Favorites dont always win Paris-Roubaixand that could be the case this Sunday in the 111th edition of the sports most prestigious cobblestone classic. All the pressure will be on last weeks Tour of Flanders runaway winner (and twice Roubaix champion) Fabian Cancellara, who is the odds-on favorite in the absence of the injured four-time winner Tom Boonen. But cuts and bruises from a couple of midweek crashes (one in the Scheldeprijs race, the other in a training run on the cobbles) might handicap the big Swiss and provide an opening for the challengers.
There have been many surprise winners in Paris-Roubaixs long history, including the 1988 success of Dirk Demol (now sports director of Cancellaras RadioShack-Leopard-Trek team) and the 2001 victory by Servais Knaven (who directs Team Skys classics squad). But no wins were more shocking than the back-to-back victories of French veteran Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle two decades ago.
In 1992, the hot favorites were two-time winner Sean Kelly and rising Belgian star Johan Museeuw, who werent that bothered when Duclos went on the attack with two sprinters on the infamous cobblestones through the Forest of the Arenberg. There were still 112 kilometers left to race, and a three-man break wasnt considered a true threat, especially as the best years of 37-year-old Ducloss career were behind him. And yet the breakaway kept a solid lead of more than two minutes, partly aided by Ducloss Z-team colleagues, including Greg LeMond, playing defense in the 30-strong chase group. The gap was enough for Duclos to launch a solo attack in the final 40 kilometers and take the unexpected (but very popular) victory.
The following year, Paris-Roubaix was dominated by Museeuws GB-MG team, when it put four riders into the key, seven-man move that Duclos managed to join with two others on the first section of pav after the Arenberg Forest. (This same stretch of cobbles, number 17 in this weekends race, was refurbished this past year and is now named for Duclos, using his Gibus nickname.) The strongest of the GB-MG riders in the 1993 edition, Franco Ballerini, eventually broke clear with the aid of his teammatesand Duclos jumped on his wheel. The Italian team was so confident that Ballerini would beat the Frenchman in an eventual sprint that it allowed the break to succeed. In the velodrome finish, Duclos went for a long, half-lap sprint. Ballerini came back strongly, threw his bike at the line and then threw up his arms in apparent victorybut the photo finish showed that Duclos had won again!
Another big surprise, 25 years ago, was Demols victory, when the lanky Belgian and the energetic Swiss Thomas Wegmller were the last two survivors of an early 12-man breakaway that started 222 kilometers from the finish! Demol won the two-man sprint, two minutes ahead of the pre-race favorite, Laurent Fignon. And 12 years ago, on a day of mud and rain, Knaven was the unpredicted solo winner from the dominant Domo-Farm Frites squad, which also mopped up second and third places with Museeuw and Roman Vainsteins.
Behind this years top two Roubaix favorites, Cancellara and BMC Racings Thor Hushovd, the European bookmakers have given decent odds to BMCs Taylor Phinney (at 12-1), Skys Geraint Thomas (20-1) and last years surprise runner-up Sbastien Turgot of Europcar (33-1).
Phinney, 22, is riding the Queen of the Classics for only the second time, but as he said in the cover story of peloton magazines issue #19, Paris-Roubaix has been a race that Ive just absolutely adored even before I got into this sport. Phinney twice won the under-23 version and placed 15th in his debut at the pro race last year after riding for most of the race as a tempo-making domestique for BMC leaders Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan (whos on the injured list right now).
After a brilliant seventh place in a frigid Milan-San Remo three weeks ago and conservative performances at the equally chilly E3-Harelbeke (46th) and Ghent-Wevelgem (41st), Phinney developed a knee strain, that kept him out of Flanders last week. So the tall Coloradan has been training for the past two weeks at his European base in Tuscany. But coming into Roubaix with minimal racing doesnt bother him.
Last year, he didnt race for two months between the Giro dItalia and the London Olympicswhere he took brilliant fourth places in both the road race and time trial, followed by second place in the world time trial championship. When I asked him whether it was his own idea not to race for those eight weeks, against the wishes of his team, Phinney said, Yeah, I like to go against the grain a little bitactually a lot. Its kind of my thing. I like to go against conventional wisdom, and I sawthe opportunity and a reason to really hone my time trialing. That resulted in a close call at the Olympics and another close call at the worlds. I dont think I would have been able to achieve those results without that focus on the training.
And I was happy to be able prove to myself that that was something that works, and I was also happy to be able to prove to anyone that preparation for me doesnt have to come from racing. Some guys really need racing to keep going but Im somebody that can be at home for four or five weeks, lay out a plan, and carry it out to a T. I feel fortunate to have that skill.
BMC sports director and Phinneys mentor, Max Sciandri, said he didnt like his rider missing so much racing prior to the Olympics. No, I didnt agree with it, and I told him I didnt agree with it. But I said, If you believe in what youre doing, just put everything into it and do it. And he did. I mean, he pulled out two good results, almost getting two Olympic medals, but initially I didnt agree with him not racing for such a long time.
Assuming that Phinneys knee is fully healed, and seeing that hell be BMCs co-team leader with Hushovd, theres no reason to believe that the young American will lack form and fitness on Sunday. He has been motor pacing with Sciandri in Italy, and he showed last year (and in his U23 performances) that he has a perfect understanding of the Roubaix cobblestones.
Skys Welsh phenom Thomas, who devoted last year to winning an Olympic gold medal in the track team pursuit, has adapted well on his return to the spring classics. He was fourth at the E3-Harelbeke two weeks ago, following a similar fourth place in Februarys Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The best cobblestone performance by the Sky rider, 26, came at the 2010 Tour de France, on the early stage that finished on the Roubaix pav at Arenberg. He placed second there to Hushovd in a six-man breakaway that also contained Cancellara. Now, with Knavens counsel, hes ready to take on the Roubaix pav again.
As for French upstart Turgot, 28, he has shown great consistency in this years classics, with consecutive placings of 15th (San Remo), 12th (Dwars door Vlaanderen), 10th (E3), eighth (Flanders) and 13th (Scheldeprijs). These are slightly better rides than he had last year, when he went on to take that shocking second place at Roubaix (1:39 behind Boonen) after out-sprinting Ballan and two other chasers.
In some ways, Turgot putting one over Ballan on the velodrome was similar to Duclos-Lassalle beating Ballan for the win in 1993. After that surprise 2012 performance, Turgot said, This second place gives me added strength, and will help me make more progress, and Im already eager to come back next year to do even better.
Maybe Turgot will be the new Duclos. Or will it be Phinney or Thomas that comes up with the goods to upset Cancellara in the Hell of the North?