Paris-Roubaix is a race that brings more heartbreak than happiness, and few riders understood that better than the late Franco Ballerini. Twice a winner of the great race, the Italian’s victories were a lesson of perseverance, coming as they did after he had endured one of the most traumatic defeats in classics history in the famous old velodrome at Roubaix.
In April 1993, Ballerini must have felt that he was at the peak of his powers. Then 29 and backed by the likes of Johan Museeuw and Mario Cipollini in the GB-MG line-up, Paris-Roubaix looked to be running to script when he forced his way clear with the veteran Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle.
Coming through the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Ballerini’s directeur sportif Patrick Lefevere urged him to try and shed himself of the wily Duclos-Lassalle. Though apparently tiring, the Frenchman fought tooth and nail to withstand Ballerini’s efforts, and the pair arrived together at the gates of the velodrome.
Forced to lead out in the sprint, Ballerini appeared to be the stronger, and while both men threw their bikes to the line at the same time, the Italian threw his hands into the air as he circled the velodrome after the finish, convinced that he had taken the win. His elation would soon turn to anguish, however. After a lengthy and careful review of the photo-finish images, the commissaires ruled that it was in fact Duclos-Lassalle who had won the sprint, by a mere 8 millimetres.
As Duclos-Lassalle stood on the podium celebrating his second consecutive win, a dejected Ballerini swore never to return to Roubaix. Asked if he had made any mistakes, Ballerini shook his head forlornly: "My mistake was becoming a professional cyclist."
Twelve months later, however, Ballerini was back on the pavé, but in spite of a strong performance in an epic edition of Paris-Roubaix, he had to settle for third place behind Andrei Tchmil. Redemption would have to wait another year, but that can only have made it all the sweeter.
In a dry and dusty Paris-Roubaix in 1995, Ballerini was far and away the strongest man on show. Resplendent in the famous cubes of the Mapei squad and astride the groundbreaking Colnago C40, his was a dominant victory. He simply took flight on the pavé to put almost two minutes into a chase group marshalled by his teammate Museeuw. “I was walking on water, just like Jesus,” a euphoric Ballerini said afterwards.
An often-forgotten fourth in Mapei’s 1-2-3-4 of 1996, only a string of mechanical problems denied Ballerini from entering the velodrome alongside Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi. Two years later, his second Paris-Roubaix victory did arrive, and it was as crushing a display as has been seen on the cobbles in the recent past, as Ballerini put more than four minutes into his teammate Tafi to enter the pantheon of Roubaix greats.
Two seasons at Lampre followed, but that third Hell of the North win would prove elusive, and fittingly, Ballerini returned to Mapei in 2001 to bring the curtain down on his career by riding Paris-Roubaix one final time. He entered the velodrome in 31st place, but his ride was a celebration nonetheless, as he unzipped his jersey to unveil a t-shirt reading “Merci Roubaix.”
After almost a decade as Italian national coach, Ballerini was tragically killed in a rallying accident in February 2010, but his legacy at Paris-Roubaix endures.
For a gallery of Ballerini's experiences at Paris-Roubaix, click here.