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How the race was lost: Paris-Roubaix

Happy Paris-Roubaix hangover day! Yes, the cobbled classics are over, but quitting cobbled fantasies cold turkey is hard, so we continue to talk about them as the week after as Roubaix fades into the distance. Especially with a race as exciting and historic as yesterday's. While we will continue to vividly remember this day for years, even decades, we also don't want to quite let go of the experience. So, we talk.

Specifically, we talk about how the race played out. Boonen, he is no Cancellara, he has no time trial world championships medals hanging above his hearth. So when he made a breakaway of almost 60 kilometers stick, and by a wide margin, we all expressed surprise. But, it is not like Boonen simply rode away from everyone and that was it and his victory can be chalked up merely to having the best legs and luck on the day. No, this is bike racing where we have drafting, team tactics, and too many confounding factors for that to be true. So, where did everyone else lose Paris-Roubaix?

We can break the crux race down into three distinct places, all of which happened in the short span of 15 kilometers or so.

Act 1: The Gap

The first? The initial acceleration that drew out Boonen, Pozzato, Ballan, and then Terpstra, who bridged up to the four leaders (including Sebastian Turgot, who was already off the front of the group). This was arguably the strongest group of riders on the road - and the most skilled at riding the pave - except for missing Chavanel, who had just punctured. Still, 60 kilometers is a long way to go for it, even in a group as talented as that one. So, it is perhaps none too surprising that Pozzato and Ballan seemed hesitant to give it some real stick and go for it. And while Pozzato and Ballan bickered about who would pull through next, Terpstra and Boonen got a little gap which they decided to exploit. Boonen said something to Terpstra (wouldn't we all like to know what the words were?) and the throttle opened upl

More bickering behind. Ballan was under team orders to not chase down the move (remember - 60 kilometers to go...), especially with Hushovd in the next group behind him. We could enter a long discussion of why Ballan would wait for a teammate who was obviously not one of the strongest 10 riders in the race... but I'll leave that for you guys in the comments section. Pozzato seemed reluctant to commit so early too. And hence the gap was born.

Act 2: The Crash

Shortly after Boonen and Terpstra got their gap - right as it began to become serious in the 15-20 seconds range - Pozzato crashed on a right-hand bend on secteur 10. Why does this matter? Unlike Hushovd's hitting the deck in the 2010 version of the race, Pozzato was substantially hurt by his tumble. As soon as he remounted the bike we knew he was done - his fluid pedaling was gone, he did not start sprinting off in pursuit of his group immediately, and shortly afterwards he abandoned.

Jump back a week to the Ronde... Pozzato was lauded as the strongest rider in the race, he had almost cracked Boonen on the Paterberg and was clearly on the rise after an early season broken collarbone. Boonen was trying to extend his form, Pozzato's was still rising. It is arguable that the Farnese-Vini rider was one of the only ones who could have jumped up to Boonen. Imagine if he, Ballan and perhaps Flecha or Boom had gone for it before Boonen's gap was big? Who knows what would have happened. For me, this is one of the biggest ifs of the race.

Act 3: The Chase

Team Sky looked like it held all the aces at 55km to go. Boonen was off the front, having dispatched Terpstra on secteur 10, and they had 5 riders in the 14 man chase group. After the group split again, they still had Hayman, Flecha, Boasson-Hagen, and Stannard in the 10-man chase group. Very seldomly does a team have such representation this far into Paris-Roubaix, especially in such a small group. So they should have won, right?

Take a minute to evaluate their chances more closely though. Flecha was an unknown in his second race back after fracturing his hand five weeks prior. He was up there in Flanders, but he definitely wasn't firing at 100%... but you can never write off someone with as much class as him. Edvald Boasson-Hagen is still tagged as the next Eddy Merkx, but he is unproven in races 260km long. He packs a dangerous sprint and has arguably more top end speed than Boonen, so if he could make it to the Roubaix velodrome with a select group, the race was his to lose.

So, why did such depth in the chase group hurt Sky? Both their leaders were unknowns, and they could not decide to sacrifice the chances of one for the other. And in such a situation, you can imagine they wanted to have their two leaders as well as a helper left after Boonen was caught.

So, Stannard was put on the front to see if he could bring back Boonen. The only problem? Sky decided to use the slow burn approach to pulling Boonen back into the fold instead of blitzing his lead. Why not leave him out there to dry in the wind for a while to sap some of his strength? So, Stannard pulled hard for 8-10 kilometers instead of burying himself with a shorter and harder effort that would bring Boonen back. Unfortunately, Stannard doesn't have the engine Tommeke does, so he could not assault the gap, even though he was riding a little harder than Boonen was. And on the cobbles? They certainly weren't going to pull back Boonen on the cobbles...

And so it went - Sky put too little commitment into the chase on the crucial paved parts. After Stannard blew up, Hayman did the same. Nobody would help them (why would they, they had four men!), and their best chance for catching Boonen - putting Hayman and Stannard to work at the same time to swap pulls - was unattractive to them. It's hard to imagine them doing anything different, but it makes me wonder... if EBH or Flecha hadn't been in that group, would they have committed more? Numbers aren't always strength.

Conclusions

We can argue any one of these moments (or all 3) were the most crucial. And while I have my own thoughts that lean towards Act 3, this is more about us all re-living the race. What was the crucial moment for you? Vote! And discuss! What did we miss, what additional nuance was there... or was it simply Boonen's historic power that sealed the fate of the race.

Side note: If you want a fun video exploration of the race, do watch Cosmo's How The Race Was Won. You can also discuss it here.

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