I do love Paris-Roubaix. It’s been run 100-plus times over the nastiest excuse of “roads” that can be imagined. While there is a sense of this heritage in the other spring cycling classics, most of the others use topography and routes which have some concessions to aesthetics - picturesque towns, cobbled climbs which lead past ancient churches, winding country roads.
Paris-Roubaix is just hard. It runs through the fields over stone paths. In the rainy years, the muck and goo running across the pave creates some of the most enduring spring classic imagery.
That is not to say it is without beauty. I do find it beautiful. You have the Arenberg forest, and the classic finish at the Roubaix velodrome. It’s just that it is also a hard, brutal and simple race. Not “simplistic”. Simple. A long flat course that zigs and zags and lies open to the winds. A huge component of the race is chance. Ill-timed flats and inexplicable crashes on the pave have taken down more than one leader on the course.
But rarely do you get to see a better example of how a moment’s inattention can cost the race than in this year’s edition. Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider on the Saxo team, was coming off a big victory in the Tour of Flanders (have I mentioned I love the Spring Classics?) from the previous weekend. The Flanders/P-R double is a tempting prize.
Tom Boonen was aiming for his fourth Paris-Roubaix win, trying to equal the record of Roger De Vlaeminck, another Belgian who used to dominate the spring races. Boonen had been summarily dropped by Cancellara the week before, after the two of them broke away at Flanders.
In this video feed (including a few angles which the Versus broadcast didn’t provide), the first action is a breakaway of three other riders. Boonen had been attacking repeatedly, but hadn’t managed to get a gap and Cancellara and the rest would just smoothly roll back up to him. After the three breakaway, you can see how Boonen (wearing the black, yellow and red Belgian national champions jersey) takes a moment to recover and refuel and doesn’t react to an acceleration by three or four other riders. (Arguably, Boonen’s choice of tactics were problematic - he had been the only one to be making the charges, and the group was big enough that it was hard to shake anyone out. All of which had to have taken a toll on him.)
Cancellara, who had astutely rolled forward, sees or senses that Boonen isn’t there and just freakin’ guns it. It’s a jaw-dropping example of power. Cancellara is suddenly up the road with a gap, manages to catch the break before the next set of cobbles and then drops them sequentially as he ramps up the power on the dry and dusty cobbles.
If your Flemish isn’t spot-on, you should note that he does this with 47 kilometers to go in the race.
Forty. Seven. Kilometers.
Of course, the last thing you want to do is let the World Time Trial champion get a gap on a flat, windy course. Boonen, who had looked confident and strong in the 15 minutes before this happened, doesn’t react quickly, can’t bridge the gap and loses the race in the space of one or two minutes.