Talking points: Paris-Roubaix

Fabian Cancellara on the podium after winning the 2013 Paris Roubaix

Fabian Cancellara on the podium after winning the 2013 Paris Roubaix

Cancellara, Omega, Vanmarcke, Sky and Van Avermaet

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Words by Edward Pickering

Monday April 8, 2013

He didn’t match Tom Boonen’s unique Spring quartet of wins from 2012, but three out of four (E3, Flanders, Roubaix), plus third in Milan-San Remo, is a superb string of results for Fabian Cancellara.

After Milan-San Remo, I thought three things: that Cancellara’s team was weak, that his powers were waning, and that he didn’t have the tactical wherewithall to compensate. In fact, his team rode superbly at Flanders and Roubaix, his powers seem not to be waning after all, and when he’s not at full strength, he has the tactical wherewithal to compensate.

Cancellara wasn’t at 100 per cent yesterday. At 100 per cent, he can ride away from everybody in races like Paris-Roubaix, as he did in 2010. But he altered his tactics, and seemed prepared to lose in order to win. And any thoughts I had that he was a one-trick pony were forgotten when he manoeuvred Sep Vanmarcke to the front in the Roubaix velodrome. The only difference between the two riders in the final sprint was positioning, timing and a hefty dose of willpower.

It’s clear Cancellara’s time at the top is running out. But he’s not going to give up his position without a huge fight.

With their leader, the defending Paris-Roubaix champion Tom Boonen, out of the race, it would have been easy for Omega Pharma to sulk.

Instead, they were the most aggressive and positive team in the race, with meaningful representation in the front group right up until Zdenek Stybar’s unfortunate crash at Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Gert Steegmans and Sep Van Marcke in Paris-Roubaix

Gert Steegmans and Sep Van Marcke in Paris-Roubaix

They put Gert Steegmans into the early break, saving them from having to contribute to the chase.

An indication that they were thinking as a team was that when the Steegmans group was about to be caught, with just under 50 kilometres to go, Niki Terpstra attacked, bridged to the group, and Steegmans put in one last, huge turn, to give Terpstra some breathing space.

When the crucial moves started going, from that point on, Omega had numbers up the road at all times. In the final selection of 13, three were Omega riders – Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra.

Vandenbergh made the split of four which went away with 40 kilometres to go. Then he attacked again, with Vanmarcke, just as Cancellara bridged from behind.

And when Cancellara went for it with 24 kilometres to go, only Stybar could follow. There were four at the front, and two were Omega riders. It was superbly engineered.

Both Vandenbergh and Stybar were unlucky to crash in Carrefour de l’Arbre, both clipping spectators at the edge of the road, but Terpstra rescued their race with a fine sprint for third.

Imagine what they could have done if an on-form Boonen had been there.

It’s a golden era for Classics riders. The current peloton boasts two of the all-time greats, Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, who’ve won five Tours of Flanders, and seven Paris-Roubaix between them.

It’s all the more surprising, then, that we’ve rarely seen them go head to head with both in top form. In 2008, Boonen outsprinted Cancellara in the Roubaix velodrome, and two years later we were treated to the sight of both riders hammering away from the rest of the Tour of Flanders from a long way out, in a classic head to head which reached its denouement when the Swiss champion rode away from the Belgian champion on the Muur.

But when Boonen dominated last year, Cancellara was crocked. And during Cancellara’s dominance this year, Boonen’s been crocked.

It would be nice to see one last head to head with both riders at full strength in 2014.

Sep Vanmarcke didn’t put a foot wrong yesterday. When the crucial moves started going with 50 kilometres to go, he was involved in every single one, riding the most aggressive race of all the top finishers.

Just out of Sector 11, where Cancellara’s initial acceleration had put all but 30 riders out of contention, Vanmarcke attacked, drawing half a dozen riders clear, just behind the leading quartet of Schar, Hayman, Steegmans and Gaudin.

Vanmarcke was in the group of six who emerged from Sector 10, Mons-en-Pevêle, at the front, along with Vandenbergh, Terpstra, Cancellara, Van Avermaet and Langeveld. When these riders were joined by seven more, the crucial selection of 13 had been made (down to 12 when Turgot punctured soon afterwards).

Vanmarcke attacked again with 40 kilometres to go, pulling Vandenbergh, Gaudin and Langeveld clear, leaving four at the front, four at the back (including Cancellara, who was bluffing) and four in between. When the first two groups merged, and Cancellara chased from behind, Vanmarcke followed an attack by Vandenbergh, putting them clear before the Swiss rider joined.

The Blanco rider had repeatedly put himself right at the front of the race, and while those behind waited for Cancellara’s inevitable final acceleration, he’d ensured his place on the podium. That Cancellara was unable to drop him in the final 15 kilometres was a mark of how strongly and aggressively Vanmarcke was riding.

The first I knew about Sep Vanmarcke was when I was at the 2010 Ghent-Wevelgem, the first to be held on a new, tweaked route incorporating a loop of steep, short hills in the middle of the race. The 21-year-old, then riding for Topsport Vlaanderen, rode out of his skin in an anarchic, uncontrolled race. A 14-rider break had forced itself clear, and each time it split, Vanmarcke seemed to be there. With six riders left in contention into the final few kilometres, he not only attacked, but was still able to sprint once he was brought back. He was a narrow second behind Bernhard Eisel.

Let’s not forget that he won a superb Het Nieuwsblad last year, when he found himself in a group of five with Tom Boonen and Dries Devenyns (both Omega) and Juan Antonio Flecha and Mat Hayman (both Sky). Outnumbered, he attacked and got rid of Hayman and Devenyns. That still made him the second favourite, but he outsprinted Boonen at the finish.

Vanmarcke is still only 24, he has the resilience and power to ride the cobbles, but crucially he’s also an aggressive and intelligent racer.

Bernie Eisel in action during the 2013 Paris Roubaix

Bernie Eisel in action during the 2013 Paris Roubaix

With the cobbled classics now done, it’s possible to assess the success of Sky’s innovative preparation plan.

The Sky management team looked at the success they’d found in the Grand Tours, which was largely down to the training methods physiologist Tim Kerrison had designed for Bradley Wiggins (and partly down to having a very very strong team of domestiques), and wondered if it could be converted to the flat Classics.

The logic runs that racing isn’t necessarily the best preparation for racing. It’s too random. Riders can have more control over their physical preparation with tailored sessions. That’s why Bradley Wiggins raced so seldom in 2012 – when he did, there was a reason for it, but the real hard work was done in training.

Sky theorised that Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico were too unpredictable in their demands, and that the cobbled Classics team would get better quality training at altitude in Tenerife.

It hasn’t worked. Grand Tours are far more logical in their demands than the cobbled Classics, and while Bradley Wiggins’ ability to ride at threshold was an important asset in the Tour de France, there was far less in the way of tactics getting in the way of him doing so. Riding Classics involves a physical effort, but tactics and positioning are so important.

The best way of training for tactics and positioning is racing.

It will be interesting to see what Sky’s reaction will be. It’s possible that their riders were in superb physical shape, but just had bad luck and chose poor tactics, at crucial moments. In which case they’ll tweak their preparation next year. But the riders simply haven’t looked sharp. If they’re physically flat, they’ll have to go back to the drawing board.

Yesterday, they were in a similar position to Omega Pharma. No outright leader, but a strong team on paper. Why were Omega Pharma able to dictate the race, while Sky only put one man in the crucial split of 13?

Sky are the best stage racing team in the world. But they have a long way to go to match that in the Classics.

Greg Van Avermaet, Paris-Roubaix 2013

Greg Van Avermaet, Paris-Roubaix 2013

Greg Van Avermaet’s a good rider. He’s not an outright team leader at BMC, but he’s the kind of rider, like Niki Terpstra at Omega, who’s capable of launching attacks in the final 30 kilometres of Classics, or infiltrating early breaks and not being quite dangerous enough to chase down, but good enough to stay the distance.

He won the 2011 Paris-Tours by getting into a large split of riders midway through the race, and being the strongest sprinter left at the end.

But he’s stepped up this year, even though he’s not got an individual win yet. He was fifth in Het Nieuwsblad, third in Ghent-Wevelgem, seventh in the Tour of Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix.

He’s not bad in the hilly Classics either – he was seventh in Liège in 2011. It won’t be long before these placings are converted into a big win.

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