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A picture-perfect moment
Stuart O'Grady conquered the dry cobbles of the 105th Paris-Roubaix to become the first ever Australian in the race's top-three. The 33 year-old Team CSC man put in his bid for freedom with 240 kilometres to go when he formed part of an early 30-plus man escape. After watching his rivals all day he decided to show his cards in a solo attack with over 20 kilometres remaining.
"I was going to win today or die trying," declared O'Grady after crossing the line.
"It is hard to explain this victory," continued the Aussie, who finished fifth in Milano-Sanremo and tenth in Ronde van Vlaanderen this year. "'Relief' is probably the first word that comes to mind. I have a lot of people to thank in this team. It had been a difficult 18 months. The camaraderie in this team is way more than just winning races. Today was just a big thanks to everyone in the team for believing in me."
The move, which came on the heels of the Bourghelles sector, left pre-race favourite Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) chasing with three companions - Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt), Roberto Petito (Liquigas) and Predictor-Lotto's Björn Leukemans. Once O'Grady covered sector five, Camphin-en-Pévèle, and four, Carrefour, his victory seemed locked. He was flying the red and white colours of CSC to a second straight victory on the Roubaix velodrome.
2006 winner, Fabian Cancellara, who came in outside the top ten, was quick to congratulate his team-mate on a job well done. The Swiss launched his move last year with 16 kilometres remaining, but this year came home more than two minutes down. He quickly found O'Grady to embrace and congratulate him for a day of hard work under hot and dusty conditions.
"Nothing wrong happened to me today," said Cancellara. "For sure I wasn't at the top of my condition, where I had to be. Also the hot temperature wasn't exactly what suited me the best. But today, the tactic has won and the best rider has won. As for myself, if everyone rides on my wheel, it's becomes difficult to win Paris-Roubaix again.
"As a defending champion, I'm very happy because I haven't lost it; we have won again as a team. I know what's on in Stuart's head now. It's a lot of joy. We'll celebrate it at the same hotel where we did it for me last year. In cycling, the sense of sacrifice must always be present. I already paired with Stuart in the finale of a classic last year in Zurich. It's a day of big cycling today; our whole team has done a great job."
In addition to first being the race's first Australian victor, O'Grady became the first English-speaking rider since the great Sean Kelly to win Paris-Roubaix, and not only the first Australian, but indeed the first cyclist from any Commonwealth country to win this race (Kelly is from Eire, which is not part of the Commonwealth). And the last time O'Grady won a race on a velodrome, it was nothing less than a Gold medal in the Madison at the Athens 2004 Olympics (with Graeme Brown).
"It was good team work, Stuart deserves it, the team deserves it," said CSC director Scott Sunderland. "Fabian was the top favourite, but in these conditions it was tough because he prefers cold and rain, not the heat; Stuart is used to the Australian heat. You saw that we had different cards to play, so it worked out."
"He attacked because he was the strongest. Our advantage is in the numbers, and so everyone can't follow all of our moves."
"CSC had really good tactics, so it was better to focus on second place for me," confirmed Wesemann after the finish. The German could not close down a late surge by Flecha but still was able to put himself on the podium.
"For a non-ProTour team I think we did really well by having the jersey on the television all day long. I did not get a contract with T-Mobile so this gives me an ego boast."
2005 Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen never showed the dominance of the past two years, and while he was able to leave behind his chasing companions and catch the remainder of the breakaway, it was too late. Enrico Franzoi (Lampre-Fondital) and T-Mobile's Roger Hammond were too spent to throw their weight behind the chase, and while the trio came close, they never could catch the chasing group of four, and Boonen could only take the sprint for sixth.
The 105th Paris-Roubaix departed in the best possible way - under 23°C temperatures and right on time, at 11.00. The temperatures were set to rise quickly as the riders made their way over the 259.5 kilometres from Compiègne to the Roubaix velodrome.
The day was kicked off with an attack from Frenchman Anthony Ravard (Agritubel); he was quickly joined by Ángel Gómez (Saunier Duval-Prodir). The duo enjoyed the fact that they were the first escape of the Hell of the North but their move was quickly quashed, and at kilometre five they were back with the peloton.
The riders faced more than fifty kilometres of pavé, with the first section coming at kilometre 98, the three star section of Troisvilles. The challenge ahead did not stop many riders from attacking before that sector, and and the pace in the first hour was a blistering 47.4 km/h. Within that first hour, a large escape group made its way off of the front just 20 kilometres into the race. More than 30 riders made this group, with imposing names such as Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), Roger Hammond (T-Mobile), Tom Steels (Predictor-Lotto), who often attacks early in Roubaix, and Andreas Klier (T-Mobile). The group quickly built up a lead of two minutes over the chasing peloton.
The make-up of the breakaway was Matti Breschel, Stuart O'Grady, Luke Roberts (Team CSC), Matteo Tosatto, Kevin Van Impe (Quickstep-Innergetic), Enrico Franzoi (Lampre-Fondital), Bram De Groot (Rabobank), Ludovic Auger (Française Des Jeux), Bert Grabsch, Roger Hammond, Andreas Klier (T-Mobile), Tom Steels, Greg Van Avermaet (Predictor-Lotto), Tristan Valentin (Cofidis), Ralf Grabsch (Milram), Fabien Bacquet, Clément L'Hottelerie, Floris Goesinnen (Skil-Shimano), Erki Pütsep (Bouygues Telecom), Volodymyr Bileka (Discovery Channel), Roberto Petito, Frederik Willems (Liquigas), Nicolas Portal, José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d'Epargne), David Kopp, Tom Stamsnijder (Gerolsteiner), Julian Dean, Jimmy Engoulvent (Crédit Agricole), Stéphane Poulhiès, Nicolas Rousseau (Ag2r Prévoyance), Iban Iriondo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Olaf Pollack (Wiesenhof-Felt), Robert Wagner (Wiesenhof-Felt) and Guennadi Mikhailov (Astana).
The first abandon came at kilometre 43 when Francisco José Ventoso (Saunier Duval-Prodir) pulled over to the side of the road, leaving the main peloton. The Spaniard showed good legs in the Gent-Wevelgem on Wednesday, but his wrist was bothering him after an earlier crash.
As the leaders extended their advantage, Guennadi Mikhailov (Astana) bridged up to the escape, making it 34 riders, just before kilometre 55, and the main escape seemed to have formed for the day. While T-Mobile had a strong contigent up front, with Grabsch, Hammond and Klier, Gent-Wevelgem winner Marcus Burghardt had crashed.
As in the Ronde van Vlaanderen one week before, Lampre-Fondital had Enrico Franzoi in the escape, but by kilometre 85 the Italian squad had taken over the bulk of the work in the peloton. The gap was nearly 4'00" but the team worked to make sure its leader Ballan was safely in front for the cobbled sectors.
Up ahead, the cobbles were taking their toll on the lead group, and by sector 25, Saint-Python, the escape started to see some casualties of war; Luke Roberts, Fabien Bacquet, Andreas Klier and Nicolas Portal were shelled, and while Roberts and Bacquet joined forces in the chase, they continued to lose ground on the escape. The gap, at kilometre 132.5, was now at 4'30".
Klier was really struggling under the high speeds and hot French sun; he succumbed and was caught before the race entered sector 21, Quérénaing. The opposite was true for Ralf Grabsch. The German had worked his way off the front of the escape, powered through the four and five star Haveluy (19) and Tranchée d'Arenberg (18) sectors, and extended his lead to more than a minute.
Grabsch held his advantage through the infamous Arenberg Forest, but behind him, the race began to explode, and as Boonen led the chasing peloton over the sector, and the breakaway shattered. The torturous pavé ripped the back-end of the group while the favourites rode up front. Out of the sector, Boonen led a group that was downsized to near 25 riders, and only two and a half minutes behind the leaders. There with Boonen were such favourites as Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas), Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) and, after a flat change, Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC), as well as later winner Stuart O'Grady, who had punctured in the chase group, and got picked up by the Boonen group coming out of Arenberg.
Grabsch's escape ended in the Wallers sector, but the four star sector paved the way for David Kopp to make his move. He was joined by Kevin Van Impe and Olaf Pollack. The three leaders hit the Orchies section with one minute over an ever-changing chase group. By sector six (Cysoing), a group of eleven riders including Petito (Liquigas), Flecha (Rabobank), Michaelsen and Breschel (CSC), Leukemans (Predictor), Grabsch (Milram), Franzoi (Lampre) picked up Pollack, leaving only Van Impe and Kopp off the front.
As the gap from the Flecha group to the chasing bunch including Boonen and O'Grady fell to around one minute, sector seven proved to be the decisive moment with 34 kilometres to go. Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof) attacked his group as it was coming out of the section, and T-Mobile's Roger Hammond as well as Stuart O'Grady joined him, leaving Boonen behind to chase with Leif Hoste (Predictor), Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis) and Baldato (Lampre).
As O'Grady motored up to Flecha's group, Hammond could not hold on, and only O'Grady and Wesemann made it to the first chase as the two leaders, Kopp and Van Impe, were in the process of being reeled in. Wesemann then attacked, and O'Grady followed and then dropped the German, and with 23 kilometres to go, was on his own.
With two seriously difficult cobbled sectors, the Camphin-en-Pévèle (sector 5) and Carrefour de l'Arbre (4), O'Grady extended his lead first to 30 seconds, then to nearly one minute at the exit of the Carrefour sector, while behind the Flecha group, Boonen's group was trying to come to terms 40 seconds in arrears.
As O'Grady pushed on alone, the Flecha group was being whittled down, and the Rabobank rider had only Wesemann, Leukmans, and Petito while Franzoi and Hammond, who had been off the front all day, took up with Boonen, who had left his companions behind in solo pursuit of the front of the race.
On the section of Hem, at seven kilometres remaining, O'Grady was still pushing hard, and the man from Adelaide held on to his minute over the four behind. He covered the dry 1400 metres flawlessly and pushed for the final sector of Roubaix. He floated over the 300 metres and headed towards the mythical velodrome in Roubaix.
On the entrance he knew the victory was his and pumped his fist. Nearly a minute behind, came Flecha's group. The Spaniard attacked with a half lap to go of the one and half laps. He held off German Steffen Wesemann for second. Boonen's group of three nearly closed down the Flecha-four, but was unable to make contact, and Boonen took the scraps in sixth place.