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What's In a Photo: 2006 Paris-Roubaix!

Round two of let's use a random photo to muse on Classics history.

Franck Fife, AFP/Getty

Let's play Fun With Photos again! This time it's the same year -- forgive me, but 2006 was too awesome to not obsess over -- and this time it's the unforgettable Paris-Roubaix!

2006 Paris Roubaix numbered

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1. Where Am I?

2006 Paris-Roubaix, obviously... but if you can tell me which sector, I will mail you one American dollar. [Someday.]

First, where can a photographer get up high enough for this camera angle? There is a bridge across the Arenberg Trench, but we clearly aren't there. The pack is down to an elite selection, which in 2006 occurred in the Forest, so it's after that. George Hincapie is in view, so it's no later than the entrance to Mons-en-Pevele. My guess, from all the Belgian fans (more on that in a sec) is Sector 12 or 11, near Orchies. But I can't make a positive identification from either the fence line, the curving road, or the adjacent stream.

2. Gee, Cobbles Don't Look That Bad

Yeah... so why is everyone lined up as close to the center as possible? For symmetry? Underneath the number you can see a nice horizontal slope from a pronounced crown in the middle of the road. From my snippets of Paris-Roubaix experience, I can tell you... this is one of the nice roads. The crown is right down the middle, which is better than moving from one line to another, as is required in the Forest. It's pretty wide, and the stones are relatively smooth and regular. It gets far worse than this in places. Anyway, if there's a crown, try not to fall off it. Some of the race's more embarrassing moments happen when a rider veers sideways for no apparent reason -- often falling down the side of the crown. For people in a sport where roads are usually flat (cross-section-wise anyway), it's a disorienting feeling.

3. Hooray for Dry Weather!

I guess it beats the alternative, but this isn't Flanders, where the stones are neatly packed and kept. This is northern France, and the roads are for farming. Cobbles are all set in dirt, which becomes dust on a day such as this. Dust that fills your lungs and coats your face. If you think riders enjoy this, check out these guys from two years earlier.

Maggie Face

Damien Meyer, AFP/Getty

The guy in the back who looks like he's about to cry is the race winner, Magnus Backstedt.

4. Wait, Are You Sure I'm In France?

Technically, yes, but the closer you get to Belgium, the blurrier the lines get. I think the following photo is from the same sector:

French Flanders

Franck Fife, AFP/Getty

So yeah. France. Still, French Flanders is one way of describing the area closest to the border from south of Lille to the North Sea. Part of France lies in what was historically the County of Flanders, long before modern borders took hold. You can find villages named Steenvoorde or Hondeghem in France, and you might hear a decent amount of Dutch spoken in the area, though I can't confirm that. So it's fitting to see so many Belgian fans... but it has more to do with the fact that Paris-Roubaix has long been adopted by Belgians as a favorite race, just over the border, where their heroes are usually among the top riders.

5. I See You There, Fabian Cancellara

Almost everyone who would ever read this post knows how this race ended up, with Cancellara taking off 19km from the line, never to be seen again. Slightly less well-known is the likelihood that this would happen... a greater likelihood than one might have thought. Cancellara began his relationship with the region with a visit to the Circuit des Mines in 2002 where, at age 21, he took sixth place while wearing Mapei colors. Cancellara made his Paris-Roubaix debut two years later, riding for Fassa Bortolo, and took fourth -- as in, finished last in the sprint from the winning break. A year later he slipped to eighth, with the elite chase group, but even that was a good sign, that his previous effort was no fluke and despite his youth Cancellara was ready for one of the longest, hardest days in the saddle. The week leading up to his win consisted of sixth at both Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, still raced on the intervening Wednesday of Holy Week.

By now, we know him as a guy who eats cobbles for dinner.

Cobble trophy dinner

Lars Ronbog, AFP/Getty

6. I See You There, Tom Boonen

Ah yes, the World Champion. At the time Boonen was considered unstoppable, but so too was his team, and those two ideas were hardly a coincidence. Pippo Pozzato was maybe the most dangerous name, or so he became later on, but mostly his team was a lineup of veteran Belgian hardmen: Kevin Van Impe, Kevin Hulsmans, 2001 winner Servais Knaven, Steven De Jongh, and a young Nick Nuyens.

All of them were gone by the time this picture was taken. Shouts of "Boonen is isolated!" echoed across the cycling landscape, and his rival teams did what they could to make it hard for him. In the end, Cancellara was just unstoppable, winning by 1.23, but Boonen's day wasn't considered truly over until this happened:

Paris-Roubaix Train stop 2006

Franck Fife, AFP/Getty

It's hard to overstate what a bizarre, heart-stopping moment this was. Are there rules against losing because you got held up at a train crossing? Nope. In fact, there are rules against winning if you don't respect a train crossing. Boonen did, and eventually was awarded second place. A rivalry was born.

7. I See You There, George Hincapie's Shoulder

America's greatest Paris-Roubaix threat since Greg LeMond (fourth in 1985), Hincapie was a pretty serious threat to win in Roubaix, end point of his favorite race in the world. A year earlier he was beaten on the line by Boonen and only Boonen, his best result in a Monument. That was his sixth foray into the top ten. But something always seemed to happen, and while Hincapie was sitting on perhaps his best Paris-Roubaix form in 2006, his day ended in a ditch when his steerer tube severed itself on the Mons-en-Pevele cobbles. Not good.

Lars Ronbog, AFP/Getty

All of Hincapie's results from this time have been nullified due to his admission to taking PEDs, so make of his history on the cobbles what you will. Either way, America's next great Cobbles Champion will still be its first.

8. I See You There, Alessandro Ballan

Italians have long been a part of the conversation in northern France, odd as it may seem. Ballan, from the Veneto region, is the latest cobbles master, and his third place on the day would be the first of three times he'd occupy the last podium step, including 2008 when he lost the sprint for the win to Boonen and Cancellara. Of course, this one comes with a couple asterisks -- the fact that he was actually the sixth person to cross the line that day, and his own suspension for doping in 2012.

8a, 8b. I See You There, Discovery Channel

Apologies for the numbering snafu here... anyway, even after Hincapie's downfall, Johan Bruyneel's men held enough cards to keep things interesting. A week after sending Leif Hoste off in pursuit of an escaping Tom Boonen at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Bruyneel had Hoste (8a) and Vlad Gusev (8b) chasing after Cancellara, who had a 32 second lead over the two Discovery riders and Peter Van Petegem.

Then the train crossing. It happens at the very outset of this video:

Gusev, Hoste and Van Petegem arrive just as the gates have come down, and after a quick look they hastily jump across, along with a following moto. When the next group, containing Boonen, Ballan and Juan Antonio Flecha, arrives, spectators have jumped out into the road to block them from following the prior group's lead, sparing us from the gruesome sight of the Rainbow Jersey getting killed in front of our eyes by a train. Yeah, no thanks. For their daring, Gusev, Hoste and Van Petegem were disqualified. Discovery Channel's top finisher was Roger Hammond (!), 24th.

I should toss in a quick note about Flecha, who probably deserves his own numbering here. While considered a cobbles guy in general, he is among many others whose particular cup of tea was Paris-Roubaix. He took second here a year later, and was pipped by Thor Hushovd for second in 2010 -- the sprint noted mostly for Flecha sarcastically clapping for Hushovd as they crossed the line, owing to Flecha's contention that Hushovd sucked Flecha's wheel too much. Spain has yet to produce a Paris-Roubaix-winning rider, unlike France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Australia and the Ukraine.

9. I See You There, Lars Michelsen

Michaelsen might be Denmark's greatest cobbles rider thus far (sorry, Matti Breschel). He twice took fifth place, in 2002 and 2005, and on this day he would be instrumental in pressuring Boonen while relieving Cancellara of any duty to lead the pack. Michaelsen was credited in news reports of having led the escape over many of the hardest secteurs, making himself indispensable to the race-winner. But I think my favorite thing about him is that he retired on April 15, 2007. His final professional race was that edition of Paris-Roubaix, where he finished 11th (thanks to an untimely mechanical) and once again contributed to a team victory, this time by Stuart O'Grady.

The Other 9. I see You There, Frederic Guesdon

I swear I was drunk when I did the numbering...

Anyway, the guy in FDJ colors is one of four former winners present in the race that day. The other two are Knaven, Boonen and Peter Van Petegem, all Belgians... making Guesdon easily the most beloved figure in the race. First, he was then and remains today the last Frenchman to win Paris-Roubaix, France's most famous classic. Second, he did so in a manner the French (and plenty of other people) are known to appreciate: out of flipping nowhere. A 26-year-old on his first major contract, Guesdon had two previous tries at the race, finishing 14th the year before and way back in 1995. On his big day, Guesdon latched on to the winning group, which featured defending champion Johan Museeuw in his prime. While the Breton would never again sniff the podium, he would amass 13 top-26 finishes, seven of which placed him as the top French finisher. Like Michaelsen before him, Guesdon retired on April 8, 2012, after completing his 14th Paris-Roubaix.

He is also the last French winner of Paris-Tours, the nation's second-biggest classic. Not too shabby.

10. I See You There, Lotto Duo

Peter Van Petegem and Gert Steegmans made for an ideal duo at the front of the peloton, the savvy former winner (2003) and the big, powerful domestique. Just what you want to take on an isolated Tom Boonen. Van Petegem was one train crossing-fueled disqualification away from completing his Paris-Roubaix trilogy, needing the third place he thought he scored on the day to cover all three steps of the podium. Alas... His final appearance was in 2007, where he finished 23rd. Van Petegem would not retire in Roubaix, however; no, his fitting finale was the GP Briek Schotte in September, 2007.

11. Career Choices

So you want to be a photographer? Sounds pleasant enough. Maybe you should photograph bike races! What could possibly go wrong?

Moto crash Paris Roubaix

Lars Ronbog, AFP/Getty

Oh, right.

12. Permit Me a Moment of Whimsy

There's something about the La Redoute logo, and its dour aqua-green color. La Redoute, the sponsor, is a mail-order clothing company dating back to 1837 which has sponsored cycling teams long enough to be a sponsor of French racing in general. It bears no relation to the Cote de la Redoute in Belgium a key scene for Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But... there's just something about the color that says spring in northern Europe to me: the Roubaix Velodrome. The blue stripe, against the usually grey skies, is one of the sport's unmistakable scenes. Maybe La Redoute is not quite using the same color, but it's another name that only says spring classics to me.

Roubaix velodrome

Photo by Chris Fontecchio