Paris-Roubaix, L'Enfer Du Nord, The Hell of the North, is a race so brutal, with a course so fickle, that it represents a throwback to an earlier era in bike racing. This is why it is one of the most coveted victories in pro bike racing. The strongest with the least bad luck are the only ones left with a chance for victory on the Roubaix velodrome at the end of the 254.5 159mi) km course.
What makes the race special are cobblestones. 27 cobbled sectors totally 52km (32.5mi) are what provide the race with its unique character. The stones, pavé as they're called, comprise only twenty percent of the race, but if you've ever ridden them, or seen someone racing over them, you'd understand. These aren't the decorative stonework patches found in driveways and transitional stretches of road, but ancient, rough stones that have been shaped by hundreds of years of use and weather. They stick out at odd angles, there are deep ruts and high crowns. Moss grows in the cracks, dirt settles on the surfaces, so they're slippery in the dry and treacherous in the wet. Spectators crowd the pavé on both sides, making it harder to see or find a good line. Flat tires and crashes are common and it's almost as bad to be behind someone who flats or crashes.
Last week's winner of Flanders, Swiss Fabian Cancellara came to the race as the heavy favorite. With this mantle comes responsibility, and often a tipping of the scales. His RadioShack team is expected to control the race, which often results in tiring themselves out early, and opening opportunities for less fancied riders to shine.
Cannondale Pro Cycling came to the start in Compeigne on the opposite end of the spectrum. Without a captain, the team was filled with hard-riding opportunists, all looking for a moment to race into the spotlight and take the day. Team director Stefano Zanatta wanted to see smart, aggressive riding, and would be happy with any result. Without a leader, the team could follow wheels much of the day, nothing would be expected of them, and they could use this to their advantage.
The race started largely as expected. While the day's first move, including Cannondale's Guillaume Boivin, was brought back a second early break got a gap, but never a large one, with RadioShack attentive and at the front. Some of the most brutal early pave sectors, like the 2.4km Arenberg Forest, weeded out the weak and unlucky, while RadioShack kept a tight grip on the front. A grip so tight that when Cannondale's Kristijan Koren went out on his own after Arenberg, few were willing to follow, and RadioShack kept the gap so close that he was left out there to ride himself into the ground, and his move was reabsorbed after less than 10km (6mi).
With 50km (31mi) remaining, Cancellara's RadioShack team had been exhausted, and teams with a numerical advantage on Cancellara started to take control of the race. This included the Blanco and OmegaPharma-QuickStep squads, both of which had several riders in the lead group. They took turns attacking, and both teams put a rider up the road. Blanco with Sep Vanmarcke, OmegaPharma with Stijn Vandenbergh.
Down to 33km (20mi) and Cancellara looking tired, was suddenly, and surprisingly, almost out of contention, riding in the third group, 30 seconds down on the leaders. Just when this reality was filtering into the consciousness of the riders, Cancellara put in an attack, bridged solo to the second group. As he arrived, the chase slows down, and the gap to the leaders remained.
The group behind, including Cannondale riders Fabio Sabatini, Maciej Bodnar, and Koren, were slowed by crashes, and these spills took Bodnar and Koren completely out of the chase.
Onto the next sector of stones, and Cancellara waited until the pace was high to put in another acceleration. Only Vandenbergh's teammate Zdenek Stybar could follow the Swiss. And he didn't take a pull as Cancellara stormed across to the two leaders, who, upon getting word of the chase, slowed down. This gave OmegaPharma two riders of the leading four, a clear tactical advantage.
But the next set of stones, the brutally famous Le Carrefour de l'Arbre sector, gave nothing but grief to OmegaPharma. Vanderbengh rode into a spectator on the side of the road and crashed heavily. Shortly thereafter, Stybar also rode into a spectator and swerved over the cobbles trying to maintain balance. He didn't go down, but was quickly gapped by Vanmarcke and Cancellara.
Down to two. The Belgian Vanmarcke made the Swiss do most the pulling. Sensing weakness in Vanmarcke, Cancellara attacked, but was hauled back. The two rode together to the Roubaix velodrome, where, owing to a lead of over a minute, they slowed down to set up a tactical sprint.
Cancellara rode first into the lead, but slowed down even more, and forced Vanmarcke into the lead. Riding low, then high, then low, and fading high again, the Belgian tried to shake the Swiss. But with a final effort, Spartacus sprinted into the lead and across the finish line first by a bike length.
Behind the victory, the Cannondale riders were having their own time, experiencing the joys and heartbreaks of riding through hell. Several flat tires took riders out of the race, with Boivin, Mauro Da Dalto, and Alan Marangoni all retiring due to early bad luck with tires. Even a team car flatted on a pavé sector, and a spare car was called in. At the end, Sabatini found himself in a group of twenty fighting it out for 28th place. Sabatini sprinted in for fifth in the group, 32nd on the day. A satisfactory day for the team: they rode hard, gained experience, and most finished.
The ProTour rolls on to the Amstel Gold Race Sunday, April 14. Cannondale Pro Cycling will be there, once again, trying their hand, riding their all, looking for victory.
1. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack Leopard - 5:45:33
2. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Blanco Pro Cycling Team - same time
3. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma-Quick-Step- 0:00:31
4. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team - same time
5. Damien Gaudin (Fra) Team Europcar - same time
32. Fabio Sabatini (Ita) Cannondale Pro Cycling - 0:03:29