Tag Archives: Pro cycling

KING OF THE COBBLES

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A day later I am still impressed by the display of physical and mental toughness that Tom Boonen treated us to at Paris-Roubaix.

Going into the race as the clear favourite we knew we’d see the Belgian make a bid for victory but never imagined the winning move would be made alone, nearly 60km from the finish.

Boonen’s form was widely recognized. Seven days earlier he won a 3-up sprint to take the Tour of Flanders and earlier in the month won the sprint to take E3 Harelbeke. A cobbled triple was forseeable but nobody knew just how perfectly Boonen has timed his form on Easter morning when the peleton rolled out of Compiegne.

Up until the start Boonen had made no secret of his confidence and even sounded like he was talking smack. Come the cobbled sector at Orchies, Tornado Tom let his legs do the talking.

Paris-Roubaix 2012 started out in typical fashion with the early “suicide break” forming at 70km. The group of twelve didn’t contain any true contenders but Canada’s David Veilleux (Europcar) was riding strong at the front so as a Canadian, I had something to keep me interested until the real racing began.

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As always the Arenberg Trench played it’s role in the race and the early break of 12 was whittled down when a particularly nasty crash sent riders to the ground and one to hospital.

A minute and a half or so after the breakaway left Arenberg, Boonen first displayed the form he’d brought to Paris-Roubaix by leading the peleton through the forest with an incredible head of steam. It was in the Arenberg that Boonen asserted himself as the strongman in the peleton and that if you were going to beat him on the day you’d better start attacking.

So they did. Soon after exiting the trench a 6 man group that included Ballan, Flecha and a very scrappy Turgot who would be attacking until the final meters on the day. Boonen’s Omega-Pharma Quikstep team chased down the break and countered with French national Champion Sylvain Chavanel taking along Turbot (again) in an ill fated attempt cursed with mechanicals and a lack of converted effort.

After the race Boonen had expressed frustration noting that nobody really wanted to work so at Orchies and with team mate Nicki Terpstra to help, Boonen decided to make his move with nearly 60km to go to the Roubaix velodrome.

Flecha and Ballan didn’t take up the chase because well, who attacks with 60km to go when there are still horrible sectors of cobbles like Carrefour de lArbre to traverse?

Boonen gave his answer as soon as he attacked. Terpstra, riding with Boonen to help him grow a gap before letting him loose couldn’t hold Tornado Tom’s wheel less than 2kms into their attack so exiting Orchies it was going to have to be all Boonen.

Following the race live in several languages and on Twitter as well I heard professional cycling commentators and weekend warrior cyclists alike cast doubt on this bold move. “Too soon” they all said and I have to admit, I thought 60km alone was a long way to go.

The next 60km was an incredible display of physical and mental stamina. Boonen chraged across each sector of cobbles with a face as hardened as the granite he rode across. Boonen’s stone faced expression did give away how suffering an escape like this causing. We knew this was a supreme effort but Boonen’s expression did not change until he rode into Roubaix knowing he’d conquered the cobbles and tied fellow Belgian Roger DeVlamminck as the only person to win Paris-Roubaix 4 times.

How strong was Boonen on the cobbles? At each sector of the stones and despite a concerted effort by Team Sky to reel him in, he would gain 5 to 10 seconds on his chasers every time he crossed the pave. At 20km to go with a gap of a minute it started to become apparent. If Tom Boonen did not meet the Man with the Hammer, this bold move was going to pay off.

The chasers never really organised and Boonen continued his march toward Roubaix and history. Finally after crossing the 2km to go banner Boonen turned to the moto camera, cracked a smile and pointed at the lens, later waving 4 fingers at the camera to acknowledge that he was about to win the Queen of the Classics for a record tieing 4th time.

His solo victory yesterday was one for the record books and one for the history of the race. It takes a hard man to win alone from so far out and Boonen left no doubt who the hard man of the day was. It was a simply awe-inspiring performance.

After the race Boonen commented that he may be perhaps the best ever on the cobbles. I’m sure some former Belgian champions may have something to say about that but he has rebounded from a nightmare 2011 season to take the cobbled triple and enter into the Paris Roubaix record books.

And guess what? I think he may have one more Paris-Roubaix victory in him before he retires.

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CHRISTMAS EVE FOR CYCLISTS

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Theo de Rooy: “It’s a bollocks this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping, it’s a piece of shit…”

John Tesh: “Will you ever ride it again?”

de Rooy, not hesitating for a second: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”

That quote, from Dutchman Theo de Roy after abandoning the 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix was the moment I fell in love with “the Hell of the North”.

That year’s race was a particularly tough edition. The cold, the wind, the rain and the mud took it’s toll on the field and de Rooy in particular. Seeing a physically and morally devastated Theo de Rooy at once both curse the race and profess his admiration for it hooked me.

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And so, every year since that myself and who knows how many other cyclists watch the calendar and the weather forecast with anticipation as each edition of Paris-Roubaix approaches.

This being the day before the Queen of the Classics, can be thought of as Christmas Eve for cyclists. Except we won’t wake up to see presents wrapped in shiny paper. Our presents will be wrapped in mud, dust and cobblestones.

Paris-Roubaix is a race from another time. Would a race organiser pitch the idea of a 256km race that included over 50km of sectors traversing cobblestone paths built to carry Napoleon’s army I think they’d be told that they are out of their minds.

Yet Paris-Roubaix stands to this day and invites the hardmen of the peleton to try their luck on her harsh roads. What makes Paris-Roubaix a unique spectacle is that despite the advancements in traning and technology since it’s inception in 1897 one thing has remained constant. The men will do battle over the same roads that have challenged their predecessors for over a hundred years. The riders get faster, the bikes get better and the stones have stayed the same.

It used to be said that a cyclist cannot lay claim to greatness without winning Paris-Roubaix. That was in a time when cyclists raced everything. Grand Tour winners would try their luck at Paris Roubaix. Eddy Merckx won on the cobbles as well as in le Tour. Today cyclists have branched out into specialties and you wouldn’t see a Grand Tour contender like Andy Schleck try his luck on this dastardly course. So a special breed comes to this race ready to suffer and battle.

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This year’s race is going to be an interesting one. With Fabian Cancellara out with the broken collarbone he suffered in the Tour of Flanders the race is going to be a bit more open but no less difficult.

Tom Boonen has been looking both strong and confident in the days leading up to Paris-Roubaix. Winning last week at the Tour of Flanders he may be on form to tie fellow Belgian Roger de Vlamminck into the record books with a 4th win at Paris-Roubaix and he has a tide of Belgian support.

Boonen may be the marked man on the day and his victory isn’t guaranteed. He’s had bad luck on the cobbles in previous editions. Italy’s Phillipo Pozzato is looking particularly strong as is Spaniard Juan Antonia Flecha. I’m expecting tomorrow’s race to be one for the ages.

With showers in the forecast for northern France, the cobbles may play an even larger role than in previous dust filled years. The rain brings the mud and manure up from between the cobblestones raising the risk of the brutal crashes that have made this race so famous.

Back in the 1980’s I remember waiting for weeks for CBS sports to bring a packaged report on the race. Those early programs introduced us to Phil Liggett (yay) and John Tesh and his cheesy synthesisor music (boo) and reporting on cycling has changed vastly since then.

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Now with the rise of the internet there’s no more waiting and we can watch live from France as the race unfolds. I suggest the excellent http://www.cyclingfans.com for the latest on links to live streams in several languages. Following the conversation on Twitter allows us to share the experience with like minded cyclists across the globe (we’re not alone in our oddball passion).

Enjoy!

 

 
 
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