How do you sum up a race like we saw yesterday? One day after and it still seems a bit surreal. It isn't rare that Roubaix finishes off the cobble season with a bang but yesterday pretty much dialed it up to eleven. When even Hinault thinks the race wasn't all that bad, you know it must have been quite something.
Rarely do we see so many dreams crushed and so many dreams come true in one day of racing.
In the end it was a terrible day for the old legends hoping to make history, Cancellara's challenge ended early in the kind of mishap-series we often see in Roubaix but never wish upon champions, Tom Boonen's dream of becoming the only five time winner lasted until the very last hundreds of a second of the race. He may have walked away smiling and ever the gracious loser, complementing the man who got the better of him in the sprint, but on some level even the sanguine Boonen will feel that loss heavily in retrospect I bet.
The Cruel Morning
As unenviable it is to see bikeracers on the gruesome cobbles of Roubaix question is if seeing the first hours of was even crueler this time? With just enough sidewinds to make the race splittable and Trek opening up hostilities right from the start by trying to put four riders in the morning break there was a recipe for misery in the first hours. I had assumed watching the race from the gun would be much like seeing the start of a GT stage. A few break permutations going and getting caught until one seemingly harmless one was let go and the peloton settled down and "relaxed" until the race hit the pavé. This was way worse than that though. The mix of no one letting up, small echelon splits occurring over and over felt brutal watching it on TV. Seems unlikely anyone was unaffected by that start in the second half of the race and for the ones fighting at the back it must have seemed like a cruel joke.
Etixx finally got the numbers to work in their favor
And yes, Tony Martin has the makings of a damn fine Roubaix rider should he want to pursue it. With his selfless work Martin established the move that saw Boonen all the way into the velodrome. Had Etixx not ruthlessly used his work to control the race already in the first hours as attacks were flying he probably would have been useful even deeper in the finale and might have made the difference between second and winning for Boonen in the end? But while Martin doesn't consider himself too good for that kind of work and goes to the front when asked, you get the feeling some of the other Etixx boys feel they are......
The Smartest man of the day
Veteran Matt Hayman is old enough to make the most of it when he finds himself in situations like this. He said after that once he was in the break he spent most of the day looking after himself, eating and saving as much energy as possible for the inevitable catch by the favorites. Originally he thought/hoped that Jens Keukeleire would be in that group but when that wasn't the case and he realized he had terrific legs on the day....... the rest is history. Literally.
Is this any time to quit?
When Cancellara finally found the kind of support team he deserves it's time to retire. Go figure. It seems weird to say but with the kind of team behind him that he has had this spring, here once again represented by Jasper Stuyven, Cancellara probably would have had a few more monuments too his name at this point. Actually scratch that "probably", he most certainly would have had a few more monuments. But you can't be too sad about it because Fabian has probably had more of a say in where and who he would ride with than most riders and he has made his own choices. Actually five more years of a well supported Fabs is a little scary come to think of it.
It's nice to have friends
Poor Peter Sagan who had most things go his way a week ago now found himself looking like the loneliest man in the universe at times. He lost his best man Gatto early to a crash and once things started heating up the only real ally he had was Fabian who found himself in the same predicament as the World Champ. As long as Cance stayed upright the duo was looking fairly good to rejoin the front for the deciding part of the race, just as everyone assumed before the race. But once Cance went down life turned to a miserable quest for Sagan, desperately looking for others to come off his wheel and contribute to the effort of getting to the front. Suddenly it looked like his two weeks of world-beating form was once again working against him as no one looked to have faith in their ability to beat Sagan should they have cooperated with him to get to the front. So the question now is, will Sagan turn himself into the heir of Cancellara, the unsupported dominant or will he make sure that his support looks more like Trek 2016 than Tinkoff 2016 in the coming years?
What friends is Sep going to have next year?
The image above is a little false as this was actually a race where our Belgian hero had al the help he could reasonably expect lat in a big race. And yet this morning De Telegraaf ran a story that team management has informed the major sponsors that Vanmarcke will be lost to the team next year. The team later dismissed that story as untrue and said they are starting negotiations to prolong with their classics captain so we will have to wait a few months to learn what is what. The fact remains that in terms of rider and technical support LottoNL certainly haven't been ideal for Vanmarcke. Too many things have gone wrong for it all to just be chance and a move to somewhere else could probably only do the man's career a service. As for this edition it is hard to see what else Sep could have done to win the race. He played his card on the Carrefour de l'Arbre but even though he powered away he just didn't have quite enough to open up the kind of gap that would have sewn doubts in the chasers. Instead they had faith and found enough cooperation to bring the solo attacker back fairly quickly. With perhaps ten more seconds they may have hesitated and started thinking dirty thoughts about saving up for a possible sprint for second. But unfortunately for Sep (and luckily for those looking for entertainment in front of the TV) this was not the day for any hesitation and riding for second.
"It was a finale of a 130 kms" said Tom Boonen afterwards and it really was. And you could tell from the players in the final selection too. The race was full on for longer than we ever see otherwise. The crash that split the race really upset all the normal rules and from then on riders were in full finale it felt like. The passage of Arenberg was something entirely different thing than we usually see. This time it was a hot team pursuit between the Boonen/Martin gang and the Cancellara/Sagan gang and we were all scanning the screen and the split times to see any signal that one of the groups was "winning" the drag race. This was not were anything would be decided this time though allthough the usual number of unlucky souls saw the race run away from them as they punctured or crashed there. Instead we'd see more decisive action on Mons en Pévèle and Camphin en Pévèle where Cance and Terpstra crashed and Luke Rowe put the last of his energies to use slimming down the group for his teammate Stannard.
Even for retiring heroes Roubaix shows no mercy. Cancellara tries for a bit of a lap of honor holding a flag from his fans, the velodrome kicks him down and sends him into a puddle of water. There is no room for sentimentality in Paris-Roubaix.
Other races may make valiant efforts but at the end of the day there is no better cycling prize to bring home and put on the mantelpiece than a big hunk of Roubaix rock. Be they diamond tridents or pancake hats, nothing can hold a candle to this. You can see that Boonen agrees with me and it does kind of sound as if he still has a bit of unfinished business and may return next year for another stab at it. It's hard to see how he comes any closer to a fifth win than this but the childish Boonen fan in me definitely wants to see him try.