By Kip Mikler, VeloNews Editor
Nothing, it seems, can stop Johan Museeuw. Four years ago, a crash on the wicked cobblestones of the Arenberg Forest in northern France threatened to end his career when gangrene almost took over a gash in his leg, nearly leading to amputation. The “Lion of Flanders” overcame that setback to win Roubaix in 2000, only to go down to injury again when he crashed on his motorcycle.
On Sunday, Museeuw had new adversity to overcome. There was the cold, biting wind and rain that had the “Hell of the North” living up to the reputation it has earned in its previous 99 editions — and a determined, well-running U.S. Postal Service team being bolstered by an inspired and eye-opening ride by 21-year-old Belgian Tom Boonen.
It’s Museeuw’s flair for the dramatic as much as anything else that makes the 36-year-old Domo-Farm Frites rider the runaway winner of the Mr. Popularity vote in the spring classics. Belgian fans waving yellow flags decorated with black lions — in honor of the so-called “Lion of Flanders” — outnumber all others at least two to one on the road to Roubaix.
And as Museeuw rode off of the hallowed Roubaix velodrome Sunday evening, with his son riding double on his mud-covered Eddy Merckx bike, it was the final time he would do so. Fittingly, he did it as the winner, his third Paris-Roubaix victory in hand.
“I ride races to win them, but I don’t put any pressure on myself,” he said. “I’ve been at the top now for 10 years, but I still enjoy winning.”
Finishing second to Museeuw, 3:04 behind the Belgian’s winning time of 6:39:08 over 261km, was the gritty German Steffen Wesemann (Telekom), who outlasted the Postal duo of George Hincapie and the third-place Boonen.
One hundred and ninety riders started the 100th edition of Paris-Roubaix on a clear, brisk morning in the town of Compiègne, 80km to the north of central Paris. Facing a crosswind blowing in from the northwest and temperatures in the low 40s, the pretenders wasted no time animating the race, which included one tricky new pavé section 31km from the finish.
The first section of pavé wouldn’t come for 97km, but in the windy conditions, a group of 33 riders, forming an echelon across the wide roads, split off the front just 30km into the day. In the first hour, they completed 46.3 kilometers. Boonen was among the leaders in that group; Hincapie and Museeuw were not.
“Tom was super-good today,” Hincapie said after the finish. “He was a lot stronger than I was.”
The Boonen group would stay out front for another 51km until the Tacconi-Vini Caldirola squad, working for Gianluca Bortolami, would lead the chase to shut it down. After the first section of pavé, at 97km in Troisvilles, just seven riders remained at the front: Enrico Cassani and Max Van Heejswijk of Domo-Farm Frites, Laszlo Bodrogi and Robert Hunter of Mapei-Quick Step, Hans De Clerq of Lotto-Adecco, Raphael Schweda of Coast, and Boonen.
Over the next several sections of cobblestones, the rain picked up, adding to the hectic mood at the front. After several shake-ups, 10 riders eventually joined the lead group. Among the newcomers were Belgian Nico Mattan (Cofidis) and French veteran Thierry Gouvenou (BigMat-Auber 93).
Meanwhile, Hincapie’s Postal team, sensing danger in the lead group, was going to work. With Floyd Landis and Tony Cruz taking turns at the front of the main field, they entered the Arenberg Forest 3:40 behind the leaders. It was after that section, the 15th of 26 pavé sections, that the final shakedown would start to take place.
After Arenberg, 10 of the 17 riders in the lead group remained, as a formidable chase being led by Museeuw — and including Hincapie and fellow American Fred Rodriguez (Domo-Farm Frites) — was formed.
After a long chase, the group containing Museeuw, Rodriguez and Hincapie caught the leaders in a 1000-meter long section of cobblestones in Mons-en-Pévèle, 46km from the finish.
Museeuw, feeling strong, had a decision to make. His teammates Rodriguez and Knaven had crashed and fallen out of the group. Postal had two riders.
“There was a flash in my head,” Museeuw said. “Is it too far? Is it not too far? There were a lot of good riders there — Hincapie, Tom Boonen.”
Still, with 40km and seven tough sections of cobblestones between him and the velodrome, Museeuw made that decision and followed through with authority. “I went very hard for 10 kilometers and they told me [the gap was] 1:10. I thought that might be enough.”
Boonen knew what he had to do. “I still felt okay when Museeuw went, but it was hard on the cobbles and I slipped a little bit,” he said. “George tried to go after him, but he couldn’t close the gap. I took George and just started pulling. I was just putting it down and the other guys were getting dropped one by one. After a while I turned around and it was just me and George.”
The Postal duo was a notch ahead of everyone else, but Museeuw was in a league of his own. “There was no way, Johan was so strong today,” Boonen said. “We tried.”
With 18km to go, in the Camphin-en-Pévèle section of pavé, Hincapie took a nasty fall and Boonen was forced to go it alone. “I wasn’t sure what to do, but George was tired, too, and [Postal directeur sportif] Dirk Demol told me to go for the podium.”
Wesemann, meanwhile, overcame Hincapie and reeled in Boonen. He got on the Belgian’s wheel and the two entered the velodrome together. The German outsprinted Boonen for second, but it was still a promising performance from the young Postal recruit.
“I don’t think I realize what I’ve just done,” said the revelation of the day. “I took 230 Ks in a breakaway and I wasn’t getting tired.”
Hincapie picked himself up to finish in the next group, sixth behind 32-year-old Dutchman Tristan Hoffman (CSC-Tiscali) and Dane Lars Michaelsen (Coast).
In the end, though, it was Museeuw’s day. As he rode off the 106-year-old concrete track of the Roubaix velodrome for the final time in his career, his fans waved their flags, singing their song: “Yo-yo-Johan! Johan Museeuw.”
And, as if on cue, the sun came out for the first time all day.
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1. MUSEEUW Johan, BEL, DFF, in 6:39:08;
2. WESEMANN Steffen, GER, TEL, at 03:04 ;
3. BOONEN Tom, BEL, USP, at 03:08 ;
4. HOFFMAN Tristan, NED, CST, at 04:02 ;
5. MICHAELSEN Lars, DEN, COA, at 04:02 ;
6. HINCAPIE George, USA, USP, at 04:02 ;
7. GOUVENOU Thierry, FRA, BIG, at 04:02 ;
8. VAN HEESWIJK Max, NED, DFF, at 04:02 ;
9. MATTAN Nico, BEL, COF, at 04:02 ;
10. CASSANI Enrico, ITA, DFF, at 04:02 ;
11. SCHWEDA Raphael, GER, COA, at 04:09 ;
12. DE CLERCQ Hans, BEL, LOT, at 08:07 ;
13. KNAVEN Servais, NED, DFF, at 08:07 ;
14. HOJ Frank, DEN, COA, at 08:07 ;
15. SPRUCH Zbigniew, POL, LAM, at 08:07 ;
16. SCIANDRI Maximilian, GBR, LAM, at 08:14 ;
17. TAFI Andrea, ITA, MAP, at 09:11 ;
18. VIERHOUTEN Aart, NED, LOT, at 09:11 ;
19. FLAMMANG Tom, LUX, COF, at 09:11 ;
20. WAUTERS Marc, BEL, RAB, at 09:11 ;
21. CRETSKENS Wilfried, BEL, DFF, at 09:11 ;
22. MILESI Marco, ITA, DFF, at 09:17 ;
23. WROLICH Peter, AUT, GST, at 09:17 ;
24. BOVEN Jan, NED, RAB, at 09:17 ;
25. ALDAG Rolf, GER, TEL, at 09:17 ;
26. ZABEL Erik, GER, TEL, at 09:59 ;
27. RODRIGUEZ Fred, USA, DFF, at 14:00 ;
28. PRONK Matthé, NED, RAB, at 15:18 ;
29. ZANETTE Denis, ITA, FAS, at 15:21 ;
30. TESSIER Jean-Michel, FRA, COF, at 15:21 ;
31. NITSCHE Torsten, GER, SAE, at 15:21 ;
32. IVANOV Serguei, RUS, FAS, at 15:21 ;
33. HUSHOVD Thor, NOR, C.A, at 16:38 ;
34. GARDEYN Gorik, BEL, LOT, at 17:15 ;
35. CAPELLE Ludovic, BEL, A2R, at 17:48 ;
36. NIJS Sven, BEL, RAB, at 17:48 ;
37. SIVAKOV Alexei, RUS, BIG, at 17:48 ;
38. LANDALUZE Inigo, ESP, EUS, at 17:48 ;
39. HORRILLO MUNOZ Pedro, ESP, MAP, at 17:48 ;
40. HUNTER Robert, RSA, MAP, at 17:48 ;
41. AUGER Ludovic, FRA, BIG, at 17:48 ;
World Cup Standings;
1. MUSEEUW Johan, BEL, DOMO-FARM FRITES, 170 ;
2. CIPOLLINI Mario, ITA, ACQUA & SAPONE CANTINA TOLLO, 120 ;
3. TAFI Andrea, ITA, MAPEI-QUICK STEP, 109 ;
4. HINCAPIE George, USA, US POSTAL SERVICE, 82 ;
5. RODRIGUEZ Fred, USA, DOMO-FARM FRITES, 79 ;
6. WESEMANN Steffen, GER, TEAM TELEKOM, 70 ;
7. VAN PETEGEM Peter, BEL, LOTTO-ADECCO, 61 ;
8. PLANCKAERT Jo, BEL, COFIDIS, 55 ;
9. BOONEN Tom, BEL, US POSTAL SERVICE, 52 ;
10. ZBERG Markus, SUI, RABOBANK, 51 ;
11. MICHAELSEN Lars, DEN, TEAM COAST, 49 ;
12. CASSANI Enrico, ITA, DOMO-FARM FRITES, 46 ;
13. HOFFMAN Tristan, NED, TEAM CSC TISCALI, 40 ;
14. NARDELLO Daniele, ITA, MAPEI-QUICK STEP, 36 ;
15. FREIRE GOMEZ Oscar, ESP, MAPEI-QUICK STEP, 36 ;
16. SORENSEN Rolf, DEN, LANDBOUWKREDIET-COLNAGO, 32 ;
17. KONECNY Tomas, CZE, DOMO-FARM FRITES, 32 ;
18. GOUVENOU Thierry, FRA, BIG MAT – AUBER 93, 28 ;
19. TCHMIL Andrei, BEL, LOTTO-ADECCO, 28 ;
20. HAUPTMAN Andrej, SLO, TACCONI SPORT, 25 ;