containing those breaks.

2. A long, fast race. As with the Ronde, Paris-Roubaix is long and punishing. At 254km, nearly six hours and with its 27 cobbled sectors, it’s significantly tougher than your typical 180-200km, 4-4½ hour flat stage. Think of it as being like comparing a five-set match in tennis to a three-set one.

It’s also arguably the toughest race of the year mentally. Milan-San Remo is over 40km longer, but there are only three key danger points: Le Manie, Cipressa and Poggio. The Ronde is now arguably all about the final climbs of the Kwaremont and Paterberg. At Paris-Roubaix, virtually all of the 27 cobbled sectors present a clear and present danger of attacks, crashes and mechanical failures, and are consequently approached and tackled at close to lead-out speeds as everyone scrambles for the front. The riders are constantly on edge. That’s hard work.

All the above is a constant in any given year. But this year’s edition was particularly quick – the second-fastest ever – with the first hour raced at a whisker under 50kph. Higher speeds result in greater physical and mental fatigue, and Stijn Vandenbergh‘s coming-together with a spectator with 16km to go, just as he was struggling to maintain contact, suggested that tiredness may have been a contributing factor.

3. Good luck/bad luck (I): OPQS sees double. More than any other race, you cannot win Paris-Roubaix without favourable fortune. Having secured 50% of the decisive four-man attack in the form of Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar, for OPQS to have both removed from contention in quick succession by spectators was what Cancellara himself would have called ‘unluck’. Would the combination of two teammates working in concert have been enough to overcome Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the final? We’ll never know for sure, but certainly Spartacus’ task would have been much harder.

OPQS at least had the consolation of Niki Terpstra winning the sprint for third, but on a day when they had five riders feature prominently – Vandenbergh, Stybar, Terpstra, Gert Steegmans (who was in the main break of the day) and team captain Sylvain Chavanel (who suffered a mechanical at an inopportune moment) – their luck failed to match their efforts.

Thomas has good reason to curse his luck this spring (image: Wikipedia)

Thomas has good reason to curse his luck this spring (image: Wikipedia)

4. Good luck/bad luck (II): Doubting Thomas. I don’t know exactly what programme Sky followed on their classics training camp in Tenerife, but I suspect Geraint Thomas must have spent his days walking repeatedly under a ladder, as crashes killed his aspirations for the third time this spring. A couple of off-road excursions proved too much for him to overcome, having crashed at both the Ronde and on the crucial Cipressa climb at Milan-San Remo.

Crashes reduced Thomas’ entire classics campaign to a set of hypothetical ‘what might have been’ scenarios. And, given the way the finish panned out, you have to wonder whether this particular race really was the one that got away. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

5. The (over)exuberance of youth. It’s easy to forget that BMC’s Taylor Phinney is still only 22. He already has a palmares which includes donning the maglia rosa at the Giro, two Road World Championship silver medals, a 15th place finish at Paris-Roubaix last year and two victories in the under-23 edition.

But Paris-Roubaix is a race which preys on and crushes inexperience. It takes a wise head to recognise when to attack and when to be patient, and Phinney’s mildly disappointing finish (23rd) was the result of burning too many matches too early as he charged off the front of the peloton in the Arenberg trench and then got himself into a fruitless break. It’s a fact he was quick to acknowledge himself after the race, telling VeloNews:

For me to ride through the Arenberg forest first was a dream come true but it was still quite hard. Personally I think I got a little bit over-excited about this race. I found myself in some early moves after the breakaway was caught back. I needed to stay a bit quieter. But it is a difficult balance to find.

Time is on his side, though. Tom Boonen won the first of his four Paris-Roubaix at the age of 24. Three-time winner Cancellara claimed his first at 25. Phinney’s time will come.

5. Why did Vanmarcke share the workload? In the closing kilometres, with the fight for the win reduced to a straight head-to-head between Cancellara and Blanco’s Sep Vanmarcke, many observers were puzzled at the way the Belgian so willingly took his turn at the front, even after Cancellara had broken the rhythm with an exploratory attack with 4km to go. It was particularly noticeable that Vanmarcke was insistent on leading through both of the final two cobbled sectors. Was he being excessively honourable, naive or just too tired to think clearly at this point?

Only Vanmarcke himself knows for sure, but my reading of the situation at the time still stands: I think he pulled off the bravest and most painful of bluffs. He knew he had virtually nothing left in the tank and if he showed any sign of weakness he risked Cancellara simply riding him off his wheel. Sharing the work and leading over the cobbles allowed him to dictate a more even tempo which reduced the race to a 500-metre track sprint, a more favourable scenario for him than trying to match Spartacus over 15km. (Vanmarcke is fast – he outsprinted Boonen to win last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.) In that situation, Cancellara might have panicked and jumped too early, gifting him the victory. It wasn’t to be. Spartacus remained patient, Vanmarcke himself went early and was comprehensively outdragged to the line. But he had at least ensured that there would be a final sprint.

Certainly, Vanmarcke’s post-race comments would seem to support my theory:

[Cancellara] asked me a couple of times how I felt, and I think the only answer that anyone could give was “I’m f***ed.” At first I didn’t want to be dropped. I wanted to get to the velodrome and then I wanted to do a sprint.

I knew I couldn’t attack – I couldn’t drop him. I wasn’t strong enough for that, but I wanted to get to Roubaix and sprint for it – it was my only option.

6. Track stand – and what might have been. You have to admire both Cancellara and Vanmarcke’s ability and strength to execute a track stand on the banking in the Roubaix velodrome. It’s hard enough to do when you’re fresh, let alone after nearly six hours in the saddle. Chapeau Fabian, chapeau Sep!

However, you have to wonder what Geraint Thomas – a multiple Olympic and world champion on the track and a formidable sprinter himself – would have made of that finish. It’s a moot point, of course, because he was 14 minutes behind after his earlier troubles, but it’s just one of a number of tantalising scenarios which never came to pass – but so easily could have. Will he ever get another chance?

On such small tactical variables do the outcomes of cycling races – and in particular Paris-Roubaix – pivot, and that’s one of the reasons we love the sport so much, isn’t it? Bring on the Ardennes!

2 thoughts on “Talking Tactics: Cancellara on track at Paris-Roubaix

    • It was indeed. Of course, Roubaix throws up so many stories of what didn’t quite work or what might have been with a bit more luck that I opted to focus on these facets of the race rather than the winner’s tale, which is comprehensively covered elsewhere.

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