106th Paris-Roubaix - 1.HC
France, April 13, 2008
2005 winner doubles in sprint with Cancellara and Ballan
2005 Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen blasted past his two escape companions – Swiss Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) and Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) – to claim the 'Queen of the Classics' for the second occasion in Northern France. The 27 year-old Belgian of Team Quick Step, winner of the 2005 World Championships, followed the impetus of Cancellara at 36 kilometres remaining and formed the winning move with Ballan.
The trio harmoniously worked towards the velodrome in Roubaix with a healthy advantage, where Boonen blasted from behind his companions on the final quarter lap. 2006 winner Cancellara finished second and Ballan third, while the chasing group was led home with a small advantage by Martyn Maaskant (Slipstream Chipotle - H30) over last year's winner Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC).
"I am extremely proud of what we achieved here today," noted Boonen after his win. "I have focused on today, Flanders and Roubaix. I didn't have the best legs of the leading group when I attacked.
"When I attacked I didn't feel like I was the strongest man of the three, but while we were getting closer to the finish that feeling tilted towards confidence, and in the end I wasn't at all scared to show up on the velodrome with these guys.
"They were dead tired," he added of his two companions. "Cancellara had cramps up until his ears, and Ballan was happy that he wasn't dropped on the Carrefour de l'Arbre. If you know that, you need to be a realist, you shouldn't be the smart-ass that attacks them."
The 106th edition started to take shape when Johan Van Summeren attacked from a large group of favourites that had formed earlier, following the Trouée d'Arenberg. The Belgian rider of Silence-Lotto accelerated in the Achy-Lèze-Archives, sector with 53 kilometres remaining, to pull out seven others, which included team-mate Leif Hoste, Boonen and Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Stijn Devolder (both Quick Step), Ballan, Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady (both Team CSC), and Maaskant.
The team tactics played out with the two super-teams, Quick Step and CSC. First, Quick Step's Devolder launched an attack at the beginning of the Moans-en-Eelke sector, with 48 kilometres to go. He was covered by O'Grady and eventually brought under control at the expense of Van Summeren for team captain Hoste.
Feeling ready to flex its muscle, CSC fired its heaviest missile, Cancellara. The winner of Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo accelerated away with only an attentive Boonen and Ballan for company. The winning move was formed and three key teams missed out: Silence-Lotto (Hoste lacked the strength to close the gap with Maaskant), Rabobank (Juan Antonio Flecha's day was ruined by bad luck and crashes) and High Road (strong early on and then it fell apart when team captain George Hincapie succumbed to mechanicals).
Pundits expected Cancellara to attack Boonen before the finale, however the 27 year-old waited out the key sectors of Cysoing and the Carrefour de l'Arbre. The same can be said for Ballan, but the 28 year-old looked to be suffering.
In fact, it was the Italian from Castelfranco Veneto, winner of the 2007 Ronde van Vlaanderen, who led the trio onto the velodrome for the lap and a half that conclude Paris-Roubaix. Ballan accelerated at 300 metres to go, but his speed seemed at a stand still compared to Boonen's blast 50 metres later. Cancellara barely made it past Ballan to finish second.
"If one of us would attack, the other one would chase him down," commented Cancellara on the rivalry between him and Boonen. "We were the two big favourites and the fact that we were there in the finale meant a lot to me. It proved that I was 100 percent, which I needed to be to be up there."
"I thought that it would be hard, because with two riders like that I knew it would be that way," Ballan noted, following his finish. "In the finale I was tired. With the first round of attacks I started to have cramps, so for this reason I am content to just finish on the podium."
After Devolder and Australian O'Grady duelled for fourth, Dutchman Maaskant took advantage of the infighting and was able to gain an advantage before the velodrome's entrance. He finished 18 seconds ahead of O'Grady, Hoste and Devolder, respectively.
"I think we did a fantastic race," O'Grady stated. "We took our responsibility in the race and did everything we could. I think we rode an almost perfect race. We were there for Fabian today, which is all that matters, he was the key."
On the multiple Devolder attacks, he added, "Devolder was strong, but obviously not as strong as the three guys in front of him [laughs - ed.]."
Just like Flecha and Hincapie, Italy's Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) suffered the fate of Paris-Roubaix's perils. Liquigas' team leader was involved in a crash with team-mate Manuel Quinziato before the guns were ready to fire in Paris-Roubaix's key Trouée d'Arenberg sector, kilometre 164.
"I did not see who caused the crash; maybe it was a High Road rider. It was stupid – I was up on the sidewalk," said Pozzato of the crash two kilometres before Arenberg. "I went sliding on the sidewalk in the middle of the group. I was able to come to a stop but there were others crashing from behind." He was forced to ride the Arenberg and other key sectors solo in his chase. "I did a few sectors, but I knew I would not be able to continue with the pain."
Although Pozzato and Flecha put in an amazing – and separate – chases to rejoin the favourites, they were both later gapped in the midst of the heavy artilleries. Both were able to finish their day in Hell.
How it unfolded
The start in Compiègne was taken on time at 10.55am, with 198 riders rolling out towards an unknown fate. Contrary to the forecasts, which predicted incessant rain throughout the course, the sky was pretty clear in the morning, even if the road was wet from some overnight drizzle.
Mathieu Ladagnous (Française des Jeux), racing his first Paris-Roubaix, boldly attacked at kilometre 10.5, but reintegrated into the bunch nine clicks later. A few other escape attempts were made\notably at kilometre 45 from Andreas Klier (High Road), Christophe Mengin (FDJ) and Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner) – but never worked out, until Matthé Pronk (Cycle Collstrop), Jan Kuyckx (Landbouwkrediet) and Alexander Serov (Tinkoff) left the bunch behind at kilometre 87.
This trio was to be the "break of the day", as the riders, all from invited Pro Continental teams, collaborated well and the big ProTour squads behind were not worried about reeling them back in later.
Pieter Ghyllebert (Topsport Vlaanderen) decided to try to join them, but the lead of the break was already up to 1'40 over the peloton and to one minute over the lone chaser by kilometre 92. After sector 24 (Vertain), 30 kilometres later, the leaders had a maximum advantage of five minutes over the field, and Ghyllebert was back safely inside the bunch.
But the first pavé sectors took their toll on the peloton. Approaching the Arenberg sector, the field was already down to about 60 riders. The breakaway still hovered in front, but the race moved into a decisive phase and the pace increased. In the Haveluy section, the last one before the famous Arenberg forest, Team CSC took command.
The dreaded sector 18 held all its promises. Approaching the cobbles, under the tremendous pace set on by CSC, a crash involved Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), both in contention for the event. The two entered the sector way behind the other favourites, and embarked on a terrible journey to try to make it back to the front.
The main field split on the Arenberg pavés, with the main contenders coming out of it in a group of 28 riders. Quick Step was well represented with Tom Boonen and Belgian champion Stijn Devolder, Team CSC had Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady in it; there was Alessandro Ballan of Lampre, George Hincapie (High Road) and Steffen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop).
The full list of riders in that group was: O'Grady, Breschel, Cancellara, Johansen, Ljungqvist (CSC), Langeveld (Rabobank), Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop), De Vocht, Van Avermaet, Van Summeren (Silence-Lotto), Fischer (Liquigas), Boonen, De Jongh, Devolder, Hulsmans, Weylandt (Quick Step), Hincapie, Eisel, Hammond (High Road), Ballan (Lampre), Krauss (Gerolsteiner), Grabsch (Milram), Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Mengin (FDJ), Clerc, Martias (Bouygues), Cooke (Barloworld) and Maaskant (Slipstream).
Meanwhile, the breakaway's advantage had melted to 1'30, with Pozzato and Flecha in a chase group, about one minute behind the main bunch.
But the lead group fell apart before it was caught. With 77 kilometres to go, Serov was out of strength, while Kuyckx flatted. With 72 kilometres to go, the last man standing, Pronk, was passed by the main bunch under the command of Quick Step.
Behind, Flecha managed to slowly but steadily come back to the group of favourites, while the injured Pozzato had more trouble but also re-joined by sector 13 (Beuvry-la-Forêt, 65 kilometres to go).
Teams CSC and Quick Step took turns in putting the hammer down during the next few kilometres and cobble sections, as well as High Road with Bernhard Eisel. The acceleration of the Austrian made the bunch split up, and American Hincapie found himself chasing behind.
Sector 11, Auchy-lez-Orchies, also played a key role in the unfolding of the race. Silence-Lotto's Johan Van Summeren accelerated as the bunch hit the cobbles. He had about 75 metres when some of the big time favourites reacted: Boonen, Devolder, Cancellara, O'Grady, Ballan and Hoste followed the Belgian's move, as well as a young Dutch talent, Martyn Maaskant of the Slipstream-Chipotle team.
A few kilometres later, it became apparent that George Hincapie had lost contact to the bunch, as he was already 38 seconds behind.
With 50 kilometres yet to race to the velodrome, the front group consisted of eight riders: Stijn Devolder and Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Martyn Maaskant (Slipstream Chipotle), Johan Van Summeren and Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto).
A chase group of about 22 riders, including Flecha, Pozzato and Wesemann, slowly but steadily lost ground to the front.
With Quick Step disposing of two pawns in the play, DS Wilfried Peeters decided to send Tour of Flanders winner Devolder up the road on the next pavé section (#10, Mons-en-Pévèle). But team tactics at CSC were no less cunning, and saw last year's winner O'Grady join the Belgian with 42 kilometres to go. The duo had an 18 second-advantage over the other six by sector eight.
But Lotto's Van Summeren worked hard to bring them back for his leader Hoste, and paid for his efforts afterwards. Hoste had no more team-mate with him, as the leaders hit sector 7, where Ballan, Cancellara and Boonen made their decisive move.
With 33 kilometres to go, the three leaders had eight seconds over their four chasers, Devolder, O'Grady, Maaskant and Hoste. And this gap did not cease to increase under the hard pace put on by the exceptional motors of Ballan, Boonen and Cancellara.
The three stayed together until the very end, even if 'Spartacus' Cancellara attacked at the Carrefour de l'Arbre – he couldn't shake the other two.
Ballan led the trio into the velodrome, but the Italian's forces as well as his natural dispositions could not prevent the super-strong Boonen to pass him easily inside the last curve. The Belgian won 30 metres in front of Cancellara, who managed to pass Ballan within the last metres to the line. Dutch prodigy Maaskant finished an outstanding fourth.