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The best for last: Roubaix wraps up a thrilling cobbled classics season

An extremely animated Paris-Roubaix wraps up a thrilling cobbled classics season for the old hands and a new generation of stone bashers

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The cobblestone portion of the 2014 spring classics ended Sunday in the historic Roubaix velodrome, after an unpredictable race for the ages — a hard-fought Paris-Roubaix that encapsulated everything that is right about these hallowed one-day events.

The “Queen of the Classics” did not disappoint. The 112th edition of the rugged race had it all, and delivered the most thrilling Paris-Roubaix finale in years.

There were the unavoidable crashes, punctures, and mechanical problems that define every edition, such as the bad luck that fell upon Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. The Milano-Sanremo winner punctured in the decisive Arenberg Forest, and then crashed, twice, trying to chase back on; a race motorcycle caused the first.

There was four-time Roubaix champion Tom Boonen, of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, looking to make history, laying it on the line with a brazen attack 60 kilometers from the finish.

There was defending champion and pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara of Trek Factory Racing, heavily marked and without a teammate in the final 30km, trying in vain to whittle down the lead group.

There was Cannondale phenom Peter Sagan, at one moment seemingly out of position, and the next moment attacking off the front, just before the last critical section of pavé at Carrefour de l’Arbre.

There was Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, the first Tour de France champion to start Roubaix since Greg LeMond in 1994, clawing his way back into the lead group with less than 10 kilometers to go.

And then there was Niki Terpstra’s race-winning move, with 6km to go. The Dutch classics star had only just rejoined the leaders, along with Boonen, Wiggins, and Geraint Thomas (Sky), when he launched a perfectly timed attack that cracked the riddle of a wide-open Roubaix.

By the time Thomas took up the chase, Terpstra was gone, and the race was for second place.

Yes, this Paris-Roubaix had it all. And that was largely due to the weather conditions: warm and dry, with a strong headwind nullifying attacks, neutralizing stronger riders, and favoring team tactics.

“The wind altered the way the race went. In the run-in I thought about breaking away, but there was a headwind, and the others were waiting for me to attack,” Cancellara said.

And in that scenario, Omega Pharma came out on top. The Belgian team started the day in Compiègne with three aces up its sleeve — Boonen, Terpstra, and world cyclocross champion Zdenek Stybar.

Though he’d never won a major classic, Terpstra’s class on the cobblestones was never in doubt. He finished third at Roubaix in 2013, and fifth in 2012. On March 26 he took his second win at the Tour of Flanders tune-up race, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and two days later he finished as runner-up to Sagan at E3 Harelbeke. In the week leading into Flanders, Terpstra finished fourth overall at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne).

Omega Pharma, which walked away from the Ronde van Vlaanderen one week earlier with three riders in the top 10 but without a podium finisher, was badly in need of a win to salvage a bittersweet classics season.

Terpstra took Dwars door Vlaanderen, Boonen won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and star-of-the-future Guillaume Van Keirsbulck sealed the overall at Three Days of De Panne. Yet the strongest classics team in pro cycling had been shut out of the podium at De Ronde, the most important race in Belgium, and had been unable to secure the Harelbeke win from Sagan, even with two of four riders in the final move.

So when Omega team manager Patrick Lefevere posted the simple message of “D-Day” on Twitter the morning of the race, the message was clear — anything less than victory would be unacceptable. The big-budget Belgian squad may not be expected to win a grand tour, but when it comes to the cobblestone classics, victories are demanded.

Omega Pharma’s uncertainty at Roubaix

However, Omega’s win at Roubaix was never assured. And neither was which rider might bring that victory home.

Boonen, who struggled with injury as well as personal tragedy this classics season, put in a massive effort in a six-man break, along with Thomas and Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) that, at one point, held a 45-second advantage.

After his escape had been reeled in, Boonen lost position, stuck behind Lars Boom’s crash right as his Belkin teammate Sep Vanmarcke and Cancellara attacked; he then had trouble clipping back into his pedal. Working with Thomas, Wiggins, and Terpstra, Boonen made it back to the lead group with 10km to go.

In the moments before Terpstra’s winning attack, it appeared there could well be an 11-man sprint for the line — a wild blur of tired riders bumping elbows and wheels. It was almost without precedent — the last time more than four riders entered the velodrome together was in 1997.

The lead group was together with 7km to go and only one significant section of cobblestones remaining. And with Sagan and Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb still in the group, there was no guarantee that Boonen would take the sprint, particularly not after he driving his ill-fated escape for 40 kilometers.

Instead, Terpstra flipped the script, with a perfectly timed attack that pulled the rug out from under the entire group. An instant of hesitation followed, and he was gone.

“The headwind and the fact that nobody wanted to race, made it hard to win. When Terpstra attacked and took a 15-meter lead, I knew enough,” Vanmarcke said. “The others hesitated and I didn’t want to respond again, as I had done that a few times before.”

Terpstra quickly opened a 25-second advantage, and Omega’s classics season was complete. Boonen would not be securing a record-breaking fifth win. Cancellara would not be locking up a record-breaking third career Flanders-Roubaix double. Wiggins would not become the first Tour champion to win Roubaix since Bernard Hinault in 1981. Instead, Terpstra would become the first Dutch winner since Servais Knaven in 2001.

“I attacked at the right moment,” Terpstra said. “The whole group was strong. Every rider who was there had good legs.”

(For the data geeks out there, Terpstra is a religious Strava user, and though his numbers hadn’t been posted by the time this story posted, they should be found here.)

Degenkolb took the sprint for second, proving that he likely has a future Roubaix victory in his legs. And Cancellara finished behind Degenkolb, in third, meaning he has now stood on the podium of the last 12 monuments he’s finished, dating back to the 2010 Tour of Flanders, which he won. This year alone, he’s won Flanders, finished second at Sanremo, and now third at Roubaix.

“It was a special race; very tactical,” Cancellara said. “Vanmarcke and I tried from the back but [Omega Pharma] did a good job. They played it well. People were expecting my attack on the cobbles, but I had ‘funny’ legs the whole day. It was a hard finish, and it was tough with me being alone at the end, and other teams still had two riders. I think I had no other choice.

“It was normal that there was not a huge collaboration when I went away with the four others after Carrefour de l’Arbre,” Cancellara continued. “I tried, Vanmarcke tried, Degenkolb tried, but of course [Omega] played their cards, and with their tactics in the end, the strongest team has won.”

Cancellara later skipped the post-race press conference, drawing a 1000 Swiss Franc fine from the UCI. Perhaps that was to avoid the inevitable questions regarding comments he’d made about Wiggins on March 18, at the end of Tirreno-Adriatico, regarding the Sky rider’s decision to target Roubaix.

“Wiggins? Why?” Cancellara had joked in March. “Of course he’s welcome. Everyone is welcome to Roubaix. Everyone. Even [Nairo] Quintana is welcome.”

In the end, the mercurial Wiggins answered his many doubters, finishing in the same time as Cancellara — and ahead of pre-race favorites such as Boonen, Hushovd, and American Taylor Phinney. (Phinney punctured with 15km to go, at Carrefour de l’Arbre, and finished 30th, 2:55 down.)

“There’s a tinge of disappointment, because I really had the legs,” Wiggins said. “Even in the final I felt strong. There was a part of it where I was pinching myself a bit. I don’t mind admitting that. It was a real honor to be there in the final. Going past Boonen on the Carrefour was something special. And then to come onto the velodrome with the group of Cancellara and those guys … to be there was great.

“I’ve got the confidence now that I can do it now and match those guys. To go top 10, I think in hindsight, is a good result. There are not many Tour de France winners that have gone top 10 in Roubaix. On a personal note it’s a nice thing.”

The next generation of cobblestone crushers

This year’s Paris-Roubaix didn’t pan out as the Cancellara-Boonen duel that many had anticipated in the days before the race.

And a quick look at the top 10 reveals that behind Cancellara and Boonen is a long list of young riders ready to take over. (Noteworthy: Boonen was 24 when he first won Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara was 25. Both men are now in their early 30s.)

Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke, 25, can only look back on his cobbled classics season with a bittersweet mix of accomplishment and despair. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound Belgian, who was runner-up to Cancellara at Roubaix last year, finished third at Flanders, fourth at Roubaix, fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, and fifth at Harelbeke. (A month earlier, he was also third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.) It’s hard to imagine Vanmarcke’s frustration, to be so close, so many times, without a win to show for it.

“Every race I was there, but in the end I’m standing here empty handed,” said Vanmarcke. “I really wanted to win that big race. Besides that, I finished just outside the top three a few times, while I had the feeling that I could have been on the podium.”

Though Terpstra won, and Wiggins surprised, Degenkolb, who is also 25, was the revelation of the race. The German strongman followed all the right moves, and then won the sprint for second. His result confirms his win at Gent-Wevelgem, and takes the sting out of his missed the opportunity to sprint for victory at Milano-Sanremo after a devastating late-race puncture. A stage winner at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, Degenkolb appears destined to win a major classic.

“I’m so proud of this result today, and of the way my team rode and supported me, Degenkolb said. “This is my first podium in a monument and it is such a great feeling.”

After finishing second to Cancellara at Flanders in 2013, Sagan, who is only 24, is yet to taste his first major classic victory. His big win this season came at E3 Harelbeke; he was also third at Gent-Wevelgem, and finished in the top 10 at both Milano-Sanremo and Roubaix. After a disappointing Flanders, where he finished 16th, Sagan showed no fear on Sunday. He attacked out of a select group with 20 kilometers to go, and exited the Carrefour de l’Arbre alone, but was soon caught by Cancellara, Vanmarcke, Stybar, and Degenkolb.

“In the velodrome I wasn’t able to sprint, due to cramps, but anyway I’m satisfied for my result even if didn’t get the victory or the podium,” Sagan said. “For what I did today, after such a long northern classics campaign, I’m fine with it. Now I know I can be competitive in a race like Roubaix. I know I can improve, there’s the foundation there to build upon.”

Stybar, who finished fifth, is 28. The Czech rider showed his cobblestone pedigree at the 2013 Roubaix, as the only man capable of following Cancellara’s blistering late-race attack. (Stybar crashed out of the lead group late in that race, colliding with a fan.) He also impressed this season with a seventh-place finish at Milano-Sanremo on March 23.

“I felt better than last year, which is important for me,” Stybar said. “Of course I am happy the team has won after the perfect timing of Niki’s attack. It was not an easy race today with a headwind. Once you go on the front of the group, it kills you. At the crucial points I was lucky, and other times it was about important decisions. I was in a crash after Arenberg. I was lucky it was without any consequences for me, or for my bike. Then, in the final kilometers, I was in the breakaway with just Sagan, Degenkolb, Vanmarcke, and Cancellara. I didn’t collaborate, as I knew Tom and Niki were chasing our group. With Sagan and Degenkolb, it would be hard to go to the line with them. So I waited to work with my teammates, and it worked out for the team.”

Thomas, who is 27, finished third at E3 Harelbeke and eighth at Flanders before taking seventh at Roubaix. A former winner of the junior Paris-Roubaix, Thomas rode in a support role for Wiggins, and was one of the only riders to contribute to the workload from Boonen’s six-man escape. He later helped drive Wiggins back up to the Cancellara-Sagan group with 10km remaining.

“I was on my knees, to be honest, in the last 10km,” Thomas said. “I spoke to Brad, and he said he felt good. When Terpstra attacked, I looked to commit and try to keep the gap as small as possible. Brad didn’t really have the opportunity to go in the end, so it just came down to the sprint. … It’s nice to get a top 10 again. The way I rode it wasn’t the easy way. We were out front for a lot of the time. It’s satisfying, but at the same time we wanted to get a podium. I think we’ve definitely improved as a whole over the classics season. We’re missing (Ian) Stannard, who would have been a key rider for us today.”

Sky’s Stannard, who is 26, is another major cobblestone classics talent. He won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in early March, but crashed out of Gent-Wevelgem with a cracked vertebra, and missed both Flanders and Roubaix.

Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, also 26, won Milano-Sanremo and placed fifth at Flanders, but exited Roubaix in an ambulance; after puncturing at the entrance to the Arenberg Forest, he crashed twice while trying to regain contact with the front group.

“I felt incredibly good before the Arenberg. I had a maximum heart rate of 150 before we entered the Arenberg,” Kristoff told Norwegian website “Sure, it’s disappointing. But such is life in these races. Punctures in the Arenberg are always a problem at Roubaix. I hope to have better luck next year.”

Terpstra turns ‘Generation Next’ into ‘Generation Now’

And then, of course, there is the newly crowned Roubaix champion.

Terpstra is 29, and seemingly still discovering his potential. His 2014 classics season includes wins at Roubaix and Dwars door Vlaanderen, second, to Sagan, at Harelbeke, fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and sixth at Flanders — as well as fourth overall at Three Days of De Panne. In February, the 6-foot-1, 163-pound Dutchman also won a stage, and the overall, at the Tour of Qatar.

“Since I was a little child and I started cycling, Paris-Roubaix was the most special race for me,” Terpstra said. Now I have won it. It’s a dream come true. Paris-Roubaix is a crazy race, old fashioned, but that’s why it’s special and why I love it that much. It was really my lucky day.”

As long as he keeps racing the cobbled classics on the all-star Omega Pharma super team, it’s likely Terpstra will continue to have big days like he did in Roubaix on Sunday.

After finishing fifth in 2012, third in 2013, and first on Sunday, Terpstra said of Paris-Roubaix, “If you can finish in the top 10 here you can also, with a bit of luck, win it.”

There’s a batch of talented young riders who are banking on that being true. Paris-Roubaix looks poised to maintain its mantle as the “Queen of the Classics” for the foreseeable future.