A Paris-Roubaix Analysis
Tom Boonen's hot streak continued for another week and I can see why.
What more can be said about Tom Boonen that hasn't been said? Victories in E3 Prijs, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and now Paris-Roubaix proved he's a man for the Classics. There's even talk about him being the best ever classic rider in history. I think we're getting ahead of ourselves with that comparison, but regardless it does get the mind thinking.
Let's look at Boonen's win at E3. A finishing group of 45 riders charged down the two lane road and with just one teammate at the front Boonen launched from about the third position. Oscar Freire was nipping at the Belgian's heels, but it wasn't enough to beat him to the line. While not typically thought of as a bunch sprinter, he proved that he still has the fast-twitch muscles in those final 200 meters.
At Ghent-Wevelgem it was the same story - a bunch sprint with Boonen beating a lot of the one-day classic favorites such as the aforementioned Freire, as well as Peter Sagan, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Filippo Pozzato. And a lot like E3, he didn't have a leadout. In fact it was several riders taking a stab at trying to break away in the last kilometer, which made for a messy sprint at the end.
Interestingly, BMC's Alessandro Ballan attacked with less than a kilometer to go in what he must have known was a suicide move - which was foreshadowing for their next rendezvous in Flanders.
Boonen said in a post race interview that he wasn't the fastest sprinter, leaving that honor to Mark Cavendish of Team Sky, but he sure must be the craftiest.
Regardless of his show of strength many, myself included, thought RadioShack-Nissan's Fabian Cancellara was the man to beat at Flanders. My own personal reasoning was based more on a gut feeling than on actual empirical facts. I just thought there was no way he could continue to have such great form combined with good luck.
Cancellara also had an impressive early season. He had several top tens at both the Tour of Qatar and Oman. That was followed up by an impressive solo victory at Strade Bianche, a time trial win at Tirreno-Adriatico, and second place in Milan-San Remo.
Let's not forget that in 2010 he owned the triple: E3, Flanders and Roubaix - so yeah, he was a strong favorite. Bike supplier Trek publicly unveiled their "endurance category" bike - the Domane - in anticipation of a Flanders win. Cancellara had actually ridden this bike to victory in its first race, the Strade Bianche. New bike, a great display of form, and a five-star favorite from most journalists - what could go wrong?
With 60 kilometers remaining Fabs crashed out with the result a broken collarbone. And just like that Boonen became the man to beat in Roubaix. However, Boonen was still fighting for the win in Flanders and just like I mentioned earlier Ballan, for some reason, decided to launch several weak attacks, which Boonen easily covered. As we saw, Filippo Pozzato didn't respond to any of his countryman's surges and didn't counter attack. It was reported that he felt confident that he could beat Boonen in the sprint. He almost did beat Tommeke, but like the expression goes, "almost" counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades.
With Cancellara out with an injury Tornado Tom was a favorite for the upcoming Paris-Roubaix. However, there was Wednesday's Scheldeprijs race - considered a tune-up for the Queen of the Classics. While other competitors were looking to impress, Boonen was wearing full leg warmers and long sleeve jersey - an "old school" indication that Scheldeprijs was nothing more than a chance to keep the legs spinning for Flanders. The serious contenders were, at most, just wearing arm warmers.
What really stood out during Scheldeprijs was how Boonen would go to the front of the peloton and drive it hard like he was doing intervals. After a minute or two, he would rotate off the front and back into the peloton. Yeah, that was impressive.
In the end Boonen finished Scheldeprijs in 130th place, four minutes behind the winner Marcel Kittel (Team Argos-Shimano), but it was another indication of how strong he was riding.
By Sunday Paris-Roubaix had been whipped up into Boonen mania. Everyone's strong favorite was the Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider. Sure there were outside picks like the other two from Flanders: Ballan and Pozzato. Team BMC's other main threat, Thor Hushovd was not considered to be a factor in Roubaix. And of course we can't forget the defending Roubaix champion Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda). He'd had a decent season so far and there was no reason not to put him on the short list of potential winners. But looking at Boonen's 2012 season you had to say he was by far the favorite.
The part I love is the pre-race press conferences. Each favorite brushing off the claim of "favorite" and deflecting to their rival. I wish the riders were like boxers and talked mad smack.
For a race like Roubaix a significant portion of the race boils down to luck, which means no punctures (which hampered George Hincapie's chances this year) or crashes (which forced Pozzato to retire with 20 kilometers remaining).
With his position alternating from his hands in the drops to resting his forearms on the top of the bars in a faux-aerodynamic position Boonen, kilometer after kilometer, further distanced his rivals. It was impressive the power he had. After about ten kilometers it was game over and everyone was now racing for second place. For the viewer it wasn't exactly riveting racing, but the battles for the other podium positions were interesting with Ballan, Lars Boom and Juan Antonio Flecha attacking. However, the real kick to the junk was when Terpstra and Turgot caught back the three escapees on the last lap of the velodrome. Flecha must have thrown-up a bit in his mouth to see his chance for a podium disappear with their arrival.
Not to pat myself too hard on the back, but I actually predicted Boonen's solo win days before in an interview I had with Levi Leipheimer. Full disclaimer - I said he'd break away with 15 kilometers remaining - but let's not split hairs. As I wrote on my personal blog, Leipheimer took me to task for that prediction as past Boonen history hasn't indicated a solo win was in the cards. Regardless, I'm still pretty happy about my lucky guess ... err ... I mean educated prediction.
Speaking of pats on the back - how about Taylor Phinney! A 15th place finish in his first big boy Paris-Roubaix. And I have to agree with George Hincapie - Phinney will be the first American to win the Hell of the North.