With all eyes on him as the overwhelming pre-race favorite, Belgian Tom Boonen silenced his critics with a demonstrative solo victory at Paris-Roubaix Sunday, crossing the velodrome finish line 1:39 ahead of a five-man group.
After the day’s early 12-man breakaway had been reeled in, Boonen attacked, alongside his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Niki Terpstra, with 56km remaining. The pair quickly carved out a 15-second advantage before Terpstra was unable to match the pace.
And though he was alone, with four Team Sky riders amassed at the front of the first chase group, Boonen committed to the bold move, slowly increasing his lead until, with just over 10km remaining and the perilous Carrefour de l’Arbre cobblestones behind him, it was clear the race behind was for second place.
Frenchman Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) gave the home crowd something to celebrate as he edged out Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) in a dead-heat sprint for second place, while Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) took fourth. Terpstra was fifth, with Lars Boom (Rabobank) sixth.
With the win, Boonen ties Roger De Vlaeminck as the only other rider to win Roubaix four times; he also becomes the only rider to have won E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in one season, and he becomes the first rider to complete the Flanders-Roubaix double twice in his career.
“[Attacking from so far out] is not something I often do,” Boonen said. “But today was the perfect day to take a risk. When I arrived at the front with Niki, I thought, ‘Why not try?’”
Omega Pharma in control
Despite the forecasted rain showers, the peloton rolled out of Compiegne, France, under sunny skies with a chill to the air.
After 70km a group of 12 riders rolled off the front. Omega Pharma had representation in the form of Guillaume Van Keirsbulck; Sky and BMC did not, and took to the front, keeping the gap contained to just over four minutes.
Also in the move were Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack-Nissan), Kenny De Haes (Lotto-Belisol), Frederik Veuchelen and Bert Jan Lindeman (Vacansoleil-DCM), David Boucher (FDJ-Big Mat), Michael Mørkov (Saxo Bank), David Veilleux (Europcar), Dominic Klemme (Argos-Shimano), Laurent Mangel (Saur-Sojasun), Aleksejs Saramotins (Cofidis) and Grischa Janorschke (NetApp).
The breakaway began to split apart on the treacherous cobblestones of the Arenberg Forest, when Janorschke lost control of his front wheel and crashed hard, taking down De Haes and Van Keirsbulck. Only eight riders from the group would emerge together and Boonen had lost a key ally up the road.
Behind, race favorites Boonen, Ballan and Filippo Pozatto (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) jostled for position in the sprint leading into the infamous Arenberg Trench, with Boonen and teammate Sylvain Chavanel leading the peloton through the woods.
Exiting the Arenberg and the feed zone that immediately followed, and with 83km remaining, a dangerous six-man move slipped off the front of the main bunch. Ballan, Turgot and Flecha were in the group, along with Mathieu Ladagnous (FDJ), Jimmy Casper (AG2R) and Maarten Wynants (Rabobank). Chavanel and Geert Steegmans quickly went to the front and spent 10km chasing down the move, with the peloton strung out single-file.
Once the Flecha-Ballan escape had been neutralized, Chavanel counterattacked, drawing out Turgot and Ladagnous as well as Michael Schar (BMC) and Laurent Mangel (Saur-Sojasun). That group quickly fell to pieces, though, as Turgot attacked and Chavanel punctured.
Boonen goes it alone
The race began to truly take shape on the Orchies cobblestone sector with 60km to go, as Boonen and Pozatto accelerated from the pack, catching Turgot; behind, Terpstra and Ballan bridged across to form a dangerous five-man move.
Sensing the time was right, Boonen and Terpstra accelerated, while Pozatto and Ballan made the decision not to join the Belgian Omega Pharma teammates with so far to go. And that choice looked to be a wise one when Terpstra dropped back a few kilometers later on the five-star pavé section of Auchy-les-Orchies-Bersée, leaving Boonen on his own with 52km remaining.
Soon after, however, Pozzato lost his rear wheel in a cobblestone corner and went down, taking Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM) with him, and Boonen’s lead doubled.
For the first 10km of his solo move, Boonen’s gap hovered around 30 seconds, until it slowly started stretching out — 34 seconds at 43km to go, 37 seconds with 42km to go, 44 seconds with 37km to go, and 55 seconds with 32km to go.
“When I had 30 seconds, I thought, ‘Okay it’s hard for everyone,’” Boonen said. “I only worried about another favorite like Ballan or Pozatto bridging across on Carrefour de L’Arbre. Then it would have been impossible for me to win.”
Sky manned the front of a 15-rider chase group, with Ian Stannard and Mathew Hayman driving the chase, and Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha sitting squarely on their wheels. Others to contribute to the chase included defending champion Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda) and Boom, while Terpstra sat on, patrolling the chase group.
“Behind there were four riders from Sky and we thought they could catch Boonen, but apparently it was not possible,” said Luca Paolini (Katusha), who finished 11th. “We never gave up, we always stayed 40 or 50 seconds behind, but then he was able to grow the gap.”
It was an audacious solo attack reminiscent of Fabian Cancellara’s race-winning move in 2010, from nearly the exact same distance to the finish. The RadioShack-Nissan rider was conspicuously absent from the race after crashing out of the Tour of Flanders with a broken collarbone last Sunday. Yet Cancellara watched the race at home on television, and with 25km remaining, sent out a message via Twitter: “[Boonen] is [motivated] to win alone and not like the other races in the sprint. #mentalpower. Looks like it gonna happen.”
With only the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbles remaining as Boonen’s true final obstacle, Boom attacked from the chase group, opening a small gap on the chase group, and for the first time, Boonen’s lead dipped, slightly, from 1:20 to 1:10. Flecha, Ballan and Ladagnous followed Boom to form a four-man group, however Ladagnous punctured with 13km to go, leaving just three.
Once out of the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector, Boonen’s victory was assured; the race behind was for second place. And though it seemed the second-place finisher would come from the Flecha-Ballan-Boom chase group, cat-and-mouse tactics inside the velodrome allowed Turgot and Terpstra to make contact, with the Frenchman surprising to surge ahead of Ballan in a photo finish.
By that time, however, Boonen had already soaked up his victory lap, emphatically punctuating one of the most dominant spring classics campaigns in history.
“I think today was one of the best days in my career,” Boone said. “Normally I have to use my sprint in races like this and it is always much safer to save some energy for the finish, because if you put everything into the break and you get caught then you will be in trouble. But being a little bit older I tried not to panic and pushed it as hard as I could.”
American Taylor Phinney (BMC) rode to an impressive 15th-place finish, 4:37 back, in his pro debut at Paris-Roubaix after twice winning the under-23 race.
George Hincapie (BMC) finished his record-breaking 17th Paris-Roubaix in 43rd place, at 7:46. Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ) also set the 17-time mark and arrived to the velodrome 18:52 behind Boonen, officially outside the time cut. Guesdon was held up behind a crash with 110km-to-go.