Paris -Roubaix is always the climax of the classics season but rarely more so than today. It was a fast but uneventful start in the sense that an early break was never truly let go. Instead the peloton hammered along keeping any attackers on a short leash. A group of four with O'Grady , Steegmans , Hayman and Koretzky finally got a small gap as the race entered the second half with the pavé sectors. The gap was never much more than two minutes though and already by the Arenberg forest they were looking close to getting caught.
The Arenberg turned out to be less selective than usual with luckily few crashes and the race continued on with a rather large peloton. With Radioshack controlling the front, fears were that we were in for another day of passive racing. The seemingly controlled riding belied the fact that the race was ridden at a crushing pace though with some side and headwinds making it harder than it appeared. Some tentative attacks came and went, most notably by Europcars Damien Gaudin who charged ahead repeatedly in an attempt to establish a new breakaway-group, as the original break was worn down. The race had also seen some crashes and defects by now taking out some big-ish names such as Ladagnous, Offredo and Geraint Thomas. With nothing really sticking,the race went into a sort of calm before the storm but it was all going to blow up as the race hit sectors 9 and 10, the feared 5 star Mons en Pévelè.
On the Auchie-lez Orchies sector, with about 50 km to go Cancellara himself grabbed the reigns and forced the pace as his teammates were apparently used up at that point. There and on the the following Mons sector the race blew apart as the rather large peloton at that time cracked under the relentless pace. On the Mons en Pévelè it was Omega Pharma's Stijn Vandenbergh who cracked the whip as riders trickled off the back.
This is when things looked to be coming unhinged for Cancellara as he was now in a 13 man strong leadgroup where his opponents had the numbers on him. A group of four soon broke off the front led by the strong Vandenbergh who was joined by Gaudin,Vanmarcke and Langeveld of Orica-Greenedge. That group floated away and also another with Cancellara still not responding but rather sitting still in the now third group on the road. Speculation began on whether the Swiss favorite simply didn't have the power on the day and the Vandenbergh group got as much as a minute before Cancellara finally exploded away from his group and joining the chasegroup in front. Suddenly the Spartacus everyone had been expecting was apparent and the chase was now on. Up front Vanmarcke and Vandenbergh had escaped their companion and when Cancellara attacked from behind surprisingly Zdenek Stybar was the only one who could hold his wheel and he got a motorpacing rideup to the front-duo.
The lead group of four now were all set for a showdown on the rough Carrafour de'Arbre sector and this would turn out to be armageddon for the Omega Pharma duo who up until that point looked to be riding spectacularly. Vandenbergh was the first to run into a roadside spectator, a touch of the shoulder threw the Belgian violently to the cobbles at high speed and then there where three at the front. Not long after Stybar, the former cyclocross World Champion who was matching Cancellara's accelerations in an impressive display, suffered almost the exact same fate. With brilliant bikehandling and some luck he managed to stay upright as he too was struck by a photographing spectator. After veering wildly and coming unclipped from his pedal he lost enough momentum though to see Cancellara and Vanmarcke disappear in the distance. A brutal fate for the Roubaix debutante who looked well on his way to podium finish, if not better since he might have been the fastest sprinter of the three in front. Instead, demoralized, he faded into the chasegroup and ultimately finished sixth. An amazing result in the end but still one that will have him wondering "what if?".
Up front the duel for the win was now a fact. as both riders took turns to keep the distance to the chase. It looked a bold move by Sep against the feared Cancellara. No one would have faulted the youngster if he had sat on the heavily favored rival, but the two looked very evenly matched. At five kilometers from the finish Cance did one big dig on the false flat to distance the young contender but Vanmarcke only surrendered a bikelength or two before clawing back at which point it was apparent that the battles Cancellara had fought to get back to the front earlier had taken the edge off his patented brutal accelerations. Instead the velodrome sprint was in the cards.
Both riders were visibly in pain as they started the cat and mouse games in the velodrome but in the end Vanmarcke opened the sprint from the front in the final corner. Cancellara had enough to come past him though and took the sprint by the narrowest of margins as Vanmarcke barely had enough left in the tank to register that his opponent came alongside him and cruised past. It was bitter disappointment for the young Belgian who had his cobble season derailed by a Tirreno injury that had him shift all his focus to this one final race of the season. Cancellara who collapsed in cramps after the finished grabbed a worthy win in the what ultimately turned out to be the best race of the season so far.
It's always hard to summarize a race right as it has just happened and i suspect we'llbe coming back to this one more than once in the week to come but there were some obvious takeaways from today:
- Nothing beats the suspense of a Roubaix that comes down to a velodrome sprint. Yes there is beauty in the solowins where a rider stamps his authority on the race on the cobbles and enters the velodrome for a deserved victory lap but from a spectator viewpoint, for the drama, a finish like today is unbeatable. Also I don't think there would be anyone who would say that Cancellara's win today was any less glorious or deserved than one of his two long range attacks,clearly the "right" man won, if there is such a thing as the "right" man. Had Sep pulled out some last minute super-sprint, he too would have been a worthy winner. To me, this was the most open finish since Bäckstedt won from a four man sprint in 2004 but in race quality this race was head and shoulders above that edition.
- Sep Vanmarcke is every bit as good as we have hyped him to be. With his injury he has quite obviously focused his recovery on this race, to be a factor today, when the earlier races were out of play. And he was in the right place in the right time every time it mattered. He found the strongest ally in Vandenbergh and latched on to his efforts to get himself in the winning move, not being afraid to ride offensively in the finale. The only point when he briefly looked weak was when Stybar easily overtook him to follow Cance's charge on the Carrefour while Sep was grinding a massive gear. Moments later though, instead of passively sitting on Cancellara's wheel he continued to seek his own line and holding his own pace. He did this throughout the finale and while it may be seen as the un-tactical move against Cancellara I wonder if the kid didn't know very well what he was doing? Instead of riding to the tune of the opponent he chose his own tempo, forcing the pace when he wanted and sitting back on other occasions. If you look at him he has that flowing style on the cobbles that riders in the zone have. Relying on that rather than anxiously glancing at what his opponent did got him in better shape to the velodrome I suspect. But, he lost so I assume the second-guessing will be rampant in days to come. In my mind though, no other way of riding would have made him better set for the final laps in the velodrome,. If it had cost him it would have done so already when Fabian launched his final uphill attack, not in the sprint.
- This is so not Omega Pharma's year. Without Boonen these guys did everything right and they still got nothing to show for it. They had numbers up front even if Chavanel lost out to mechanicals (+other) . Vandenbergh and Stybar were on fire and Terpstra hung around where he should be for the most part. Stijn initializing practically every dangerous attack on the day and looking strong all the way until he went flying to the ground. Stybar was the revelation of the day. Had you not known the name of riders anyone would have assumed that the guy controlling Cance with seeming ease was a seasoned veteran and one of the big pre-race favorites. He's obviously no youngster but at 28 years of age he clearly has some exciting years ahead in these races and you can bet that today's outcome will have him coming back doubly motivated in years to come. An altogether spectacular Roubaix debut. In the end though OPQS's season crashed and burned spectacularly even if they had lots of positives to take away from today unlike certain others *cough* Sky *cough*. More on them next week .
Roubaix is The Queen of the Classics for a reason. In a year when the Tour of Flanders offered a mixed bag of entertainment Roubaix came through and delivered all the swings and exhilaration I dream of getting from the classics. On it's best days like today no other race can produce tension and hard-hitting racing like it. Once the punches started coming after the forest it didn't take long to ignore the fact that we thought we were missing some of the opposition we were hoping for against Spartacus. We thought we might get a procession but Roubaix never allows for that to happen. Where we thought we would see a Boonen challenging Cance instead we got revelations like Vandenbergh,Stybar and the suddenly rehabilitated Sep putting Cance under pressure in a way we've rarely seen in this race. No one ever gets a procession in Roubaix. Even champions like Cancellara have to dig deeper than they ever had before on the very days they maybe thought they could win "easily". Somehow I wonder if today's win won't rank over his two first in Fabian's mind because it truly looked like the race took years out of his life as he slumped down on the infield after the finish and had to be carried away to the post-race interviews. I know it does in mine.