Tom Boonen’s extraordinary spring reached its climax with a coruscating solo victory in Paris-Roubaix

Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday April 8, 2012

After four classics, the score is now Tom Boonen four, the rest of the world, nil.

Having won E3, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders already this spring, the Belgian went into Paris-Roubaix as the overwhelming favourite – the strongest rider, riding for the strongest team. That he won was no surprise, even in a race as unpredictable and unforgiving as the Hell of the North. But the manner of his victory was stunning: a solo win by an enormous margin, constructed from tenacity, circumstances, confidence and strength.

There were two topics of conversation in the week leading up to the race: Boonen and the weather. Given that the Belgian’s experience, form and momentum made it hard to see past him as a favourite, fans prayed for rain. If the result was going to be predictable, we could at least be treated to some epic weather conditions.

But the rain held off. Instead, Boonen wrote his own epic. He simply rode away from the others through Sector 12 of 27 cobbled sections, in Orchies, with 58 kilometres to go. Initially, he drew Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) clear, the podium of the Tour of Flanders reprising their attack on the Oude Kwaremont last week. Then Boonen’s team-mate Niki Terpstra bridged, in a clever tactical move which saw the four, plus earlier escapee Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) hanging 50 metres off the front of a small peloton.

Inexplicably, Ballan and Pozzato drifted backwards, while Boonen committed himself, spending Terpstra’s energies quickly, then forging ahead on his own. It looked like sheer madness. And with Sky drawing from deep resources to marshal four riders to the head of the chasing group, it looked like Boonen’s success over the last fortnight had gone to his head. Yes, he’d won Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and E3 in small group sprints, but surely going this early was an attack of the same hubris which lost Fabian Cancellara the 2011 Tour of Flanders?

As Boonen dangled 10 seconds clear of his pursuers, there were 55 kilometres to go.

But what Boonen’s rivals failed to take into account is that 17.5 of them were over the cobbles.

***

It was a chilly start for the peloton in Compiègne and nobody seemed to be that keen on rushing to the first few sectors of pavé. The early escape was slow to get away, forming after 70 kilometres had already been ridden, just a matter of 30 kilometres from Sector 27 at Troisvilles, the first cobbled section (the sectors count backwards). Former Paris-Roubaix espoirs champion Yaroslav Popovych was one of the dozen riders who went clear, but the nicest thing you could say about the group was that it was mostly harmless: the only rider from it to go on to finish within nine minutes of Boonen was Cofidis rider Aleksejs Saramotins, who was 18th.

Like a warm-up act for the headline event, the escape hared into Sector 16, the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg, 2-20 clear of the bunch. But they immediately fluffed their lines, with NetApp’s Grischa Janorschke hitting the deck hard just a few metres in. Not many of the 12 in the break would even make it through the Arenberg in front.

Behind them, Omega Pharma were setting the pace, with Sylvain Chavanel leading the bunch through the forest. Arenberg is the hardest single stretch of cobbles in cycling, and Chavanel’s industry over them whittled the peloton down to a group of, at most, 40 riders. Among them: most of the race favourites, but BMC’s George Hincapie, victim of a mechanical, was not there.

However, it was too early to press on, and Omega Pharma allowed another 25 or 30 riders to chase on, swelling the group back into stalemate.

But just one sector later, the first dangerous move of the race went: Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Ballan, Bram Tankink (Rabobank), Turgot and Mathieu Ladagnous (FDJ) slipped away, provoking Omega Pharma into a reaction. It was early, but it was a tactically astute move – Boonen’s team-mates needed to be ground down so their leader could at least be isolated.

Stijn Vandenbergh and Gert Steegmans duly chased for the Belgian team, but once the junction was made, into Sector 13, Sylvain Chavanel attacked with Turgot and Ladagnous again, Laurent Mangel (Saur) and BMC’s Michael Schar. Suddenly, it was up to Omega Pharma’s rivals to chase, although the new escapees weren’t committed. The sextet carved out a lead of a couple of hundred metres, but seemed to be spending more time looking over their shoulders than forward.

Perhaps they knew what was about to happen.

As the leaders were caught into Sector 12, with the exception of Turgot, who was dangling off the front, Boonen accelerated with Filippo Pozzato in his wheel, just as Chavanel punctured. Behind, Ballan chased and bridged. So did Niki Terpstra. Five in front. And three of them fresh from finishing on the podium in the Tour of Flanders.

As Terpstra came through, Ballan and Pozzato started looking at each other. An unspoken agreement hung in the air between them: too early. And they slowly drifted back into oblivion.

But nobody told Boonen it was too early. Terpstra’s efforts helped swell the gap to 10 seconds. Then Boonen dropped Terpstra on sector 11, as the lead slowly wandered out to 20 seconds.

Too early. While Pozzato came to grief on an uneven corner, there were four Sky riders in the 14 riders who made up the chase group: Mat Hayman, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Flecha, plus two Rabobank riders: Lars Boom and Maarten Wynants. Reigning champion Johan Van Summeren was also present, making a fighting defence of his win, but finding out how much harder it is to win Paris-Roubaix from behind, rather than the front. Boonen’s escape looked, at this point, suicidal.

Sector 10, Mons-en-Pevele, and Boonen’s lead was 35 seconds. Behind him, Flecha attacked solo. This was the first indication of how much trouble the pursuers were actually already in – with four riders, elementary tactics would dictate that sticking together in an organised chase was a far better plan for Sky. All Flecha did was disrupt the organisation of the group, splitting it into two groups of seven which would take 10 kilometres to reform.

Too early. With 40 kilometres to go, Boonen led by 40 seconds, just one for each kilometre remaining. Although Boonen was reprising Fabian Cancellara’s spectacular demolition of the race two years ago, he was making harder work of it. Where Cancellara just cruised away from the race, the Belgian was grinding out extra seconds on each cobbled section, then defending his lead on the tarmac sections between them. While the group chased, Boonen received sticky bottles and pep talks from team boss Wilfried Peeters in the Omega car every now and again, but other than that, he was alone.

Stannard cracked at 35 kilometres to go, with the lead painfully squeezing up to 50 seconds. The balance of power had shifted.

Too early? Suddenly, it was too late.

With that realisation, it was only a matter of time before the group turned on itself. Through sectors six and five, Ballan, Van Summeren, Boom and Flecha rode off the front, elongating, splitting and killing the pursuit. Boom attacked again, immediately taking 10 seconds off Boonen’s lead, which was now over a minute.

But as Boonen rode over the boisterous cobbles and through the equally boisterous fans of sector four at Carrefour de l’Arbre, Boom could make no impression, and Ballan and Flecha caught him.

Boonen was uncatchable. What looked like an impossible spin of the roulette wheel turned out to be a masterful judgement of the odds. He correctly assessed that a dwindling chase group, riding over Boonen’s favoured territory, would not be equal to his own winning effort.

As he rode into the Roubaix velodrome he held four fingers aloft, to symbolise his record-equalling fourth victory in the race. Sébastien Turgot, bridging with Terpstra to the Ballan-Flecha-Boom trio within sight of the line, somehow managed to sprint to second, with Ballan third.

We all knew Tom Boonen was going to win. But we didn’t know he was going to do it with one of the greatest rides in Roubaix history.

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  • Zeynep

    I enjoy reading your write-ups and can cenrlitay relate to a few of your stories as well The Tour van Vlaanderen and Paris -Roubaix I grew up with, being from the Flanders myself. All that stuff was and still is in our blood and our way of life. Cyclocross or veldrijden’ is very popular over the winter months in Belgium and definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted. (Pardon the pun) I know that to this day there are still quite a few hard core cyclists out there, even in their late 70 s, riding hard out in groups every day of the year. And lets not forget their regular pit stops at the local village cafes for re-fuelling off course Unfortunately, immigrating to NZ in the mid 90 s changed all that for me. New Zealanders aren’t really used to cyclists so when I was struck from behind on the Wellington motorway (after many close encounters with motor vehicles) that changed everything for me. Breaking and dislocating my spine left me paralysed and with a long recovery ahead I slowly managed to walk again. 15 years down the track I still can’t cycle but can now at least ride a bike of a different sort with a big motor attached to it. I’d say keep going Ken as you would have discovered by now that us creatures are very adaptable. Enjoy whatever ride you’re on

  • Kevin Attridge

    This race gets better every season. Again it didn’t disappoint and nor does Ed’s report.