It didn?t rain and they had a tailwind, but it was still a cracking race.

How often do the three strongest riders in the race break away to contest the finish?

Well, we say ?contest the finish? but the finish was anything but a contest. Alessandro Ballan knew he had no chance against the mighty sprint of Boonen or the potential jump of Fabian Cancellara.

The Swiss rider was stuffed too and seemed to concede defeat a couple of kilometres from the velodrome when he let Boonen gently push him into second place when really he wanted the Belgian to take Ballan?s wheel.

If anything, it was a bit of a tame finish and all the fireworks happened in the middle third of the race.

There were the long, energy-sapping chases that ruined the chances of Juan Antonio Flecha and Filippo Pozzato, who crashed at the worst possible time. There was the exploratory attack by defending champion Stuart O?Grady, which was marked by Stijn Devolder and then, 32 kilometres from the finish, just before the Templeuve l?Epinette section of cobbles (the seventh from last sector) the big three jumped clear.

It wasn?t so much an attack as a statement of intent from the best three riders, two of whom had team-mates. The big losers were Silence-Lotto, who also had two riders in Leif Hoste and Johan Van Summeren, but were caught napping.

But how did our top ten favourites fare? Forgive us if we hail our successes and quietly play down the poor performances of our failures?

1 Juan Antonio Flecha

12th at 5-12

We said: In sparkling form. Edging ever closer to a win at Roubaix.

How he did: He couldn?t have picked a worse moment to crash, just as the pace was winding up and it was getting edgy before the Forest of Arenberg. It meant he had to chase for 30 kilometres and, effectively, it spelled the end of his race. Just as he got back on, things ignited at the front and there was no time to catch his breath. Had he not crashed, he?d have been a major player.

2 Fabian Cancellara

2nd at 1sec

We said: Great team support. Excellent form. Is he on a slight downwards curve after peaking at Milan-San Remo? If he really was on the slide, would he have bothered riding Ghent-Wevelgem?

How he did: It was a good effort but not the vintage Fabian that won Milan-San Remo last month. But consider this, Cancellara has been in brilliant form since the middle of March, when he won Tirreno-Adriatico almost by default. A month is a long time to hold such a peak. In the end, it was simply asking too much and his legs locked up. He went with the big move but could do no more ? a couple of tentative attacks confirmed his worst fears ? that Boonen was strong, even if Ballan wasn?t. That convinced him his trademark move close to home was a non-starter. There wasn?t much point contesting the sprint.

3 Tom Boonen

1st

We said: Really needs a result. No one will co-operate with him on the road.

How he did: A worthy winner and Boonen no doubt breathed a huge sigh of relief as he saved his spring from being labeled ?mediocre?. Devolder played a huge role in this win, repaying Boonen?s work at Flanders last week. The only riders who would work with Boonen would be those of equal stature, and that?s what happened when he was joined by Cancellara and Ballan. The sprint on the concrete velodrome was a formality.


4 George Hincapie

9th at 5-12

We said: Often suffers terrible luck at Roubaix. Seems to have a mental brick wall in front of him.

How he did: Punctured at the wrong moment and found himself chasing alone, having looked great early on. One minute High Road were swarmed at the front, the next they were scattered, each involved in their own separate battle to get back to the front. Hincapie will be 35 by next April ? his Paris-Roubaix dreams are flickering and in danger of being snuffed out for good.

5 Thor Hushovd

DNF

We said: Good form ? better than in recent years.

How he did: Crashed early on and abandoned at the feed zone with more than 130 kilometres still to race. A day to forget.

6 Alessandro Ballan

3rd at 1sec

We said: Class act. The equal of Boonen, Cancellara and Flecha here.

How he did: It didn?t rain, so our forecast that the Italian would suffer in the cold and wet was not put to the test. Instead, he rode a superb race and will undoubtedly win here one day. Got into the move that mattered but knew his options were limited. He would have needed a huge slice of luck to get the better of Cancellara and Boonen and, in truth, he probably knew he was riding for second place at best ? and most likely third ? from the moment the three-man move crystalised. Which is probably why, after having a chat with Tom, he sat on the front for the last two k, keeping the pace high so Cancellara had no chance of attacking.

7 Roger Hammond

23rd at 7-18

We said: With Hincapie, Knaven, Klier, Eisel all in good form could there be too many High Road chefs spoiling the Paris-Roubaix broth?

How he did: Were we guilty of allowing national interest to colour our judgment? We don?t think so. After his rides in Flanders and Wevelgem, Hammond definitely had a top ten finish in him but he crashed and had to chase. He was the third placed High Road man on a day when they had misfortune every time the race was switched on.

8 Leif Hoste

6th at 3-57

We said: In top form. He was stood still by the side of the road at Steenbeekdries with a broken bike for an age on Sunday but still got back to the front group.

How he did: A fairly low-key ride from Hoste. He was there or thereabouts but never looked like matching the power trio. Silence-Lotto missed a trick by missing the important move and even though he tried to chase, Hoste was actually not as strong as O?Grady and Devolder, the policemen for the leaders.

9 Stuart O?Grady

5th at 3-57

We said: Still on the way back from last year?s Tour de France crash, not 100 per cent fit, will have to work for Cancellara.

How he did: An awesome ride in support of Cancellara. He said he was firing at about 85 per cent of capacity ? a bit more and he could have won his second Roubaix in a row. The move that forced Devolder to mark him laid the groundwork for the finale.

10 Filippo Pozzato

49th at 15-42

We said: Good at reading a race, rarely caught on the hop.

How he did: Was caught on the hop, crashing on the asphalt a few kilometres before the Forest of Arenberg, setting himself up for a long, lonely chase. Wrecked his race before it had even got underway.

THE DARK HORSES

Nick Nuyens (Quick Step) ? 21st at 7-18

Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) ? DNF

Erik Zabel (Milram) ? DNF

Bernhard Eisel (High Road) ? 17th at 5-20

Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ) ? 11th at 5-12

Steffen Wesemann (Cycle Collstrop) ? 28th at 7-27

Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) ? 27th at 7-20

Enrico Franzoi (Liquigas) ? DNF

Philippe Gilbert (FDJ) ? DNS

Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) ? 7th at 3-59

Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream) ? DNF

CAUGHT OUR EYE

Martijn Maaskant ? This guy is going to be a superstar. Jonathan Vaughters bigged up Maaskant over the winter and even said he could be a future Paris-Roubaix winner. Maaskant rode for Rabobank?s Continental team last year and topped the Europe Tour ranking (the rung below the ProTour). If last week?s ride in Flanders was good, this was superb. Fourth place on your Paris-Roubaix debut ? surely he?s a future winner in the making.

Fabio Baldato ? One for the future! Tenth at the age of 39. Fair play. Having seen him close up at Da Franco?s pizzeria in Kortrijk last week, we can confirm he looks at least ten years younger. Had he not finished second to Andrei Tchmil in the greatest Paris-Roubaix of all-time in 1994 we?d be asking for a look at his birth certificate to verify his age. However, if he were 29 now, that would have made him only 15 in 1994 so we?ll believe he?s pushing 40. That day he crashed three times and had five punctures too.

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Photos
Paris-Roubaix 2008 photo gallery>>