An interview with Stuart O'Grady, April 17, 2007
Stuart O'Grady nailed the big one on Sunday, the Queen of Classics: Paris-Roubaix. The straight-talking, likable Australian punched the accelerator with 23 kilometres to go to scribe his name in Roubaix's history book. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown caught up with him the following day in Belgium, where he explained the emotion of winning one of the five monuments of his sport.
Prior to his historic victory, the 33 year-old had explained his Team CSC would approach Paris-Roubaix with its options open, but that the main goal was to help Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss rider returned for this year's edition to defend his crown and the team wanted to do everything possible to make that happen.
When Cyclingnews spoke to a fresh O'Grady the day before Roubaix, he observed: "the race can be decided in a matter of seconds; in every sector of cobbles something can happen. We have to have a plan A, B and C. Obviously we have a plan A but you have to have back up plans in the case something else happens."
With hot temperatures and Cancellara's form not at his optimum, plan A was quashed and the ProTour squad quickly implemented plan B. "I was definitely the plan B," noted O'Grady, who celebrated long into Sunday night with teammates, team staff and friends. "With Fabian the defending champion it is his race, there is no ifs, ands or buts about it. I knew the form was good and if the stars were lined up in my favour then...
"No one wanted a win more than me yesterday; no one." -Stuart O'Grady on his aggressiveness
"I don't want to take any of the focus away from Fabian, he was the team leader and that's it," highlighted the South Australian. "But, like we talked about on Saturday, in Paris-Roubaix you have to be prepared for every possible circumstance."
O'Grady was ready for the biggest win of his career. He had showed his form by coming so close to winning the Omloop Het Volk in early spring, followed by a fifth in Milan-Sanremo and a tenth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). All of the signs were there. After 15 years in the professional ranks the stars were finally aligning in favour of the Olympic Champion.
"Physically and mentally I was in the best form that I had ever had in my life," admitted O'Grady. "It is not often that I say 'I am going well,' but... that is how it is. I saw the moment, I saw that everyone was looking tired and that I did not feel as bad as they looked. I took the initiative.
"What I have learned over the years is that to win a Classic, or the big races, is that it is no fluke or luck, you have to be aggressive and you have to want it," he added. "No one wanted a win more than me yesterday; no one."
With a 52 second lead, knowing he has secured his win, O'Grady immediately started pumping his fist in celebration once he entered the Roubaix velodrome. After crossing the line, he fell into the arms of his wife, Anne-Marie, who was there at the race with their child, Seth. Just as warming was the embrace from Cancellara, who came home two minutes later.
"We have been rooming together for the last few weeks, well, we have been rooming together since I have been in CSC," noted O'Grady. "We have hit it off as respectful teammates...there is a massive amount of respect between us. He helped me to get on the podium in Zurich, in his home country, and in his home city.
"It just goes to show that he races 100 per-cent for who was the best in the team, and that does not happen in many teams," praised O'Grady, who evidently respects not just the Time Trial World Champion but the entire CSC squad. "There are a lot of guys out there that are happy to get a place, to go for their own results but in this team top-tens don't mean anything. The win is what we are going for. There are a lot of responsibilities and Fabian proved that yesterday."
With the squad's 'plan B' being an O'Grady victory, the 33 year-old wisely positioned himself in the initial break of 34 that went free after 20 kilometres, which included his teammates Luke Roberts and Matti Breschel. The plan had worked out well, until O'Grady found himself scrabbling after he flatted in the one of the race's key sectors.
"That was a pretty decisive moment," admitted O'Grady. "To be honest, when I punctured I thought that was it because I had wasted a lot of energy to be in that original escape. But then I was strong enough to be with the front guys when they came back to me.
"I was about 30 seconds behind after the Arenberg," he continued. "I thought, 'Okay, I can kill myself and do a time trial to try to get back up to the group or I could just have a drink,' thinking 'what is done is done.' I waited for the group to come back up from behind. When I turned around I saw Lars [Michaelsen], Kasper [Klostergård], Matti Breschel, Fabian [Cancellara], Marcus Ljungqvist... half the team was there. I thought, 'we really have some cards to play here.'"
With his expert eyes, which have helped him to two Tour de France stage wins, he sized up his competition and realized the race was anything but over.
"When I saw that group that came across to me there were a lot of guys that did not look so good," said O'Grady. "Those guys had gone a lot harder over the cobbles. We had been out in front all day [as part of the original escape] but we hadn't done the same intensity. That is what kept going through my mind."
O'Grady followed on the initiative of Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt) and bridged to the lead group of Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank). He was impressed with the German's efforts.
"Wesemann has been a friend of mine for a long time and I have a lot of respect for him," said O'Grady of the German's efforts. "He is a fantastic bike rider and he has proved that in the past. To see him on the podium was great. I had so much emotion on the podium and it was also nice to see the other guys on the podium so happy.
"It would have been great to see my teammate Lars [Michaelsen] up there," added O'Grady, of his Danish teammate who raced his last professional event on Sunday. "He had some bad luck with his crash and I think that otherwise he would have been on the podium as well. He deserved it. 'Deserved' is such a big word in the sport and there are so many things that can come into play."
When O'Grady unleashed his final rounds of artilleries he faced a solo effort of 23 kilometres, including two seriously difficult cobbled sectors, the Camphin-en-Pévèle (sector five) and Carrefour de l'Arbre (sector four).
"When I had attacked it was on pure emotion, just riding on instinct. I looked around and just everyone was suffering. I knew that I still had a bit in the tank.
"I had talked with Fabian and he said 'I am not feeling 100 per-cent' and that 'if you want to go for it then go for it,'" explained O'Grady. "That was all in the space of a millisecond. So, it was really pure instinct when I attacked."
"In a race like that I did not want to come away from the table and say 'oh, what if I would have done this or that.' I wanted to put all of my cards on the table," he declared. "The whole team played a perfect race. It happened successfully: for once it all fell into my favour."
While he could recall the noise of fans as he rode solo over the final kilometres of the race, O'Grady admitted to enjoying the ecstasy of victory while in his own zone.
"I was in a world of pain that I had never experienced before," he confessed. "I was worried about a puncture or a Belgian flag taking my head off. My wife and child were there at the finish in the velodrome and the last time they had come to a big race was the Athens Olympics... I had all of these things running though my head.
"It was amazing. Once I was committed and attacked I knew that there was no turning back," said O'Grady. "I had shown my cards and from then on it was at 100 per-cent."
And once O'Grady had played his hand, that was exactly what he gave: an all out push to the famous Roubaix velodrome finish.
"Once I started getting time checks I started thinking that I just want to get to the magic minute. I thought that with a minute I could puncture and still be all right. I thought... Ah, I don't remember, it was just all a blur!," laughed O'Grady
The Australian will now take some time to relax on a family trip to Euro Disney before focusing on the Tour de France. "That was my last occasion to win a bike race for a while," noted O'Grady. "Now I will prepare for the Tour de France, and to help out Carlos [Sastre]. The Classics is why am on the team and this week it paid off. It was the result of months and months of work."