The Carrefour de l'Arbre is a Paris-Roubaix stretch of pavé where dreams can turn into reality or nightmares. Despite going into it with two of the four men in the final key breakaway, the Omega Pharma - Quick-Step team emerged devastated at the end of the 2,100m cobbled section.
Stijn Vandenbergh was suddenly knocked off his bike upon colliding with a spectator and soon after, Zdenek Stybar came unbalanced after his own encounter with a spectator. Of the remaining two breakaway riders, Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack Leopard) went on to beat Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) in the sprint.
After crossing the finish line as the last man of a group that sprinted for eighth place on the velodrome, Vandenbergh was unable to say a word for a long time. With a wound on his left elbow and hip and blood spattered on his left leg, he processed the difficult reality of what had happened.
"I know that I can win this race one day," said Vandenbergh. "Today I had a really good chance for the win or a podium result at least. Cancellara was the strongest man out there. It's sad that I missed out on a podium result because of the crash. I'm really disappointed."
As soon as the peloton hit the first pavé sectors, Vandenbergh was spotted up front. The Belgian also led the peloton into the much-feared Trouée d'Arenberg. Then, his teammate Gert Steegmans put in a strong effort to feature in a breakaway for about 75km.
"The team rode a perfect race. We were always present up front, also with Gert Steegmans," said Vandenbergh. "We had the upper hand in the final and that was ideal."
At 50km from the finish, Vandenbergh surged forward on the cobbles of Mons-en-Pévèle and created the decisive 13-man breakaway group that would battle for the win. Twenty kilometres later, he anticipated the return to the front of eventual winner Cancellara by going on the attack with Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco).
There were only 30km left to race, and Vandenbergh was in control of affairs. It seemed like the giant Belgian rider was not feeling the cobbles on Sunday. "In Roubaix, it's the easiest to ride in front of the race. I mostly rode in front of the group on the cobbles to be safe," Vandenbergh said. "Being on the road with Sep Vanmarcke was ideal. I started thinking about the podium because I felt that I was the strongest man; I felt super strong."
Only Cancellara and teammate Stybar were able to bridge back up to the Belgian duo of Vandenbergh and Vanmarcke, and a little later, the four riders hit the cobbles of the Carrefour de l'Arbre, where things turned awkward for the Omega Pharma-Quickstep riders. Vandenbergh describes what happened and how his race ended.
"With the two of us there, many things were possible. About the outcome... for me personally, I'm really disappointed. I rode at the side of the road and hit a spectator. It was both my mistake as it was that of the spectator; he probably didn't see me coming."
"If I would've simply followed the others on the cobbles in the middle of the road, then it would not have happened. I was in a lot of pain when I was on the ground. It took a long time to recover. Once I got back on my bike, it was hard. I just started crying. It was mentally too hard to refocus on getting a good result. I couldn't be bothered."
The 28-year-old Belgian is enjoying splendid form so far this season despite a short build-up due to an injury. It didn't keep him from battling for the win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and riding in the front of the race in several other Flemish Classics. Though it was the last thing on his mind, Vandenbergh realized he was doing well.
"I'm pleased with my spring season. This race suits me very well, so it's a pity to see how things turned out but that's probably part of it. I'm still only 28 years old, so I'll probably get some more chances to win this race in the future."
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