By Brecht Decaluwé in Compiegne, France
In the 2006, Paris-Roubaix, after the feared Trouée d'Arenberg, a lead group of 17 riders was left including top favourites Peter Van Petegem, Fabian Cancellara, George Hincapie, Juan Antonio Flecha, Tom Boonen, and so on. A few other guys featured as well, like Joost Posthuma, Nicolas Portal and Bernhard Eisel. Most of them are dropped when the big guns start to fire, but somehow Eisel managed to hang on. The Austrian was dropped on every pavé sector, but with only nine sectors remaining, he is hung in there with Van Petegem, Boonen, Cancellara, Flecha, Gusev, Ballan and Hoste.
When Cancellara accelerated on Camphin-en-Pévele nobody could follow and Eisel ended up eighth. After the disqualification of Van Petegem, Hoste and Ballan, his results improved to an official fifth place. "My trick was not to follow the big guns too long. I quickly dropped back between the cars and hung on over there. After the cobbles I could come back thanks to the cars," Eisel said to Cyclingnews two years ago.
After a disappointing 2007, Eisel is back and riding stronger this year. He hopes to confirm his talent on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. "It was two years ago when I was fifth, but I remember every race I did here. The first time I rode this race I wasn't in time at the finish. Nevertheless it remained one of my preferred races, like Flanders. Two years ago with a fifth place it was a different thing, and last year I had a sh***y form," Eisel explained his performance.
"I had just missed two weeks of training last year. I got sick after Algarve where I was in good form and won a stage. I couldn't race Het Volk and although I started in Kuurne, I struggled with my form," Eisel said. "This year I'm healthy and the form is much better, so I'm looking forward to the race. I've never done it in the rain, so it's going to be tougher than other years. I heard it's going to be a bit warmer than in Flanders, but it's going to be the same weather." The weather during the Ronde van Vlaanderen was horrible with the riders forced to contend with snow, hail and rain.
Eisel looked forward to a new edition of Paris-Roubaix as he described his relationship with the cobbles, "Positive. I love them! With my size and my weight I have to love them."
"I always dreamed about doing Roubaix. I don't know if it's good or bad for cycling, but there are two races in the world that everybody knows and they are the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix," the Austrian pointed out how other races are trying to copy the Paris-Roubaix quoted French events. The Italian Eroica Tre Paschi, with a finish in Siena, is a race that is like a combination of Flanders and Roubaix, with hills and a lot of gravel roads.
When Cyclingnews asked the Team High Road rider how he felt about Eroica and participating there, he answered, "Normally not. I heard it was really well organized and it was a nice race, but it is so far away from Paris-Roubaix," Eisel also complained it was too early in the season. "But there should be another race in America with cobblestones. There's also Tro Bro Leon [France] which I've never raced, and the race in Aarhus [Denmark]. But in the end, Paris-Roubaix is the real one," Eisel said.
Before they get to the pro peloton, young riders have often already had a taste of the cobbles in the U23 race of Paris-Roubaix. While competing in it is not a guarantee for a for a successful pro career, some of today's top riders proved their ability there, but for Eisel that isn't the case. "I've never done it. We only did stages races with the national team, never one-day races."
Nevertheless, the good-tempered Austrian said he learned from the past few years that he can have a good race in the North of France is is optimistic for a podium placing. "For sure I can be on the podium, or win the race, but it's still another thing to be really up there. Of course form is the first thing, but you also need to be really smart, and then it's also up to the teams to decide who the big boss is. We've got 'Georgy' [Hincapie] here and I think he's going to be the man for Sunday," Eisel said of the team's plans to work for Hincapie. "I think that we should work together like we did in the Tour of Flanders and then we can still decide in the end. It's not that George is the only big boss. We ride together as a team. Maybe we can kill everybody in the attacks, while George can be the man in the end?"
Eisel is suggesting he could be that man, too, as he has the speed to claim a sprint win. Thinking of a group finish on the vélodrome in Roubaix, Eisel thought of his track experience. "I did the points race at the junior worlds in 1999, in Athens. As a junior I was riding a lot on the track but in Paris-Roubaix, you just have to be strong. Last week I saw a bunch of nice pictures of the track worlds, but most of the times it simply was the strongest guy who won," Eisel laughed.
The 27 year-old expressed his annoyance with people who try to classify him as a sprinter or a Classics rider. "For some reason everybody wants to put me in one box. Last year I fit in two boxes since I focused on the Classics, and afterwards I also focused on the sprint. During previous years, I was a lead-out man, but then again I was also a sprinter myself. Now I focus on the Classics, but I also want to be in the Tour de France.
"We will see what happens. I don't know why people want to put me in a box while other riders can be called an all-rounder," Eisel wondered and then joked, "but I agree that nobody should call me a climber!" He said this despite the fact that he was spotted during Paris-Nice in the lead group on the first stretches of the Mont Ventoux. Eisel said, "That was a good stage. It [Mont Ventoux] was a climb for me and I can be up there in the breakaway. But it depends on how the form is and how my head feels about the race." On the eve of 2008 Paris-Roubaix, anyway, the thoughts racing through Eisel's head were all about the Hell of the North.