Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) always talks from the heart, but nothing gets his heart racing more than Paris-Roubaix.
The 37-year-old Aussie won the race in 2007, but last Sunday, he didn’t make the time cut. O’Grady went down swinging, doing what he could do to help teammate Fabian Cancellara before a series of mishaps derailed his own chances.
O’Grady was walking to pick up his kids at school in his European home-base in Monaco when he took a call from VeloNews. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: Stuart, talk about Roubaix. Cancellara almost won, but you were eliminated by the time cut, tell us what happened in the trenches …
SO’G: In general, the team wasn’t on a 100-percent day. We had a couple riders who were not having a fantastic day on the bike. That happens, that’s Roubaix. Every team has a hard luck story; every rider has their own unique story. We just missed a couple of guys when we needed them, so that meant that I had to work a lot earlier than planned.
My strategy and desire was to be up at the front to be help Fabian late in the race, but circumstances made the race different. We had to adjust and I had to work a bit earlier. I had to try to bring that group back after the forest. I had a bad moment in the forest. I had to do a bit of jumping around, covering attacks even before we came in, so that took the edge off me.
I was pretty average through the forest, but I managed to get back to the front. By that time, we had left Fabian without support, so I had to do the job. I had to make a decision on the road. There were 18 guys up the road, and we had to shut this down. When Fabian attacked, that was it. I got dropped and he was gone. I managed to fight back to the front group, but then I punctured.
VN: Puncturing with 50km to go when the attacks are going down is not ideal in Roubaix?
SO’G: No, not if you want to win. I punctured pretty much right at 50km to go. I got through the second feed and managed to get back onto the front group. I was catching my breath and made it through the next sector feeling a little better, then – boom! – there goes my rear tire. I was standing on the side of the road for a minute and a half waiting for the team car to come through.
Needless to say, it was a very lonely ride back to the velodrome. That’s the beauty of Roubaix, though. A few years ago I was attacking on the same sector to win, then this year I am sitting there watching the race ride away from me. At the end of the day, we’re there to win the race. All the cards were on Fabian. He gave it a good crack. We’re down a little bit, because we just missed that little bit to win. A couple of guys had a bad day, a few crashes. That happens. That’s Paris-Roubaix. We had a perfect strategy and we had a perfect run-up to Roubaix. What happens on the road is impossible to predict.
VN: What’s your impression of Cancellara’s performance?
SO’G: Fabian proved yet again he’s the strongest rider out there. The ride he did was absolutely incredible. He earns 10 out of 10. For what he did, with all the pressure, the expectations, the tactics of the other teams. For the guts and strength and the determination he brought to the team, he’s just an exceptional athlete. And he showed it again Sunday.
VN: The way Garmin-Cervélo rode, it appears it takes an entire team to beat him?
SO’G: We didn’t have the strongest team on paper. We wanted to make good decisions on the road. We’ve never been a team, when you look at the start list, think these guys are going to dominate. It’s not a team of heavy hitters. We train and we race well together. We have a lot of fun. And we have Fabian Cancellara. That’s what you miss at the end of the day. The teams who were focusing only on Fabian were out of the equation. A lot of teams lost the race because of that.
VN: What do you make of Garmin’s tactics?
SO’G: It’s a tough call. I respect a lot the riders on that team. They’re all champions and they won the race. I do feel sorry for Thor, though. It’s maybe an once-in-a-lifetime occasion to be in Roubaix with the rainbow jersey with a shot to win it. Even to stand second or third on the podium in the rainbow jersey is something you’d never forget. He had his race neutralized.
Whether or not that call came from the car, I don’t know, but it probably did. I feel sorry for Thor, because that’s an opportunity that’s gone. You don’t get many shots at Roubaix in the first place. So when you’re up there, you have to take it. He’s the team leader, he’s the world champion. OK, the team won, but what happens if next year Thor ends up on another team? They rode a fantastic race in the end. They had to lift their game and they did. And they won the race. But I have to admit, some of their tactics were pretty weird.
VN: You finished beyond the time cut, how do you feel about that after suffering through the race?
SO’G: I think it’s a bit of bullshit, really. It’s completely ridiculous that they eliminate guys. I feel like writing a letter to the UCI. I wonder how many of them could finish the race. That rule should be changed. You still finish the race. You go through hell and back to finish Roubaix. You do it out of pride and out of respect for the race and the fans. They should give the guys a bit of credit for finishing. It would be a lot easier to step out of the pedals. I was really close to abandoning, but then Luke Roberts caught me. We were two guys from Adelaide riding along. Most of the spectators were gone, the team cars were gone. There was no support, no food, no water, but we were determined to make it to the velodrome. That was the longest 50km of my life. That’s why they call it the “Hell of the North.” Those last kilometers were pure hell. It’s a mystical race and by getting slapped in the face only makes you want to come back and do better.
VN: So the idea of imposing a strict time cut seems a bit cruel in your book for a race as hard as Roubaix?
SO’G: It’s a different sense of achievement to finish the ‘Hell of the North. As much as I was hating it at the time, I was very proud to make it to the velodrome on Sunday. For any rider who tries to ride Roubaix, just to finish is something that’s special. And, geez, just to take it away like that because of some time cut, that doesn’t seem fair. It’s not for any UCI points; we’re not racing the next day in a stage race. I think riders who finish deserve to have an official result.
VN: Looking back at your victory, what does it mean to you now after having a few years to reflect on it?
SO’G: When you’re look at the race book and see your name, the Aussie flag and see the riders who’ve won the race, it gave me goose bumps. I was proud. It’s still one of the greatest days I’ve had on my career. If I don’t win another bike race, I don’t even care. Winning Roubaix was the most important of my career. It meant so much. It keeps the hunger alive, I d like try to win another one.
Those occasions don’t happen very often. You can be the strongest in the race and have misfortune and be on the side of the road. You might only get 3-4 shots in your career when you’re at the front and going for the win. You cannot miss out on these occasions. I will come back and try again next year. I don’t want to finish Roubaix with that kind of feeling, just groveling over the finish line trying to make the time cut. I want to come back and make an impression.
VN: What does your future hold? How much longer do you plan to race?
SO’G: I know I am getting old because that question is getting asked more and more. I didn’t have the race I wanted to on Sunday, but looking at the spring campaign, I think I could have podiumed at Milan-San Remo, but I helped Fabian there. It means a lot to what we did. I am still love bike racing. I’ve been more focused and trained harder than I have in many years. I’ve been switched on.
I’ve sacrificed a lot from my family. My wife, she’s been supportive because she knows I don’t have five to seven years left. I am racing every classic like it’s my last. It won’t be, but you never know what. One bad crash and it’s over. I don’t know, one year, maybe two. As long as I can have a positive influence on the boys, I will be there for them. We’re going next to try to win the Tour de France. I know my role there. If we pull it off, that would be a great way to cap a wonderful career. I am still enjoying. Like any job, you have your ups and downs, but I love racing.