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Making Sense of Paris-Roubaix

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After taking in the race early this morning my head was spinning. A world champion momentarily dethroned, a surprising, gutsy winner, a tragic crash, the bizarre ending... so I got my family hall pass and hopped on the bike for a few hours of much needed miles, hills, and headspace. I thought about Hincapie and what this race meant to him, about how the train crossing affected the riders, and so forth.

When I got home, OLN was on, and eventually I caught the interview with Johan Bruyneel, whose eerily calm and cheerful demeanor brought the whole day into focus. Today's epic Paris-Roubaix can be explained by two words: that's cycling.

Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean to blithely dismiss the impact of these developments on the riders and teams. Paris-Roubaix is by many accounts the crown jewel in the spring classics season. The hands that were dealt today were devastating blows to all but the victor.

To wit, Hincapie. Having your bike disintegrate beneath you is painful enough, even if you know how to roll on impact. Having this happen in the finale of one of the world's great races, the race you circled first on your calendar, makes it worse, and knowing you were on your best form with victory in your grasp... anyway, you know the score. Hincapie will be 33 in a couple months, so chances like this one are gonna start getting mighty scarce.

But then, massive bike failure is as old as the sport. Watch the Tour for more than a couple hours and you're sure to hear the story of Eugene Christophe welding his fork back together. It happens, and when the subject is Paris-Roubaix, it happens a lot. George Hincapie didn't invent bad luck; it's a form of suffering as inseparable from the sport as muscle fatigue. That's Cycling.

As for the train, my first thought was, that's not cycling. That's random bullshit, heads must roll, etc. And when that snake LeBlanc used it as an excuse to kick out two of Lance's ex-teammates, it not only seemed bizarre, it stank. Update [2006-4-10 14:7:58 by chris]: I stand corrected, the UCI made the decision, not Leblanc, who's still a snake.

But Phil and Paul talked about how not only is there precedent, but there was a train incident apparently just a couple years ago. Cycling doesn't take place in a controlled atmoshpere, like a perfectly rectangular field in a climate controlled building. It takes place in the world at large, and riders all take that world as they find it. How could you fairly address all the ambiguities that could occur over six hours of racing? You can't create fairness out of the train incident any more than, say, sorting out the disparity that occurs in time trials when the winds at the start are totally different than the winds at the end. You have to accept it and move on. That's Cycling.

Tom Boonen finished second when he was the fifth rider across the line, fifth-strongest on the day. Three riders ahead of him worked their ass off, isolated and beat the world champion, and were awarded a placing equivalent to what they'd have gotten if they slept in. All because they slipped across a train track before the train got there, the moral equivalent of jay-walking.

But the rules are the rules, and although I'm sure Professor Wilcockson could rattle off 275 incidents where rules were bent to suit... whomever, plenty of other riders have felt the heavy hand of justice. Ask Robbie McEwen about last year's Green Jersey competition in the Tour. That's Cycling.

Lastly, no matter how you slice it, Fabien Cancellara won because he was the strongest. The train didn't gift the win to Cancellara, it merely snuffed out the last whiff of suspense a tad early. Cancellara never slowed down, nobody else ever sped up. Had the train been 40 seconds earlier and stopped him, now that would've been injustice, but even then Cancellara's strength could very well have won the day, either before the Velodrome or during.

Cycling is a great sport, precisely because of the random strangeness, drama, heartbreak, intrigue, etc., that goes along with the battle of the legs. Today is entry #12,673,982 in that long saga, give or take a few million.