Alessandro Ballan (BMC) insisted that he had few regrets after finishing third in a Monument for the second Sunday in succession as Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) soloed to a comprehensive victory at Paris-Roubaix.
Boonen's record-equalling win ultimately descended into something of a protracted procession over the pavé, but as is so often the case at the business end of the Classics, his triumph had its genesis in a split-second of indecision in the leading group. Shortly after rattling across the cobbles at Orchies, Boonen and his teammate Niki Terpstra opened a small gap at the head of the race, and behind Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) and Ballan failed to agree on whose responsibility it was to chase.
Pozzato had already looked assured in following Boonen when he had initially begun his forcing on the pavé, but he turned and looked for help when Boonen jumped a second time in the company of Terpstra. Ballan, just back with the leaders after a frantic lone chase, shook his head and with that Boonen was gone, not to be seen until he was home, hosed and mounting the podium in the centre of the famous old velodrome in Roubaix.
"When Boonen attacked, I had already had to work a lot to get back up to him and Pozzato. When I got up there, Pippo asked me to do a turn, but I was really dead and in any case we had Hushovd behind," Ballan said afterwards.
With so much at stake in modern cycling, teams are rarely inclined to allow their leaders to make their own decisions, not least amid the tumult and chaos of the cobbled Classics, and Ballan's radio earpiece was already crackling into life with instructions that he should not commit to the pursuit of Boonen.
"Over the radio they told me not to pull and that gap opened and Boonen went," Ballan said. "To be honest, I thought that with so many kilometres to go to the finish he wouldn't be able to do it, but instead he showed he was in great shape."
All races form a narrative of sorts, but with the final chapter of this one written so far from the finish, it would be tempting to try and enliven the story of the 2012 Paris-Roubaix with a liberal sprinkling of Italian polemica. Ballan refused to play along, however, and noted plainly that Boonen had the upper hand regardless of the circumstances.
"Certainly if [Pozzato] hadn't left that gap, Boonen wouldn't have gone, but on the other hand, Tom did more than 60km in front alone with a lot of wind. He showed that he had great condition and I think he would have won Roubaix in any case," Ballan said.
With a plethora of favourites, albeit minus the fallen Pozzato, regrouping behind, it scarcely seemed credible that the lone Boonen would be able to resist all the way to the finish. But remarkably, even with four Sky riders leading the pursuit, the Belgian continued to extend his advantage at a metronomic rhythm. Ballan attempted to find an explanation for that other-worldly display in the pursuers' lack of cohesion.
"I thought Sky would be able to pull him back, but they only made one rider pull at a time and they were dropped all the same," Ballan said. "Rabobank had two riders up there who were on the wheels. I was alone in the group, so I couldn't do much."
Ballan's reluctance to commit to the chase was perhaps linked to his earlier attack shortly after suffering mechanical problems at the Forest of Arenberg. Coming through the cobbles at Millonfosse-Bousignies with 76km to go, Ballan and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) sparked a six-man move that opened out a 25-second gap, but they were quickly brought to heel with one long pull from Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
"Maybe I jumped too soon afterwards when I went with Flecha but I found myself up there and I collaborated," Ballan said. "I had a problem with my rear mech before that, just before the Forest of Arenberg. I was thinking of changing my bike but it really wasn't the right time as we were only five kilometres from Arenberg. I fixed the bike, I think it was that a stone had lodged in the chain and I was able to get back up to the front."
In the finale, Ballan sparked into life with 24km to go, and eventually took third place behind Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) in the sprint the velodrome. It was Ballan's second podium finish of a Classics campaign again played out in the shadow of his implication in the Mantova-based doping investigation, which edges towards resolution at a glacial pace, with the preliminary hearing set for July 13.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.