On the eve of Paris-Roubaix, there is one clear favorite for the win - Fabian Cancellara - and many long shots. One rider popping up on the dark horse list is Bjorn Leukemans. He and Juan Antonio Flecha are co-leaders of the Dutch Vacansoleil-DCM team.
Leukemans, 35, has been riding most of the Spring Classics, starting with Dwars door Vlaanderen and ending in Liège. In his career, he has earned top 10 results in most of the major spring races, including the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"I'd rather be good in just one of them and win it. It would give me much more [satisfaction]," said Leukemans. Speaking of Paris-Roubaix, he said, "I love this race. It's the race that suits me most."
Acknowledging that he is not a favorite, he still has high hopes. "I'm going for a podium or at least a top-10; otherwise, I'll be disappointed."
Leukemans' co-leader Flecha has come close to the Paris-Roubaix win a few times. "We're both team leaders. It'll be very hard to beat Cancellara but tell me, is it dishonourable to finish as runner-up behind Cancellara?" said Leukemans. "I don't think so. Anyway, with his current form, we'll have to get in a breakaway. When? I'll follow my instincts to seize the moment."
The Belgian rider explained to Cyclingnews that one reason he has not been in the spotlight so far this season is because he's been bothered by a virus. "I aimed to be good from Waregem [Dwars door Vlaanderen] on but it's only been since the Tour of Flanders that my 'coup de pedal' is back; my heart rate in the morning is back like it should be, too," Leukemans said. "It'll only be when I get on the bike and race that I'll know for sure that my form is good enough."
Because Leukemans feels that Paris-Roubaix is the race most suited to him, he still deeply regrets missing two major chances to step onto the podium. In 2007, he finished fourth and in 2010, he was the last rider who saw Cancellara storm away towards his second victory. "In the past, there have been a couple of times that I slept very badly because I finished just off the podium whereas I should've been on it. One time I was unlucky and the other time it was my own stupid fault," he said.
2010 was the unlucky year. He perfectly anticipated the move from Cancellara and got away before the Swiss rider attacked. When Cancellara bridged up to him on the cobbles, Leukemans seemed to be able to follow until he suddenly threw up his arms in disappointment as he flatted. "I had a slow leak in my front tyre. The TV motorbike also took Cancellara along with them in its slipstream when pulling out of the corner. That killed me. Without that leak and without that motorbike, I would've stayed on his wheel, and I would've been on the podium," Leukemans said.
2007 was Leukeman's first Paris-Roubaix. That year, Stuart O'Grady was alone up front and behind him, three men battled for the remaining podium spots. "I gave all I had. I was riding with... two profiteers. One of them a bit less but the other one really profited big time. They ran away with the podium spots, and I came in fourth," Leukemans said, still showing signs of disappointment and anger.
Ironically, one of those two riders was his current teammate Flecha. "Wesemann came in third and he had shared some of the work, but Flecha really profited from our work. We never talked about it, but he knows. You feel that during the race. I was the second best rider that day and only finished fourth. It was because of my own impetuosity," Leukemans said.
The team likely didn't have this in mind when its brought the two back together this year. Flecha moved from Team Sky to Vacansoleil-DCM, and the Spanish-Belgian duo is expected to work together for their Dutch employer. "We'll discuss tactics this evening, but most importantly it's about being good. Then we'll see and follow our instinct. In the Tour of Flanders, my instinct told me to follow Jurgen Roelandts, but then I started thinking and by then it was too late. If I marked that move, I have been in the top five," Leukemans said. He went on to finish 18th.
Despite strained past Paris-Roubaix memories, Leukemans was quick to offer words of support for his Spanish teammate. Flecha was named in an article by Dutch newspaper Volkskrant as being the man behind the nickname "Clasicómano" on the clients list of doping doctor Eufemio Fuentes.
"Why don't they come up with evidence?" Leukemans said. "As long as they don't come up with evidence, they shouldn't write all these accusations and [should] shut up."
Leukemans has had his own experience in the midst of a doping news maelstrom. At the end of 2007, Leukemans came into doping headlines after testing positive for testosterone shortly before the world championships. Leukemans kept fighting against the accusations and in August of 2008, his ban was reduced to six months instead of the original two years, allowing him to race again at the start of the 2009 season.