On the eve of the 2012 Paris-Roubaix, Cyclingnews sat down with Patrick Lefevere, the Belgian team boss behind 10 Roubaix wins in the last 17 years, and went through his 10 successes, from Ballerini to Boonen, epic 1,2,3's and classic comebacks.
1995 Franco Ballerini (ITA) Mapei-GB
Spurred on by a the memories of losing in 1993, Ballerini powers away from the leaders and finishes two minutes clear of the chasing pack.
Lefevere: Franco was crazy about this race. He was obsessed with it. I remember in 1993 when he was beaten by Duclos-Lassalle and I was driving him and [Mario] Cipollini to the airport and Franco was crying like a child. I told him he would come back and win and in 1995 he was so strong, nobody could hold him.
That day he had a super domestique who was Johan Museeuw and I remember we were winning a lot that year and we were worried about attacking too late and not getting the win. Franco wanted to be sure, so he attacked early on and was the first of the team to get away. We won Flanders the week before with Johan and he could have won Roubaix too, but we wanted to protect the guy up the road and that was Franco.
1996 Johan Museeuw (BEL) Mapei-GB
Mapei dominate the race, blowing it apart in an almost ridiculous show of strength. Museeuw wins ahead of Gianluca Bortalami and Andrea Tafi but it’s Levefere who decides on the podium order.
Lefevere: We wanted to have a careful strategy. At a tactical meeting the night before I told the riders not to make too many efforts before a long section of cobbles that no longer exists in the race, but that as soon as they hit that section they were all told to attack and come out of the pave with maybe 10 riders left in the race.
When the break was created, Ballerini punctured but Bortalami was so strong, he did so much of the work and in the end we were left with just the three of us.
Still after all these years there are a lot of stories and rumours about who decided the order on the podium and who would win but for those that listened, Mr Squinzi explained it all a few years ago. The rumour was that he decided but that’s not true. He called at the start of the race and wished us luck. It was his wedding anniversary and said a win would be a beautiful present.
When the break of three went he called back and said he’d like all three riders to finish together but he never decided on the order. That was my decision. Johan was the strongest guy and if I let them start riding against each other I no longer would have had a team. I thought Johan deserved it most but the hierarchy was Johan, then Bortalami who had won the World Cup the year before and Tafi.
Afterward there was a big discussion but not about who won. Tafi was yelling because he wanted to take second. I don’t know if it was honour or whatever but he said he wanted second because his wife was pregnant. Second or third doesn’t matter in my eyes and I was upset. I said ‘that’s enough’ and that if he didn’t agree with my decision he could join another team the next day.
1998 Franco Ballerini (ITA) Mapei-Bricobi
One of the most dominant displays in Roubaix’s history. Two lethal accelerations from Ballerini destroy the entire peloton and the Italian finishes four minutes ahead of the next rider, Andrea Tafi, as Mapei take another 1-2-3 with Wilfried Peeters in third.
Lefevere: Johan had broken his knee but it was more a case of repeating what we did in 1995 with Franco attacking from a long way out. We had a strong team but the problem Franco always had was that he struggled to get away. Once he’d got away and he had 30 seconds it was very difficult to get him back. He was like a steam train.
1999 Andrea Tafi (ITA) Mapei-Quick Step
With 39 kilometres to go Tafi and Peeters attack, followed by Franck Vandenbroucke. Tafi surges forward again and Mapei block the chase. They still have enough in the tank to finish second and third with Peeters and Steels rounding out the podium.
Lefevere: Again we had a strong team and I remember Tom Steels was the Belgian national champion. Of course the press were crying out for him to do Flanders but I said to him I won't forbid you but it’s not a race for you, you’ll be dropped before the Muur, you won't recover for Gent-Wevelgem. You can be good in Paris-Roubaix but you have to go in a breakaway. If you wait for the big guns to open fire you’ll be dropped. He crashed, he punctured but he was in the break and he was third.
That year there was a battle between Peters and Tafi. Either could have won. Wilfried was attacking on the right, Tafi on the left, and Andrea was the one that got away.
2000 Johan Museeuw (BEL) Mapei
Museeuw and Frankie Andreu attack with just under 60 kilometres remaining but the American is dispatched with less than 40 kilometres to go. Despite a strong headwind the Belgian holds on.
Lefevere: It was a very risky break. Johan went away with the American guy Frankie Andreu and then he dropped him. I was thinking ‘what are you doing, dropping the Postal rider with so far to go and a headwind’ but the problem was nobody thought he could go all the way to finish. Telekom started chasing for Zabel but then he ordered them to stop because only his riders were working and he didn’t want to lose his teammates. There was hesitation and this allowed Johan to stay clear.
I wasn’t surprised Johan was able to come back. I maybe wasn’t sure what level he’d be but I remember seeing him in a recovery room from 8am until late in the afternoon so he applied himself perfectly.
2001 Servais Knaven (NED) Domo-Farm Frites
The fourth 1-2-3 of the Lefevere era with Servais Knaven, leading home Johan Museeuw and world champion Romans Vainsteins.
Lefevere: I left Mapei to have a sabbatical because I was ill. I was asked to make a team from scratch while still in my hospital bed and I did it. Everyone thought it was going to be the new Mapei but when I went to our first training camp, Johan was struggling, Vainstains was world champion but 10 kilos too fat and I couldn’t see a team. Marc Sergeant said to me ‘take it easy, you’re not healthy, go home and rest’.
The first races were a complete disaster but on the morning of the Roubaix I came onto the bus and I said to the riders ‘listen this our last chance, let's fight like crazy.' There were a lot of crashes and I ordered the guys to move to the front with 100 kilometers to go and attack. Marc Sergeant thought it was too far out but the guys dropped from the crashes, we had to make sure they couldn’t come back.
In the final Servais got away and he was in perfect shape. He attacked twice on the flat roads and he was away.
2002 Johan Museeuw (BEL) Domo-Farm Frites
Museeuw seals his win with an incredible 41km solo break and a victory salute of ten outstretched fingers, signifying his tenth career World Cup win.
Lefevere: I actually watched this recently. I’ve been on the home trainer recently and watched this. Johan attacked on the cobbles, just when a car had broken down ahead. There was some oil on the ground but he put it in the big gear and dropped everyone. Again I thought he went too early but he did it and won alone again.
2005 Tom Boonen (BEL) Quick Step-Innergetic
Boonen wins his first Roubaix, a week after winning the Tour of Flanders. He escapes with Juan Antonio Flecha and George Hincapie, times his sprint perfectly and takes the win.
Lefevere: He was so strong. He’d won Flanders the week before and was riding so enthusiastically. He went away with the others and they were all working with him because they knew that if they stayed with Tom they’d get a result. Tom was like Johan but he was able to keep focus a lot more after winning Flanders. When Johan won Flanders it was as if a huge weight had been taken off his shoulders and he relaxed a lot more.
2008 Tom Boonen (BEL) Quick Step
Boonen joins a move with Cancellara and Ballan in the final 40 kilometers. The trio work together and Boonen takes an easy sprint on the Roubaix track.
Lefevere: Same story as 2005. Almost no one attacked because the pace was so high but when the break went with Tom they were all happy to work. If you look at the photos from the sprint you can barely see who was second, Tom was so good. In the race we just tried to keep everything together and use a high pace.
2009 Tom Boonen (BEL) Quick Step
Tom Boonen joins an elite group of riders to win three editions of Paris-Roubaix. The Belgian is too strong for five breakaway companions and survives as his rivals crash and crack around him. Filippo Pozzato finishes second.
Lefevere: If you look back now maybe this was Tom’s best win. Ballan and Cancellara put up a strong fight in the previous wins but the struggle against Pippo was even greater. I know Pozzato very well. You can put a glass of water on his back and even on the cobbles he won't spill a drop.
He was at 6 or 7 seconds behind Tom at a key stage but I could see that his shoulders were starting to rock slightly. I said I wanted to see his face, and the camera showed he was suffering. At that moment I knew that the race was over and he was dying. This was a real fight though. I never saw Tom so tired at the finish.