Nothing is set in stone in Paris-Roubaix, except the road beneath the riders. Since it was first held in 1896, the Hell of the North has become known as chaotic and unpredictable. There are no knowns - to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld - in this beast of a race, apart from perhaps one; the early breakaway will not make it. But, one day, it did.
On April 10, 1988, 13 plucky escapees pushed on down the road in the expectation that their time in the limelight would end well before the final cobblestone sector. Little did they know that one of them would have the famed winner's cobblestone trophy in their hands at the end of the day. To this day, the 222km-long attack remains the longest successful break at Paris-Roubaix.
Dirk Demol was that lucky guy, who made his own luck by going on the attack. The Belgian, who grew up in Kuurne only 40 kilometres away from Roubaix, had to fight for his place in the ADR team for the race but some good fortune and a plea to his team boss Jose De Cauwer got him to the start line.
"It was maybe written down in the book of life," Demol tells Cyclingnews as he recalls the story of the biggest day of his career sitting in the Trek-Segafredo hotel, just outside of Bruges, where the WorldTour team are staying for their cobbled Classics campaign.
Demol, then in his seventh season of a 14-year career, was one of around 18 riders fighting for a place in the Belgian team's Classics squad. With Eddy Planckaert, Alfons De Wolf, Frank Hoste and Rene Martins certain for places, it left just four available for the rest. The season had begun well for Demol, but a bout of bronchitis meant that he was replaced in the Milan-San Remo line-up. His replacement did so well at La Primavera that Demol found himself sidelined for the Tour of Flanders, which would be won by his team leader Planckaert, just a few weeks later. He was determined to make the cut for Paris-Roubaix.
While some, such as Bernard Hinault, loathed the race, for Demol "Roubaix was something magical". He still remembers fondly the day that he received a letter from the federation to say that he had been chosen for the 1980 amateur Paris-Roubaix. He would finish second in that race, behind future Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, in a day that would play out in a remarkably similar fashion to the 1988 race.
"We also escaped before the first cobblestones with a group of 13, and we survived with two. As a professional, we escaped with a group of 13 we were left with two, but I won. That was the big difference," Demol says.
Eight years later Demol would receive confirmation that he had made the team during a phone call, but it was only after he had rung De Cauwer up to plead his case.
"The day of Flanders, at eight in the morning I was on my bike and I did a seven-hour ride because I really wanted to go to Roubaix. I wanted to be ready," he explains. "I started at eight in the morning so by three I was at home watching the television for the last 60 or 70 kilometres.
"I waited one day, because cell phones didn't exist, I called my directeur Jose De Cauwer and said, congrats and wow – because we weren't the main favourites – but then I said "Jose, please, you saw that I was eighth in Friesland and second in Bellegem, and yesterday I did seven hours because I want to be ready if you select me, please select me I will do whatever you ask of me."
A sunny morning in Compiegne
The plea worked, and Demol was finally given his opportunity. It was a bone dry and sunny day as the riders rolled out of Compiegne on that Sunday morning. As a domestique for Planckaert, Demol was one of three riders selected to try and cover the early moves. Getting a rider in the breakaway would mean one extra man in the final. ADR were not the only ones to do it, with pre-race favourite Sean Kelly also getting Thomas Wegmuller in the move. Other favourites back in the pack were Laurent Fignon, Adrie van der Poel and defending champion Eric Vanderaerden, who also placed Allan Peiper in the break.
The group made their escape after just 27 kilometres of racing. The peloton was happy to let them go, allowing them to build up a substantial advantage. At this point, there was no indication that the peloton had miscalculated things.
"I was happy," he says. "I thought, my directeur can't complain because I was supposed to be in an early breakaway and I'm here. I'd already done my job well. I was going to stay there as long as I could, and when Planckaert came I would help him as long as I could," Demol explained.
It was hot and dry in 1988. The cobbled sectors were caked in dust, and the efforts of the riders and cars in front made a sandstorm-like effect. It was almost impossible to see at times, and the dust firmly lodged itself in the lungs of the riders in the peloton. It was infinitely better in the breakaway with just a few riders for company, and most of the cars sitting behind. When the escapes hit the traditional first sector of pave in Troisvilles, the bunch was some eight minutes behind.
A visit from a champion
As the leaders passed through the Trouée d'Arenberg, the point at which most breakaways have traditionally been all but nullified, Demol and his breakaway cohorts had a six-minute advantage on the bunch behind.
Still a five-star rated section now, the Arenberg was even more treacherous in those days with "holes you could hide in", according to Demol. It sealed the fate of many, and with no team helpers there to hold wheels, those that suffered punctures had a long wait for a replacement.
The Arenberg did its damage in 1988 and by the time they had made it through to the 2.4km stretch of cobbles, the leaders had gone from 13 to seven. It would reduce even further with a blistering pace set by Wegmuller and Peiper, a fellow podium finisher in the Under 23 Paris-Roubaix, was distanced too.
"At that point, I thought Jesus we must be going fast, because if Peiper is dropped then that means that we were going fast," Demol tells Cyclingnews.
"I was lucky that the engine of the breakaway was Thomas Wegmuller. He had two nicknames, and they were Thomas Turbo and Thomas the Terminator. For him, it was as simple as that, just pulling. He always had the mentality that he could drop everyone."
Behind, the peloton was getting worried. Now down to about 50 riders, the team leaders realised that something may have gone wrong. Kelly took up the pace-setting as he tried to chase down his own domestique Wegmuller, who was pulling the break along. Race radios didn't exist then and the riders relied on small snippets of information to understand what was going on up and down the road.
It was only after a passing visit from a former champion, and Demol's first team leader at DAF Trucks - TeVe-Blad back in 1982, that Demol realised there was an opportunity for something big.
"Some cars were passing us, they were journalists going to the finish, and one car slowed down and who was in that car but Roger de Vlaeminck," says Demol.
"He was the only person who said something to me and he said something like: 'Hey Dirk, you're going to stay away because the gap is three minutes and the others behind are dead. The winner is here. This is the chance of your life.' Then, he was gone and I was like "what the hell?" I was a doubtful rider, and when I looked around I was always thinking this guy is strong, this guy is strong. When Roger said that, I was like 'wow, this is my chance.'"
Holding on for glory
Gradually the pace set by Wegmuller dispatched the other riders in the break. Only Demol could hold on when the Swiss made his final surge on the Carrefour de l'Arbre with fewer 20 kilometres remaining. The winning move was set; nobody else would be able to get back to the pair. Behind in the peloton, Fignon was now leading the chase, with Kelly battered and bruised after crashing on the final sector of cobbles.
The duo of Demol and Wegmuller forged on towards the streets of Roubaix and the finish line. The finish would not be in the Velodrome this year as the organisers experimented with a finish by the factory of their sponsor La Redoute. As the line loomed in the near distance, a plastic bag got caught up in Wegmuller's derailleur. Demol sportingly waited up for Wegmuller as the KAS team did their best to dislodge it. They eventually got most of it out but Wegmuller could no longer shift gears, and when the sprint came just a short while later, Wegmuller could not match Demol's turn of speed.
Demol had won the biggest race of his life and caused one of the biggest upsets at Paris-Roubaix.
Fignon would eventually cross the line to take third place but almost two minutes behind Demol. Kelly was another minute behind the Frenchman, finishing in a group with Van der Poel. Defending champion, Vanderaerden had a miserable day on the pave and was close to nine minutes behind Demol on the line.
There is, of course, plenty of speculation as to what might have happened if Wegmuller could have changed his gear for the sprint but Demol is adamant that it did not impact the final result of the race.
"There are two things that I regret, and one is that the finish line was not in the velodrome," says Demol.
"The other thing is, that many people were thinking that the plastic bag influenced Thomas' chances. It was not at all. I can tell you, I saw my sports director for the first time with five or six kilometres to go and we were already on the streets of Roubaix. He can next to me and I said: "I'm going to win."
"I couldn't do bunch sprints, but in a small group I was fast, and I knew for sure that I would win. His chain was not jumping at all. I was sure. I knew that, if I could stay on his wheel, I could beat him.
"I knew Thomas Wegmuller could just pull. A few years later when Jacky Durand won the Tour of Flanders [in 1992 –ed], he was second. It was with an early break and it was the same thing. He was the strongest but Jacky was the smartest."
A grinning Demol headed to the podium to join the illustrious list of champions that had stood on the top step in Roubaix. After the formalities were done, he went home and partied with friends, family and his fan club until the small hours. An hour or so before he went to bed, some people went out to buy the morning papers. It was only when he saw his image splashed all over the front pages that he realised what he'd done.
"Everywhere I was on the front page and I was like "Fuck, it's true, I really won!" Then I realised. At about four o'clock I started to get really tired and I went to bed, and I was sure that I was going to sleep because I was so dead. I was lying down and I couldn't sleep because all I could think was that I won Roubaix.
"The longer after it happened, the more I realised that it was something huge."
Demol would never win another race and settled back into his domestique role, but the win is something that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.
Hoping Trek-Segafredo can take on Quick-Step Floors on Sunday
Now a directeur sportif with Trek-Segafredo, he hopes to deliver one of his own riders to the top step. One of the team's young stars Mads Pedersen took a surprise second place at the Tour of Flanders, but Demol believes that Paris-Roubaix suits him and Trek-Segafredo the best.
The question remains, how will they stop the winning streak of Quick-Step Floors?
"Quick-Step is dominating and they have the winning mood. The question is now, how can you beat them. You just have to race and believe in yourself. It seems that since Tom is not there anymore, the other riders have a lot more freedom," Demol tells Cyclingnews.
"In the past, when Tom was there, it was the team for Tom, we knew that. Now, it's like they have more freedom and they're just dominating race after race.
"But last Sunday we were second with Pedersen and seventh with [Jasper] Stuyven and that means that we're there. This is the race that fits us the best. It doesn't mean that we will do better than Flanders but for sure we're going to be there.
"Let's hope that we don't have any bad luck and if we can do that then I believe that we can go a long way. I believe that we can do something really good on Sunday."