The 108th edition of Paris-Roubaix had been presented as a duel between Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step). Cancellara was in a position to crack the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double, while a fourth win in Roubaix for Boonen would have put him level with record holder Roger De Vlaeminck.
During the legendary passage of the Arenberg forest the two Classics titans had the measure of one another as they led the peloton over the 3000 meter-long stretch of cobbles. Twenty kilometers later neither rider had any more teammates in the lead group of about thirty riders. At that moment, Boonen launched several attacks which were in turn responded to by his Swiss rival. The Belgian's final salvo was neutralized by the other riders in the group. A few moments later Boonen took a breather at the back of the group and Cancellara sneaked away in a cross wind section. It was the last time Boonen would see the eventual race winner before the velodrome in Roubaix.
"Am I disappointed? Yes, I am, and also frustrated because Cancellara attacked at the only moment that I wasn't near the front," said the disappointed Belgian Champion as he talked with the press at his team bus. "He was probably informed by the team car that I was at the back of our group. Then again, I don't think I could have won from Cancellara today, especially not when seeing how he won it. But I wasn't able to defend my chances and that's a bit disappointing. If I would've been dropped by him I would accept that but now it's a bit awkward," Boonen said.
Just like Stuart O'Grady's winning attack in 2007, Cancellara attacked off the cobbles, profiting from some hesitation in the group of favorites. Boonen explained he didn't expect the attack nor the reaction from the other riders in the lead group, while emphasizing it was the best tactic to use.
"I wouldn't hesitate to use the same tactics," said Boonen, who had attacked on the asphalted roads too, just a few kilometers earlier. "The timing of the attack was a bit weird. I dropped back after having attacked several times, to see who was in the group and to eat something. There were still about twenty-five riders left in the group and at that section there was a bit of head and cross wind. We were only going at 25 km/h and it was still far away. I don't know how he left but suddenly he had fifty meters."
Aware of the time trial skills possessed by the Swiss champion it was an obvious risk for the group to give him any space. Boonen explains what happened: "I was blocked behind three Columbia riders. I had to pass everybody in the wind and once in front I looked around to organize the chase but nobody wanted to ride. Then I took the pavé at 100 per cent, just like him. I took all the guys back which he had left behind and when coming off the cobbles the gap was still [managable]. There were still four or five guys on my wheel but they said it was good, that it was better to ride for second place; I think that's bizarre," said Boonen.
"It's better to be with only two or three guys who're going flat out than to be in the situation we were in. When there are two or three rotten apples, that ruins everything. It's like the flu; it spreads very quickly. They immediately rode for second place," said Boonen of his efforts to organise the chase.
Boonen frustrated by Flecha, chasers
When asked who was to blame Boonen referred to Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky). Last year, the Spaniard was also pointed at when crashing out late in the race, taking Leif Hoste (Omega Pharma-Lotto) also crashing out of contention in the incident.
"It was especially Flecha. When I attacked I was confronted with the headwind and with Flecha on my wheel. I can understand you ride tactically if you're riding for the win, but not for second, fifth or twentieth place. That's not important. It's only the first place that matters," he said.
"There really has never been a chase on Cancellara. There was no co-operation," said the 29 year-old Belgian, emphasising his frustration on the lack of organisation in the chase. "If you ride with three guys then you close that gap, even on Cancellara; it's not just that this year he has jet engines installed up on his arse.
"At that moment it was still possible to do something but I guess the others had team orders. Why? Ask the other teams."
When asked why he was so generous with his energy by launching his own move just before Cancellara's race-winning attack Boonen explained he wanted to isolate the favorites. "I didn't have a lot of options at that moment. There were several teams with two, three or four guys while I was on my own. If I wait until there's five men away then I'm in trouble too.
"The riders from Saxo Bank had taken their responsibilty. They worked hard and didn't have many guys left in front either. That's why I wanted to reduce the numbers, but that wind... It was almost impossible to make the difference on the cobbles today. It had to happen between the cobbles, like Cancellara did it. Then one has to hope that the door is locked behind you, and it was firmly locked, everybody saw that," said Boonen.
Once it was clear that Cancellara wouldn't be caught, Boonen explained that he wasn't interested to fighting for second. Eventually the Belgian champion sprinted for fourth place with Roger Hammond (Cervélo TestTeam).
"I felt good but in the finale I ran out of gas. I had given a lot in the chase to keep it going and then I forgot to eat. Afterwards it was a battle for second place, but I preferred not to finish second today."