It's been two years since Orica GreenEdge's Mitch Docker was at Paris-Roubaix. The 2012 edition passed by in a bit of a blur and so battle ready, the 26-year-old is excited to be making a return to the race known as The Hell of the North.
Paris-Roubaix stands apart from the Flemish Classics, for Docker at least. It's a race that tapped into his conscious as his interest in cycling was beginning to grow and then, the first time he rode the cobbles that seem to take on anthropomorphic qualities in 2009 riding for Skil-Shimano, he had an inkling that while sapping every inch of his energy, this classic could give something back.
"The first year that I did it - it was a really hard race, don't get me wrong - but I just felt like I could do something," Docker told Cyclingnews. "I didn't finish that first year but I felt like I could handle the cobbles a bit better than a lot of the other races that I'd done."
The following year Docker made the large breakaway of 19 riders which escaped the peloton, only to be dropped at Arenberg, the 2.4km stretch of cobbles which now stands as his own personal line in the sand. In 2011, his final season with Skil-Shimano, Docker made his own mark on Roubaix, finishing an impressive 15th in the sprint for seventh, having once again featured in the break of the day.
Docker's first season with Orica GreenEdge didn't exactly go to plan, with a crash in a January training camp leaving him with a fractured cheekbone, a screw in his wrist and a serious concussion. It ruled him out of the classics where not only would he have been backing up his performance at Roubaix, but also his sixth placing at Gent-Wevelgem. Still yet to race in 2012, watching Roubaix with an old friend from school last year, Docker took the opportunity to enjoy "a couple of beers and it was literally only a couple of beers," his first since the accident.
"I didn't realise that it would have such a massive affect on me," Docker explained, not having taken into account the residual effects of his head injury. "The next day I got up in the morning and I was like 'shit'. I really couldn't remember anything. It was a bit of a scary thought. I watched the race again and I was like, 'that's right, Boonen won.' It was pretty weird."
Missing out on Roubaix last year only adds to Docker's hunger to tackle the 254km epic. It's a race that no matter what, even if he was at the very back of the race, he'd fight his way through until he made it into the famed velodrome, just to finish. Because, you don't go into battle to give in. There is just something about Roubaix, he says. This time around, his fourth attempt, will be different however, unlikely to have the freedom he revelled in when he rode Roubaix with his former Dutch team. This time, Docker expects to have to save his energy for the back half of the race, after the Trouée d'Arenberg, sector 18.
"Compared to when I was in Skil-Shimano it's a little bit of a different idea," he explained. "Trying to use the best of my abilities for the team was a matter of get up the road and hang on as much as you can. Now it's the opposite."
Though Docker expects to be riding in support of Sebastian Langeveld, he also said that the team has options in 2007 winner, Stuart O'Grady - "he's in phenomenal form," - as well as Baden Cooke who put in a strong performance at Flanders last Sunday. He may not have the freedom this time around, but Docker is enjoying the change, despite the fact that it's a tougher role to play.
"If they said 'stay with Sebastian the whole day' I'd love to be there with him in the final sectors supporting him as far as I can," Docker said. "That would be a real success for me to know that I wasn't just in the breakaway and just waiting for the riders to come, I actually was with the peloton and I moved with the big riders when they moved - that's a big step up from my ride with Skil. Not to say that those rides weren't also good, it worked for me at the time, but it will be a different tactic. Try and follow the big guys on Arenberg or something like that."