Paddling Toward the Waterfall

So, that was Paris-Roubaix 2008. What more can you say about it? Plenty, and the cycling media will be busy cranking out those stories for the next week (web) or month (print), resulting in a volume of words eclipsed only by the Paris-Roubaix discussions already raging in online discussion forums. Whatever the venue, expect suspect answers to such questions as:

Why do people who should know better insist on using deep carbon wheels for Roubaix?

Who is Martijn Maaskant, the least talked about but most effective member of Slipstream's classics squad?

Now that he has undeniably good team support, can we switch to “mechanical problems” as the official George Hincapie post-Paris-Roubaix discussion subject?

And, most importantly…

Was Cannondale secretly behind the de-cornrow-ization of Pippo Pozzato? Because that hairdo was a PR nightmare.

Yes sir, the implications and speculations will be flying around for a week or so, until the Ardennes classics come along and give people something else to think about.

In an effort to not get caught up in the rampant over-analysis that inevitably follows Paris-Roubaix, I’ll offer just one observation: You know that Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) had to be riding those last 40 kilometers thinking, “Seriously? We’re just going to rotate through like we’re on a well-oiled training ride, and bring Tom Boonen into a sprint on the velodrome?”

We’ve all had those moments, both on and off the bike, in which we’ve actively played a leading role in our own demise, gallantly paddling the canoe towards the waterfall while the natives look on expectantly from the banks. We know what’s going to happen if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing, but for any number of reasons, we’re powerless to change course.

If bicycle racing occurred in a pain vacuum, Ballan would have attacked Boonen over the waning cobbles at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Hem, and Gruson, and Cancellara would have mustered his resources for one of his late race, 4-kilometer dashes to the line. But it doesn’t, and they didn’t. Ballan and Cancellara (and Boonen) would have known that Boonen would eat them alive in the sprint, but without the strength to try one more attack, to dig deep one more time, all the tactical savvy in the world doesn’t mean a damn thing. So there was little to do but keep moving towards the velodrome, hand Boonen a fork and napkin, and get on with it. And if they went straight to the table like good little boys, maybe they get to keep their podium places.

Those who have to wait until the Versus coverage next Sunday to see Paris-Roubaix should be sure to stick it out to the sprint, even though the results will be stale news by then. The resignation of the two men to their fate as they roll toward the velodrome is both frustrating and beautiful. You want the attacks to come, for Boonen’s competitors to fight for their lives, but Ballan and Cancellara have already done what they can. There isn’t an attack left in either, and they’re left to wait for that dinner bell that signals one lap to go. And when Boonen starts his sprint before the last corner, it’s like seeing a starving man enter the Old Country Buffet – he goes in, jumps the whole line, and five seconds later there’s not a crumb left.

And that’s what keeps bicycle racing interesting – it takes time-tested tactical dogma and then complicates it by introducing human strength and weakness to the mix. People say professional cycling is like chess, but that only covers one part of the equation. It’s a game of chess that you can actually lose because you don’t have the strength to move your piece.

Parting Shots:

  • For the past few decades, prevailing wisdom was that old guys had an advantage at Roubaix, with riders like Museeuw, Tchmil, Tafi, Duclos-Lassalle, and Van Petegem winning well into their 30s. No so this year. In fact, this is a podium you could conceivably see for the next six years or so. Seems like the generational shift is finally complete.
  • It looks like George Hincapie had a special Giant ready in case of mud, but didn't have to use it in light of the dry conditions. Maybe he should have - it had normal wheels. Here's a tip for the High Road mechanics: the cobbles are still hard and terribly uneven whether it's raining or not.
  • I have to wonder if, throughout Italy, cycling discussion forums are ablaze with empassioned arguments bemoaning how Ballan could have won Paris-Roubaix if he only had more team support. Or can they really be that different from us?
  • After having even more login problems than usual, apparently opened the feed up for free. Good on them for that, at least. Fortunately for those of us who just don't bother anymore, the fine folks at had also identified another feed that worked well.
  • Versus's decision to run Paris-Roubaix coverage a full week after the event is strange at best. I guess they've found that a starving man will eat what he's served, when it's served to him. And they may be right. But you have to suspect that someone who understands cycling has left the network. The Tour of Flanders is undoubtedly a great race, the paramount classic in some minds, like mine, and was shown on the same day it ran. But for pure name-brand power in one-day races for the American audience, you can't top Paris-Roubaix, so it's hard to understand the decision to delay coverage. Must be the hockey playoffs.