Belgian pavé specialist Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) was inconsolable after crossing the finish line at the Roubaix velodrome in fourth place, 40 seconds behind Paris-Roubaix winner Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep) on Sunday.
It was Vanmarcke's third fourth-place finish at the race, and his fifth top-10 result at 'The Hell of the North'. A troubled build-up to the race didn't keep him from battling for the victory right up until the final major cobbled sector in Gruson, where a jammed rear derailleur effectively ended his Roubaix challenge.
With the pain of his injured knee – sustained in a crash at the E3 BinckBank Classic – in the back of his mind, along with those numerous past, close calls at Roubaix, Vanmarcke found it extremely hard to accept that a mechanical problem had kept him from sprinting for victory.
"It's just not meant to be for me. I would have been better off staying at home on my sofa. Then I wouldn't have been as disappointed as I am now," said Vanmarcke, shortly after crossing the finish line.
He burst into tears and kept crying for several minutes while leaning over a fence, before recovering and turning to the waiting media. Being heralded for a strong race was no consolation for him.
"It's true – I rode super well," said Vanmarcke. "But if you turn onto the Carrefour de l'Arbre and your gears are no longer working, forcing you to ride everything on the 11 [11-tooth sprocket], then it's painful when the others ride away. They would never have dropped me today."
The previous two weeks – the most important weeks of his season – ended up being a nightmare for Vanmarcke. The Belgian rider crashed hard at the E3, and his knee took a big blow. But hard work with physiotherapist Lieven Maesschalk seemed to pay off as he displayed a strong performance at last weekend's Tour of Flanders, where he rode strongly to finish 25th.
From there, the question was no longer if he'd be able to participate in Paris-Roubaix, but whether he'd recover enough to be in contention for the victory.
"I've been through hell and back the last few weeks – both emotionally and physically," he said. "Last week, I surprised myself at the Ronde. My hope grew, and this week I worked really hard to be ready. I knew that I still had a chance if I did everything perfectly. And everything went perfectly, and I felt super. I wasn't running out of gas like in previous years, and both tactically and physically I made no mistakes."
Vanmarcke managed to stay out of trouble throughout the race on Sunday, and then appeared at the front when it mattered. He was able to follow defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) when the Slovakian put the hammer down on the 2,700-metre-long pavé sector from Auchy to Bersée, 50km from the velodrome in Roubaix.
"Just before the most important sectors, my bike broke down on me and that destroyed my legs," Vanmarcke explained.
He was still in the lead group that came off the cobbles of the famous Carrefour de l'Arbre and hit the final major pavé sector in Gruson, 14km from the finish. That was the point where Vanmarcke had to let eventual winner Gilbert and runner-up Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) go.
"My rear derailleur got stuck on the 11. I was unable to shift, so I had to do everything on the 11. Of course, that completely killed me because I was doing only 40 or 50 revolutions [per minute, pedal rate]. I managed to hang on throughout the Carrefour. Then they accelerated, and there was no other option for me than to let them go, even though I had it in my legs," Vanmarcke said.
A few moments later, Vanmarcke was seen at the back of the chase group with Sagan and Belgian road race champion Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-QuickStep). Vanmarcke called for support, pointing to his rear wheel while riding a massive gear.
"It just destroys your legs. I had to wait until after the Hem pavé sector. I had to ride for 10 kilometres on my biggest gear. It just ruins your race," he said.
"After my bike switch, I kept going to get a 'place of honour'. But the only thing I had on my mind today, and what I had in my legs, was to sprint for the victory. I would've been close. It's very painful after these past few weeks."
When a Belgian journalist tried to be of some support by saying that he should be proud of his performance, Vanmarcke was again inconsolable, unable to see the positive side of his ride.
But with Sunday's Roubaix winner Gilbert striking gold at the age of 36, and Vanmarcke still being only 30, he’ll likely get a few more serious shots at Roubaix glory in the next few years.
For the time being, though, that remains no consolation to Vanmarcke.