Van Summeren time: Paris-Roubaix analysis

For a whole year, the cycling world has agreed that stopping Fabian Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix would involve ganging up on him. Yesterday, Garmin did just that.

Words by Lionel Birnie

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A week is a long time in politics, so the cliché goes, but it can feel even longer in cycling. There’s time to sink to the bottom, get tangled in the weeds and brush against all manner of unpleasant things, before rising to the top, bursting through the water and taking a long, sweet lungful of fresh air.

That’s something like the journey Garmin-Cervélo, and Jonathan Vaughters in particular, have been on over the past eight days.

Last Sunday, they were being roundly criticised for a public moment of pragmatism that jarred against the backdrop of anarchy, aggression and risk-taking that was the Tour of Flanders. Vaughters told his two riders, Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd, not to chase Fabian Cancellara but to sit in and wait for a sprint that might have been for first place but might equally have been for fifth or sixth. It was perceived by many as being the sort of anti-racing that does not deserve to be rewarded.

This Sunday, Garmin were being lauded to the heavens for playing their cards so methodically and so smartly that they managed to bring Cancellara almost to a halt with frustration. And yet their tactical plan was not very different. Faced with the Cancellara conundrum, a problem that requires constant and overwhelming attention, Garmin played to their strengths. And it paid off.

As a demonstration of teamwork and commitment to a cause goes, it was exemplary. There was not a critical phase of the race that Garmin did not have a hand in. Although there is an unspoken expectation that the greatest monuments in cycling’s one-day calendar should be fought out between the biggest champions, the showdown never materialised.

That did not make it any poorer as a spectacle, far from it. But for all that Paris-Roubaix was a tension-filled race, it was not a vintage edition. It failed to truly ignite in the same way the Tour of Flanders did. If anyone is responsible for that, it is Cancellara, and it cannot be considered his fault that he was so strong. But had it been him rather than Tom Boonen left stranded for two minutes with a bike busted by the cobbles at Arenberg, the end of the race would certainly have played out differently.

Cancellara’s totemic stature casts long shadows and infects the thinking of every rider, regardless of his ambitions. It was down to Garmin to keep Cancellara straitjacketed to brilliant effect allowing Johan Van Summeren to seize his chance. And didn’t he seize it well, riding, as L’Equipe put it on their front page on Monday morning, like one of the greats [‘Comme un grand’].

Yet there is a nagging doubt that should restrain us from hailing the 2011 Paris-Roubaix as one for the hall of fame. It is worth bearing in mind that Garmin’s tactical plan looked perfectly-executed because their rider won. All tactical decisions look brilliant when the outcome goes your way. It could have been so different. Had it been a Rabobank, HTC or Radioshack rider who crossed the line in the velodrome first, Vaughters would have been murdered in the press. It was brave of the team to risk possible vitriol, but still stick to their plan.

However, the sight of Hushovd, the world champion, sticking resolutely to Cancellara’s wheel, then conferring with his team car when the Leopard-Trek rider refused to continue towing him and Alessandro Ballan along, was hardly the stuff of Paris-Roubaix legend. It’s not often we are privileged to see the world champion’s jersey contesting Paris-Roubaix – it seemed a shame that Hushovd’s only responsibility was following Cancellara.

After all, it’s not that long ago we mocked Filippo Pozzato for following Boonen so obsessively that we wondered whether they ended up in the same cubicle at Roubaix’s stone showers.

Of course Garmin did the right thing. They won the race. But it doesn’t alter the fact that one man’s devoted teammate is another man’s stooge.

That is not to take anything away from Van Summeren. He rode outstandingly, completing the final five kilometres on a rapidly-emptying tyre but knowing he didn’t have time to change his wheel. You can only imagine the thoughts that must have been going through his head. So close to a life-changing victory and yet aware that it could be whipped away from under his nose at any moment. That he had the presence of mind to propose to his girlfriend, Justine, straight after the finish gave the event a fairytale ending the contest was perhaps lacking. He posed the question not with a diamond engagement ring but with a cobblestone for the mantelpiece. Smart lad. There’s no doubting his charm as a person, but how could anyone have said no after witnessing that?

Van Summeren was no plucky underdog. Had he been riding for any one of the other teams, bar Leopard, Quick Step, BMC and perhaps Sky or Katusha, he’d have been an outright team leader. He came fifth in 2009, and that was while riding as a domestique for Leif Hoste at Silence-Lotto.

All three of the monuments so far this season have been enthralling races. All three have been dominated, in one way or another, by Cancellara. And all three have fallen to riders who might only have figured on the periphery were it not for the Swiss rider and his rivals’ preoccupation with his strength. Matt Goss of HTC-Highroad won Milan-San Remo, Cancellara was second. Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens took Flanders, Cancellara was third. And Garmin’s Van Summeren triumphed in the Roubaix velodrome, with Cancellara launching a late attack to clinch second. Three podiums in three monuments. What, for any other rider in the world might be seen as a performance of incredible consistency, is seen as Cancellara’s failure.

A bright, warm day meant that Paris-Roubaix would throw up great dust clouds, as if we were watching chariots racing through the desert. After about 100 kilometres, with the first section of cobblestones, Troisvilles, looming, a break went clear. This was to be the advance party that would shape the race. The riders were David Boucher (Omega Pharma), Martin Elmiger (AG2R), Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun), David Veilleux (Europcar), Timon Seubert (Netapp), Nelson Oliveira (Radioshack) and Mitchell Docker (Skil-Shimano), who spent time in a break at the Tour of Flanders too.

Oliveira was dropped before three riders – Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma), Koen De Kort (Skil) and Gorazd Stangelj (Astana) – bridged across the gap. The lead reached around two minutes as they headed towards the first couple of serious sections of pavé, Haveluy and the Trouée d’Arenberg.

Somewhere between the two sections, George Hincapie of BMC had a problem with his rear wheel and had to stop, putting him out of position. Then, as the peloton parted like Red Sea to go round a long traffic island, Roger Hammond of Garmin came to grief, crashing heavily.

When the leaders reached the Arenberg, it was immediately obvious who the strongest riders were. The Swiss champion, Elmiger, opened up a gap and only Tjallingii could go with him.

Arenberg’s terrible rutted track brought Boonen to grief. He came to a stop because his chain had jumped and got jammed. Rider after rider streamed past the three-time champion who looked helpless. He tried to free the chain, examined the grease on his hand, but stood and waited. His team-mate Gert Steegmans offered a bike but Boonen chose to wait for the car to deliver his own back-up. He lost about two minutes.

While the television cameras focused on Boonen, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky went past, some way down. Thomas had punctured just as the sprint for Arenberg was winding up, Wiggins had stopped to pace him back. They were in for quite a chase.

Over the cobbles at Millonfosse à Bousignies (sector 15 – the sections count down on their way to the velodrome), a powerful chase group went clear. Alert to it was Van Summeren of Garmin. He couldn’t have known it then but, with 79 kilometres left to race, the foundations of his Paris-Roubaix victory were about to be laid. Lars Bak (HTC), Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma), Manuel Quinziato (BMC), Lars Boom (Rabobank), Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank) and Mat Hayman (Team Sky) were the other riders in it.

This was dangerous. Guesdon, the champion in 1997, will be 40 in October. The Breton is a fixture at Paris-Roubaix. As reliable as the taps in those stone showers. In 1997 he outsprinted the likes of Jo Planckaert, Johan Museeuw, Andrei Tchmil, Rolf Sorensen, Fréd Moncassin – names from a world away. The other riders were an array of Plan B-type riders – Van Summeren was there for Hushovd, Bak for Eisel, Quinziato for Ballan – and a couple who thought this could represent a real opportunity, Hayman and Cooke. Either way, they were not men to be taken lightly.

Boonen was still chasing. The gap was down to about 35 seconds when he was struck by another piece of bad luck, this time more freakish than the first. On the cobbles at Sars-et-Rosières (sector 14), he says, a water bottle bounced out and got stuck between his back wheel and the frame. His wheel was jammed and a Rabobank rider, Maarten Wynants, had nowhere to go. Wynants went down, so did Boonen and so too did Geraint Thomas, who was hoping to hitch a lift back to the favourites with the Boonen express.

That crash marked the end of Boonen’s race. A little later, Quick Step’s poor fortune took another twist when Chavanel, who had already punctured twice and was chasing to get back into contention, misjudged a left-hand bend and skidded across the smooth road.

On the next sector, at Beuvry-la-Fôret (13), the chasers, Vansummeren et al, joined the leaders to swell the lead group to 17.

Now, with Van Summeren up the road, Garmin played their next card. Gabriel Rasch marked a move containing John Degenkolb (HTC), Grégory Rast (Radioshack) and Tom Leezer (Rabobank). Now Garmin had two riders ahead.

Sensing they were in control, and with the gap never really getting to more than a minute-and-a-half, Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke accelerated on the famous and difficult section at Mons-en-Pévèle (10). Astana’s Tomas Vaitkus went too. Behind them, Hushovd also drove the pace, which Cancellara returned with interest. Hushovd was able to stay with him – just – and Ballan made harder work of getting across. This was the first acceleration to put the rest of the big names – such as Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha – into difficulty.

Once Vanmarcke had been caught, he began to work to close the gap. Garmin’s plan was clear – ensure Hushovd could follow Cancellara and hope it would all come back together for a sprint in the velodrome that would surely favour the Norwegian.

Cancellara knew he had to shake Hushovd and on the cobbles at Pont-Thibaut à Ennevelin (8), with a shade under 40 kilometres to go, he put in another searing burst. Hushovd again reacted. This time Ballan took longer to get across.

Although there was no reason to panic, Cancellara was beginning to understand the game. His successful bid for freedom in 2010 had come at Mons-en-Pévèle, after which he was never seen again, but things were panning out differently.

Perhaps he hoped a series of accelerations would put Hushovd under pressure. Two years ago, when trying to chase Boonen, Hushovd misread a corner, clipped a barrier and went over the handlebars at the Carrefour de l’Arbre. There were echoes of that moment when the Norwegian over-cooked a routine right-hand bend and had to ride up onto the pavement. That is an indicator of the sort of pressure Cancellara can put people under, particularly through corners.

Five kilometres passed and neither Hushovd nor Ballan gave Cancellara a turn at the front.

Up ahead, there were attacks by Guesdon and Hayman and the previous accord between the leaders was shattered, probably by the news that Cancellara was coming.

If you want evidence of the man’s strength, one moment summed it up. After more than eight kilometres on the front, Cancellara swung over and gestured to Hushovd to take up the pace. Hushovd slowed. Ballan looked at the floor. You didn’t need cameras inside the team cars to understand what was going on. Cancellara told the Garmin car he was not going to tow Hushovd to the front. And Garmin, with two riders still in a strong position, did not need to work either.

Cancellara was like the queen on a chessboard. Powerful, able to move in all directions, yet hemmed in by well-positioned knights and bishops. This wasn’t checkmate, it was stalemate. Soon they were caught by the Flecha group and the balance of power shifted to the leaders.

Now there was a very real possibility of a surprise. Garmin put their faith in Van Summeren, knowing that Hushovd would have a better than even chance should it come down to a sprint. It was textbook.

The final moves came in a flurry. Bak attacked, taking Vansummeren and Rast with him. Tjallingii joined them. And then, on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the final feared section of cobbles, Van Summeren pushed on, Tjallingii followed.

Cancellara tried to accelerate on the Carrefour de l’Arbre but, shamefully, the television motorbikes got in the way and almost caused Hushovd to come a cropper.

By the time the television cameras rejoined Van Summeren, he was alone, with about 15 kilometres to go. Tjallingii, tiring rapidly, was chasing him, with Bak and Rast around 25 seconds back. Under Cancellara’s impetus, all the rest of the day’s brave escapees had been caught.

Aside from the slightly comedic sight of Lars Boom losing his temper with Juan Antonio Flecha, the run-in was a simple pursuit. In truth Van Summeren had it in the bag as soon as Tjallingii turned onto the slightly uphill drag on the outskirts of Roubaix with four kilometres to go.

At the same point, Cancellara tried one final time. It’s easy to say that if he’d gone three kilometres earlier he’d have caught Van Summeren. If he’d had the legs, perhaps he’d have tried. It was a supremely strong effort, fuelled by frustration but it netted him only second place.

On the day, he could not match  Garmin’s swarm.

Last winter, Cycle Sport spoke with Vaughters about the collaboration between Garmin and Cervélo, which assembled the greatest cobbled Classics line-up never to have won a cobbled Classic. (Well, not a major one. Before anyone rushes to write in or comment that Farrar has won Scheldeprijs and Hushovd Het Volk, we’re referring to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The difference between the likes of Het Volk and the Tour of Flanders is like the difference between the Carling Cup and the Champions League.)

“The cobbled Classics will be a major focus,” said Vaughters. It sounded like an obvious statement when you considered the team would have Hushovd, Farrar, Haussler, Hammond, Klier, Maaskant and Van Summeren at its disposal. “How do you stop Cancellara?” Vaughters mused. It was only slightly rhetorical. “You have to outnumber him. Have people who can go with every move. Be active in every phase of the race. Work as a team against an individual and hope to improve your chances.”

Vaughters also talked about the strength of Van Summeren, the under-rated 30-year-old Garmin had picked up, almost unnoticed, at the end of the 2009 season. Van Summeren had finished eighth at Paris-Roubaix in 2008 as well as his fifth in 2009.

After the finish, Vaughters reiterated his belief that cycling is a team sport – and indeed it is. But it certainly did not start that way and it is still true today that it is the deeds of individuals that give cycling its dramatic moments.

Garmin were the ones raising a toast on Sunday evening and nothing can take that away from them. The team has delivered a tremendous victory for its sponsors. But the record books shall always state that Johan Vansummeren won the 2011 Paris-Roubaix. It’s a team sport but it’s not a team race, and that is an important distinction.

And as much as Hushovd will say – publicly at least – how delighted he was that his team-mate won, there can be no denying that he, like all champions, set out to win for himself. Imagine, for a moment, he retires without capturing Paris-Roubaix. What use to him is Van Summeren’s cobblestone? He was instrumental in the Belgian’s victory, but he doesn’t get to put the trophy on his mantelpiece for two months of the year.

The two emblems of the 2011 race were Van Summeren’s joy in the velodrome and the sight of the world champion declining to race. Two sides of the same coin. Yesterday, it came up heads for Garmin in glorious fashion. But it came down tails at the Tour of Flanders, and they were accused of being anti-racing. A week can indeed be a long time in cycling.

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