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Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) wasn't able to follow the acceleration of Fabian Cancellara.
Frenchman to lead Omega Pharma-QuickStep
It was neither the time nor the place to discuss Oscar Wilde's work in any depth, but it's safe to assume that Sylvain Chavanel would beg to disagree with the assertion that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
Bandied about by all and sundry as the dark horse in the build-up to the Tour of Flanders, Chavanel's standing was such that he was never going to be given the freedom to jump up the road ahead of the finale, as he has done so often during his time at Omega Pharma-QuickStep.
It's a situation that the Frenchman is eager to avoid at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, and although he is nominally team leader in the absence of the injured Tom Boonen, Chavanel was careful to downplay expectations when he met the press in Kortrijk on Friday afternoon.
"It's easy to talk about anticipating Fabian Cancellara on Sunday and people were already complaining that I didn't try to do that at Flanders last week, but people talked about me so much beforehand that it was completely pointless for me to make an attack like that," Chavanel said ruefully, a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. "It was practically impossible, the only way it might have worked is if Tom had still been there, but really it would have been a waste of energy."
Instead, Chavanel opted to take his chances in the finale over the Kwaremont and Paterberg, but admitted that he didn't have the legs to follow Cancellara and Peter Sagan à la pédale. "I was 4th over the Kwaremont, so I was up there but those two guys were just too strong," said Chavanel, who finished with the main chase group in 13th place.
In the week since, discussions across Flanders and northern France have boiled down to the same, troubling conundrum: how on earth can Cancellara be prevented from winning Paris-Roubaix for the third time? Even Cancellara's brace of mid-week crashes has done little to loosen his prohibitive odds with the bookmakers, but Chavanel noted that the Swiss rider has fallen foul of both fortune and tactical gridlock in the past at Roubaix.
"You can't give him two metres otherwise it's finished, but he fell on Wednesday and he fell on Thursday too, so it's never won beforehand," said Chavanel. "I know it can seem that way but in 2011, it was the same, yet [Johan] Vansummeren won and he was second.
"But Cancellara is used to having the whole peloton on his wheel so he knows how to manage that. People are asking how to stop him but I'm not worrying about all that, we've got our own race to do on Sunday. We'll have to play it intelligently on a tactical level."
Yes, but how? Chavanel's expression softened slowly into a grin. "We're not going to give away our tactics today: our rivals read the press on the eve of Paris-Roubaix too you know," he quipped, before adding: "We have a strong team collectively and we have to make the most of that."
During the week, manager Patrick Lefevere hit the headlines with some colourful comments comparing the merits of his galacticos to Pro Continental outfit Accent Jobs. But more than balls, the team is missing Boonen. "Of course the team misses Tom, he's won Paris-Roubaix four times after all, but I've got my race to do now," Chavanel said. "We're still motivated, we've still got eight riders on the team and if I wasn't motivated, I'd go home."
In Boonen's absence, Chavanel is the de facto team leader, but he insisted that he had not made any special demands. So often the foil to his teammates in the past, Chavanel seemed ill at ease with the prospect of demanding sole leadership.
"I haven't claimed a certain status on the team," he said. "I don't need eight riders at my side to protect me, one is enough. I don't really like being in the situation where a whole team is sacrificed for one rider.
"I'll go on feeling and see how it goes. I just want a Paris-Roubaix without problems, without the crashes or punctures that I've had in the past, so that I can see what my real level is in this race. The pavé were super dry on the recon, I expected a lot worse. With all the snow this winter, I though there would be a lot more pot holes but they're still the same."
At the very least, Chavanel is determined to improve on his previous best at Roubaix, (8th in 2009), and he did finally – light-heartedly – acknowledge his place among the riders poised to pounce should Cancellara falter.
"I think Taylor Phinney could be up there, but beyond that, I think we'll find the same riders: Flecha, Pozzato… and Chavanel," he smiled.