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ROUBAIX, France (VN) — Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) won his third Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
After long hours in the saddle the 254.5km cobbled classic boiled down to just two contenders — heavy favorite Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) — and the two seemed evenly matched in the final 10km.
They rode into the Roubaix velodrome together, and the bell rang, with Cancellara on the wheel.
The Blanco rider led it out, but Cancellara summoned his remaining strength and passed Vanmarcke at the line. Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma) was best of the rest in third place.
“It’s amazing having a third victory,” said Cancellara. “It’s always nice to win alone but today there was pure fighting until the very end. I could not believe it when I crossed the finish line.”
A very near thing
Vanmarcke had been off the front with Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma) with less than 30km to race, while Cancellara was behind in a group with Terpstra, Bernhard Eisel (Sky) and Lars Boom (Blanco).
But a few kilometers later the two-time Roubaix champ surged, taking Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma) along for a very wild ride indeed.
In short order the two hounds had caught the two hares, and the four-man lead group had 38 seconds’ advantage over the pursuit.
“I was just following Cancellara,” said Stybar. “I had really perfect legs and I was feeling very good. Niki was behind me so I didn’t have to pull at all. I was really in a super situation.”
Then luck took a hand — and it wasn’t good luck for Omega Pharma.
Crowded and crashed
First Vandenbergh hit a fan and crashed heavily with 16km to go, leaving three men in the lead.
Cancellara opened the throttle and Stybar stuck with him, with Vanmarcke third.
The Belgian then took his own dig, and Stybar collided with a spectator, only just keeping himself upright. But he was out of the hunt, and there were just two men left off the front.
“There were three of us away and I thought, ‘I think I am one of the fastest,’ so I was really focusing on what I could do in the final,” said Stybar. “But there was some photographer or something in the way and I hit him with my shifter and I nearly crashed. Before I could put my foot back in the pedal I just lost contact with the wheel of Cancellara.
“Once you have a gap of 5 to 10 seconds, it’s impossible to close on this parcours, especially after 240 kilometers.”
A two-man race
With 6km remaining Cancellara and Vanmarcke were trading pulls, and the two leaders had a minute’s advantage over Stybar, who suddenly found himself joined by Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and a cast of thousands.
Cancellara punched it with 4km to go, but Vanmarcke responded. The two then settled down, taking pulls from their bottles and playing a bit of cat and mouse, the chase having grown in numbers but no longer a threat.
With 1.5km to go Vanmarcke had a bit of a dig, but only a bit, and Cancellara marked him easily.
The two hit the velodrome together, rode up the banking and then back down. Vanmarcke made a fight of it, but Cancellara would not be denied.
Tougher than it looked
Cancellara told the press afterward that he had been having trouble on the cobblestones — “I could not go forward. I was going backward,” he said — but nevertheless had faith in his team and in himself.
“I was probably more confident today than in 2011,” he said. “The team is strong. They did a fantastic job until they couldn’t. We knew from the start that this was going to be a big fight. This is how Roubaix is.”
Once the team was spent, he added, “I just tried to find moments with the right people in front, and the right teams.
“I had to fight. I don’t know how I did it in the end. It’s just amazing. My legs and my head wanted to bring me here. Now I want one thing — holiday, holiday, and put the bike on the side.”
Cancellara looked stiff and sore as he mounted the podium, but he had enough left in the tank to smile and hoist his cobblestone trophy high above his head.
So close, and yet so far
Vanmarcke had hoped for better things, of course.
“The closer we came to the velodrome, the more I believed in the victory,” he said. “But Fabian was strong. I should be proud of what I did … but I am disappointed, extremely disappointed. I came so close!”
Terpstra, meanwhile, proclaimed himself happy to have made the podium.
“The team was really strong,” he said. “Tom Boonen was not here, and he is our leader, but we had our chances. I think we could have played a very nice tactical game in the final, but Zdenek and Stijn crashed so I think in the end I am happy to take this podium place.”
• The victory gave Cancellara the lead in the UCI WorldTour, with 351 points. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) sits second with 312 while Richie Porte (Sky) is third with 200.
• The win also put the big Swiss into some elite company. Among the other riders to win three times in Roubaix are Octave Lapize, Gaston Rebry, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser and Johan Museeuw. Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen are tied for the record with four wins apiece.
• BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who had hoped for big things in Roubaix, had to content himself with 23rd on Sunday. After feeling good through the first 200km, things began to unravel on the 10th-to-last of the 27 sectors of cobblestones. “I was maybe feeling a bit too good,” he said. “I think I got a bit excited. I never had any bad luck or any crashes. But when I needed to have the big kick to stay with the front group on Mons-en-Pévèle, I didn’t have it. That was too bad.”
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Paris-Roubaix.