After coming out of the famous Wallers-Arenberg forest together with all the major favourites, the almost two-metre tall super-domestique and pavé-specialist Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Cervelo) reacted to the attack of former Roubaix winner Fréderic Guesdon (FDJ). From that moment on, "Summie" showed that he was among the strongest riders in the large breakaway group that dominated the finale of Paris-Roubaix.
In a tactical finale, the breakaway riders held off the top favourites and eventually battled it out amongst themselves for the win. Coincidentally, Van Summeren left his last breakaway companions behind on the same pavé sector where his appearance in the lead group was halted by Juan Antonio Flecha’s memorable crash in 2009.
“I think that was [the year] where people learned that I was capable of winning this race,” Van Summeren said. “Last year was a disaster. I expected a lot from this race in my new team, then called Garmin-Transitions. I wanted to do really well for my new bosses, but I felt it before the race even started.”
“Today simply was my dream day. Who would have dared to dream that?” Van Summeren said. “Last week Nick [Nuyens] was speechless, and now I'm speechless too. It's unbelievable. Normally one starts by winning a small race.” Before Sunday's victory the 30-year-old captured his sole professional win in the Tour of Poland back in 2007.
Van Summeren added his name beneath that of Fabian Cancellara on the impressive Paris-Roubaix roll of honour. “It's like Nuyens said last week [about his win in the Tour of Flanders], I will remain Paris-Roubaix winner for the rest of my life,” Van Summeren said. “Today's win will not change a lot for my career though. I know what I can and what I cannot do. I can help the team a lot and in some races if the team could work for me that would please me a lot. I can help the team in the Tour and some Classics. In the races that suit me, having some teammates in support would be well appreciated.”
The fact that he won rather than his team leader Thor Hushovd comes on the back of surprising wins from Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) in the first two Monuments of the season, while the top favourites always fell short. “I think they're watching each other a lot. If you're the big favourite it's hard to attack,” Van Summeren said.
There was a late scare for Van Summeren in the closing kilometres approaching Roubaix, and not only because Cancellara made his appearance in the chase group. “I had a slow puncture at 5km from the finish. It wasn't flat but I knew that I could no longer change my wheel. It was not easy to take the corners but it worked out well. I entered the track like wuhuhuhu,” Van Summeren said, while making a fumbling movement.
“Sometimes I train like that,” he said, and while laughing confessed, “because I forget to bring along spare tyres on training rides.”
Popping the question
Van Summeren made it to the velodrome of Roubaix with more than enough time on the chasers to celebrate a victory which was by far the biggest of his career. What came next was an explosion of joy. A barely unrecognisable Van Summeren threw both his fists in the air and screamed out his joy until suddenly he spotted his ecstatic girlfriend Jasmine Vangrieken. They fell into each other's arms and were swarmed by the media.
Shortly afterwards, when Van Summeren finally was able to sit down in some privacy in the company of his long-term girlfriend, he surprised her by asking her to marry him.
“I said yes. We've been together for seven years now. I'm just hoping he was serious when he asked me,” Vangrieken joked. Her future husband confirmed it at the post-race press conference.
“Yes, I remember. I think it's a special way to do it. Some people give a ring when they propose, I gave her a rock,” Van Summeren laughed when talking about his unique proposal.
Hushovd’s helping hand
Before the race, Van Summeren's mission was to support team leader and world champion Thor Hushovd, instead of having a go for the win himself. “It's normal. He's the world champion and very fast at the finish. I was supposed to help him until deep in the final but suddenly I was in the attack,” Van Summeren said.
In the hectic finish area the world champion took his time to work his way through all the media to congratulate and celebrate with his winning teammate. Clearly there were no hard feelings from Hushovd about Van Summeren's tactics. “We didn't have much time to talk. He was very happy for my victory. It gave me a lot of pleasure. There are other races left where I can do a lot for him,” Van Summeren said.
While in the breakaway group, Van Summeren noticed that he was in a great position. “I was riding seemingly without any effort and immediately felt that I was the strongest man in the group; I could leave them all behind,” he said.
The co-operation in the group wasn't perfect and Van Summeren felt it wasn't up to him to do a lot of work. “I was constantly thinking that I should save energy. It wasn't really turning around. I told the teams with three riders in the breakaway that it wasn't up to them to ride,” Van Summeren said.
Meanwhile, team manager Jonathan Vaughters and Garmin-Cervélo Spring Classics assistant and former Roubaix winner Peter Van Petegem were trying to guide the giant Belgian from the team car.
“Jonathan didn't stop telling me: 'wait... wait for the Carrefour de l'Arbre,'” Van Summeren said.
While heading to the cobbles of Camphin-en-Pévèle, the Danish strongman Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) attacked, with Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank) and Grégory Rast (Radioshack) marking his wheel. “I could go with them and at the Carrefour de l'Arbre I started in second position. From Wednesday's reconnaissance I knew where I should ride on the stones to go as fast as possible. I looked back one time and saw that Tjallingii wasn't too far back. When coming off the cobbles I didn't see him anymore. From there it was full gas all the way to the vélodrome. It was a long and painful day but the satisfaction afterward is huge,” Van Summeren said.
While Van Summeren modestly described himself as something of a jack of all trades but master of none, he acknowledged that Paris-Roubaix was well-suited to his characteristics.
“This is the race that suits me the best,” Van Summeren said, before summing up his capabilities. “I'm not very explosive. I can climb a bit but not very good. I'm not a sprinter. Roubaix is still Roubaix, putting the power on the pedals – it's made for my capacities.”
Missing out on Flanders
Places in the Paris-Roubaix line-up were at a premium in the highly-rated Garmin-Cervélo team. Last week it even seemed unlikely that Van Summeren would be participating in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix due to an inflammation in the knee.
“Not riding the Tour of Flanders was a good decision,” he said. “It hurt because nobody wants to miss it. Now I'm glad that I didn't do it. Since the reconnaissance of Thursday I wasn't worried anymore. I knew that the team had a lot of confidence in me. I already spoke a bit with Jonathan [Vaughters]. He wasn't afraid. I told him that I would be honest [and tell him] if I still felt something in my knee. I didn't feel anything anymore so that's why I was at the start today.”
Missing out on Paris-Roubaix would have seen of the time and effort expended by both Van Summeren and his team go to waste. Garmin-Cervélo hired Peter Van Petegem's services this season to pass his pavé expertise on to the team and the build-up towards the race with the former Roubaix winner started back in February.
“Peter was working with us during the whole Spring season,” Van Summeren said. “We already did a reconnaissance after the Omloop [Het Nieuwsblad] and Kuurne[-Brussels-Kuurne]. Thor and I were here the day after. We tested everything, the wheels and the tyres. I knew he wanted me in this race. I always had a good relationship with him. In the finale he was happy with my place. Motivating me as hard as possible.”
The win from Van Summeren also makes up for the hitherto lacklustre Spring Classics season of the much-touted Garmin-Cervélo team. “If you see the names it's normal that everybody expects us to be in the front from the first race of the season,” he said. “In Qatar we were, but from there we were a bit unlucky. Now, they cannot say anything any more.”