Like many people, I’ve been struggling with just what to say about the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, beyond presenting the same postcards of the hanging that can easily be found elsewhere. Dominant performances like Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) ride on Sunday tend to present the same paradox whenever they surface – they’re either mind-blowingly amazing or mind-numbingly boring, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe they’re both those things rolled into one, I don’t know. But frankly, neither interpretation lends itself particularly well to words, since close battles make far better fodder than blowouts. With the latter, you either end up with an overly wordy version of “holy shit, did you see that ride!?” or a longer, more specifically plaintive rendition of “well, great as it was, that was 40 kilometers of pure monotony. But here are some time gaps and stuff.”
Whatever your opinion on Sunday’s action though, history takes its snapshots with a hell of a lot of Vaseline smeared on the lens, and when you read about this year’s race in the next inevitable Roubaix coffee table book, it’s going to sound amazing. And it deserves to, because Cancellara’s was a historic ride. What you’ll read in that book years from now will be the story of a guy who attacked an assembly of the strongest classics riders of the generation, solo, about 20 kilometers before it was fashionable to attack at the time. Then he stretched that advantage into a victory margin of two minutes, a yawning gap back then, especially considering that the deficit would have been nearly three minutes if he hadn’t spent two laps of the velodrome shaking hands and kissing babies. Add in a nice shmear of the emerging rivalry with Tom Boonen (Quick Step) for historical context, some boosted-contrast ground-level-perspective pictures of red-clad Cancellara pounding the cobbles against a grey sky backdrop, and there you go. More than likely, even those of you who thought that Sunday's finale was a little short on competition will lean back, smile, and bore your kids with a meandering "ah, I remember it well" reminiscence. So at least we have that to look forward to.
Anyway, beyond the big picture – which was a display of power seldom seen even in the punch-in-the-mouth world of classics racing – what else was worth noting at Roubaix? Countless stories, no doubt, but here are a few things that stuck out for me.
Not Much You Can Do About That
I love being right, even if I was only stating the obvious at the time. From this cyclingnews piece, the great Sean Kelly on the usefulness of tactics in the face of Cancellara’s overwhelming strength: "You can only do so much with tactics, but when you’ve got a guy so strong you can have all the tactics in the world but it can be no good. The power and the form he’s in no one can touch him."
It had been percolating for awhile, but here we are, finally at the end the cobbled classics without a Belgian win in any of the big name events and no Quick Step or Omega Pharma-Lotto win from any nationality. That’s not going to play well in the home press.
While they’ll have to improve their spring classics campaigns next year no matter what else they do, look for both squads to try to sign dedicated, capable sprinters over the off-season in an effort to bump up their win totals and boost their grand tour relevance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia) wearing either jersey next year.
Chasing the Club of Three
Speaking of the Belgian press, Sportwereld quotes Saxo Bank chief Bjarne Riis saying he’d like to send Cancellara to the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next week, based on thinking that’s basically along the lines of, “the guy’s hot, why the hell wouldn’t I?”
Can I tell you how much I love that? As I’m sure I’ve harped on before, specialization in cycling reached an almost absurd peak over the last decade or so, with riders pursuing paper-thin specialties with laser-like focus. (Remember when Brad Wiggins was a “prologue specialist”? Remember watching him ride the 2007 Tour de France prologue in London, and the commentators talking about how, at 7.2k, the distance was a little much for him? Seriously?) Now that absurd level of pigeonholing seems to be breaking up a bit, and a number of riders seem to be stepping a bit outside their comfort zones from time to time. No, Cancellara won’t be a favorite for the hillier classics should he choose to go, but why not give it a shot and see what he can do? If he falls short in Limburg and the Ardennes, nobody with a clue about cycling will think less of him, and many, the Service Course included, will think more. Of course, after the couple of months he’s had, I also wouldn’t think much less of him if he spent the time between now and the world championships drinking cheap champagne and shouting profanity on some Bernese streetcorner.
But if Cancellara does start next week and puts in a promising showing on the côtes? Look for him to start thinking about how to shed some weight and take aim at Liege and the Giro d’Lombardia next season, where winning would give him the elusive distinction of having won all five of the sport’s Monuments. He’s said in the past that winning the same races repeatedly doesn’t really interest him, so he may be willing to give up a little something for Flanders and Roubaix to be more fit for the eastern races in late April.
Winning all five monuments would put Cancellara in a club of just three, together with Belgians Rik “the Emperor of Herentals” Van Looy, Roger “the Gypsy” de Vlaeminck, and, shockingly, Eddy “the Cannibal” Merckx. Despite the difference in nationality, Fabian “Sparticus” Cancellara would seem to fit into that lineup pretty well.
The last guy to seem like he had a shot at (and the interest in) winning every monument was Michele Bartoli, who won the Ronde in 1996, Liege in 1997 and 1998, and Lombardy in 2002 and 2003. He never quite had the raw power for Roubaix, though, especially up against riders like Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, and Andrea Tafi in their prime. And Milan-San Remo would have taken some special circumstances for him to win – a feat unlikely 2008 San Remo winner Cancellara has already pulled off.
There Can Be More Than One
Speaking of things people have said in the past – Tom Boonen said long ago, like back when he was 25 or so, that he wasn’t one of those guys that was going to hang around the pro peloton forever. Back then, his plan was to make his name, cash out at 30 or so, and enjoy the good life. Guess what time it is, Tommeke?
No, settle down, I’m not saying Boonen should retire based on getting scalped by some Swiss freak a few times on his own turf, or based on some statement he made at age 25 (an age at which, based on my careful research, none of us should be taken at our word). And if he tried to hang up his wheels this October, I think he’d be pretty likely to get a visit from the (living) ghosts of De Leeuw and De Peet, who might remind him that there is indeed life after 30. Maybe not disco-and-blow, two-Monuments-a-year life, but a productive professional cycling life nevertheless.
What I am saying is that, in the coming weeks, Boonen is likely going to be doing some thinking on just where he fits in now that he’s not the dominant player in the classics, a role he’s played for the last five years. No, he didn’t win them all, but he was the prime factor. For instance, when his teammate Stijn Devolder lifted two Rondes in 2008 and 2009, it was partially on the strength of Boonen being in the group behind. Boonen’s defeats then were honorable, understandable, and tactical, and he came roaring back at Roubaix the next weekend to prove just what might have been had the chips fallen differently. But this year, he’s been bested twice by a rider who was just plain stronger, just as smart, and just as capable on the cobbles, and Boonen isn’t terribly used to that in the cobbled classics.
What will come from any thinking he does? Who knows. But what I hope he realizes is that every great cyclist needs a great rival. Otherwise, there’s no frame of reference, no yardstick by which to measure a rider’s true merit. Boonen needed his Cancellara. And Cancellara needs Boonen. And if both continue to ride as they have been, we could be in for another great five years.
Bike Change Blues
As he did at the Ronde last week, Cancellara did another picture perfect bike change at Roubaix on his way to another victory. And as it did at the Ronde, a bike change seems to have possibly cost his Saxo Bank teammate Matti Breschel a chance in the finale. This time, though, it wasn’t a botched race-day bike change that hurt Breschel, but apparently one he made a few days earlier when he switched over to bike sponsor Specialized’s new Roubaix-specific bike. The differences between that bike and his standard race bike may have been enough to aggravate a knee, forcing him from the race.
Cyclingnews.com doesn’t specify where Breschel’s knee pain came from, either because they know which side their bread is buttered on, or more likely because he didn’t mention it to them. But Breschel did mention the new bike causing him knee pain to his home country news source, Politiken.dk, prior to the race. Roughly translated courtesy of Google, he told that publication:
"I've got a new bike especially for (Roubaix), and after riding it on some occasions, I started getting pain in one knee. It made me really nervous, but I have not wanted to talk about it because I hoped it would pass. "
At that point, he was still optimistic that he’d adjust to the bike:
"Fortunately, it now seems to be the case. During the last workouts it's been much better, and I certainly can not use knee injury as an excuse if my expectations about being at the forefront of Paris-Roubaix will not be honored."
Whether Breschel’s knee pain and subsequent retirement from Roubaix were due to switching bikes, I’ll probably never know with any degree of certainty. He hasn't brought the bike up post-Roubaix, and he's said in other interviews that he thinks he has an infection. But if he does think his problems have to do with the bike, he’d probably be well served not to let anyone know it. Knee pain due to switching to a different bike doesn’t indicate a “bad design” – only one that’s different enough from what a given rider is used to – but you can be sure that certain elements of the buying public will interpret it that way. And that’s the last thing a bike sponsor wants.
The wisdom of switching to a different geometry for one day a year for dubious benefit has always been debatable at best, but Roubaix is such a headline-grabber equipment-wise that sponsors feel the need to put something special underneath their star riders. If you’ve ever wondered why some of those super “Roubaix specials” you see teasingly propped against the team bus during the pre-ride sessions never see the start line, well, there you go.
From the Media Desk
Like a lot of you, Sunday morning saw me busy stuffing up the cyclingfans.com site as someone, presumably cycling.tv or Versus, shut down foreign feed after feed after feed. Look, I know how the game works, and I know they own the internet and television rights, respectively, to show Paris-Roubaix in the United States. They’re well within their rights to defend what they’ve purchased. That’s just good business, and though it made trying to watch the race exceptionally frustrating, I can’t argue with that.
But please, media outlets, if you’re going to black out all foreign feeds, have some respect for the U.S. viewers you’re trying to harness and do the races right. What do I mean?
Versus – show it live, not as some compressed, delayed dinner-hour theater seven hours later. Grand as it is (to us), Paris-Roubaix does not have even the modest amount of everyman recognition that the Tour does, and the arrangement is just irritating the very core, very key-to-you group of people who not only watch faithfully themselves, but also tell their friends – “Yeah, it’s a really exciting sport. When the Tour is on this summer, you should really watch it.”
I’m not asking for grand production values here, no Craig Hummer in custom embroidered shirt and whitened teeth, or even Phil and Paul doing blatantly after-the-fact editing booth commentary. In fact, though I know you’ll never do it, I’d prefer no “talent” at all – just give us the feed. You already own it. It’s practically free. The cat’s long been out of the bag that Versus does not, in fact, have a crack team of motorcycle cameramen jetting around Europe. We know you’re not the ones putting in the “tete de course” or “kop van der wedstrijd” graphics in, listing the riders in the break, counting the kilometers, or timing the gaps. Don’t worry, we don’t care, and for people who care enough about cycling to watch the classics, that information and a start sheet are all we need. Save your commentary cash for the Tour de France when you’re bringing in the fresh viewer meat. To be honest, I kind of like the audio backdrop of dopplered shouts from the crowd, motorcycles, and the helicopter. So please, just show the races. Live. A lot of us will watch. The rest of us will Tivo it. How about we start with the Amstel Gold Race?
And while you’re at it, Versus, please buy the internet rights to the classics races, too. You have a pretty flashy website now, and it worked pretty well during the Tour de France. So let’s use it – I bet you could get a good price with a television+internet package deal. Then, run the whole four hours of the feed on your site. Put commercials in it, put ads around it, or do it as a pay-per-view event. Whatever. Anything to get the internet rights out from under cycling.tv. Now, I fully admit I haven’t tried cycling.tv in awhile, but when I paid for a subscription several years ago, it was so terribly unreliable, and the pricing structure changed so frequently (effectively going from an allegedly inclusive subscription service to pay-per-view format every time they needed to raise a few quick bucks), I can’t imagine ever trying it again. I know many others feel the same. So, cycling.tv, fix it, step aside, or let my people watch Sporza.