Crikey, what an edition of Paris-Roubaix that was. If you weren’t up out of your seat several times over the last 60km, you’re either terminally bed-ridden or already devoid of breath. It was that thrilling.
We, the weatherbeaten scandal-weary cycling fans, finally got just what we’d been begging for like gooey-eyed puppies for so long – a Roubaix in which Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were at something very close to equal strength. Make no mistake, Belgium’s No. 1 son was stronger than Cancellara, if not by much.
“I’ve won twice over here with much worse legs than today”, Boonen said to the throng of hungry journalists that follows him just about everywhere. Stronger or not, ‘Tomeke’ was left to chew over a bitter loss that was ever-so-slightly tempered by his teammate Niki Teprtsra’s win.
The problem with Boonen’s ride on Sunday was that he and Peter Sagan frittered away their superiority over the course of the race, like men losing water from a hole in a bucket. In doing so, they gave the advantage to men not as strong, but who rode smarter and more conservative races.
Was it brilliant to watch? Seriously, is there a greater sight in professional cycling than Tom Boonen heading off solo up the cobbles? Sagan too drew hollers and whoops as he launched his courageous, ridiculous attack with too many kilometres to go. Even the Flandrians present gave the Slovakian a cheer.
Make no mistake, they are all Boonen folk in these parts, but they know a bike rider when they see one, and Sagan’s verve is highly respected in the heartland of the Classics.
Boonen was visibly irritated to be asked if he had the legs to win the race. “I don’t think I have to say that. That was obvious,” he retorted.
Yet the fact is he is not as strong as when he won solo in 2012, and it remains to be seen if he has it in him to better Roger De Vlaeminck’s four wins, which Boonen equaled two years ago. De Vlaeminck, it should be noted, claims Boonen is not worthy to be ranked as highly as himself, claiming modern bike racing is too soft.
Part of Boonen’s motivation is to make the retired pro eat his words, but De Vlaeminck will have at least one more year to wait before he gets out the recipe books.
On Sunday, Boonen rode like it was 2012, taking off in an unplanned attack to bridge up to the leaders on section 14 of the pavé. Once he’d bridged and learnt very few riders were willing to work with him, fearful of taking him to the finish, he attempted several solo attacks but could not make any stick.
Two things are happening here. Firstly, Boonen and Cancellara are not as strong as they have been in the past. Secondly, several of the younger generation of riders have raised their game.
Sep Vanmarcke, Greg Van Avermaet, John Degenkolb and several others are emerging or consolidating their reputations as serious contenders for the Monuments that once seemed to be Boonen and Cancellara’s to lose. Witness Van Avermaet at Flanders, where his poor tactical choices allowed Cancellara to win in the sprint.
Vanmarcke too may well have already won one Roubaix, in 2013, had he not led out Cancellara. Degenkolb rode the race of his life yesterday and, on the evidence of his second, will be a serious threat next year. Stybar too looked strong and might have jumped to Terpstra had he not been on the same team.
An exciting collection of riders indeed.
Peter Sagan, of course, is the cream of that crop but he too overestimated his power and made poor tactical choices. He is like Boonen in some ways, the most obvious being not his natural ability but the honesty of his riding. Like Boonen, he never shirks a turn at the front and will drive a break just to confound the chasers, even if it means fatiguing himself.
His attack was fantastic to see but so obviously doomed that it brought a twinge of consternation. He could have won, I do not doubt that, but he needs to ride more with his head than his heart.
Cancellara was tired, that was easy to see. He had difficulty reeling in surges by what would be considered lesser riders and seemed off his game. A mention must go to Bradley Wiggins, whose ride will have surprised many.
And so to Terpstra. A popular winner, he’s deserved a victory like this for some time. It was a cracking attack into a slight headwind and you could see the pain he put himself through to realise his greatest ambition in the race he loves most.
It was a brilliant win on a mad, crazy day, in the most open Paris-Roubaix for almost two decades.
Just magnificent. Just Paris-Roubaix.
all images by Lee Rodgers