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Ballan leads content BMC squad out of cobbled classics

Ballan emerges to save the day for star-packed super team

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ROUBAIX, France (VN) — BMC Racing scored two podiums at Flanders and Roubaix this week, but not with the riders everyone expected to see receiving kisses from the podium girls.

With Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd battling through ill health and crashes, it was Alessandro Ballan who carried team colors through the cobbles. Ballan notched third at both Flanders and Roubaix (in a photo finish to Sébastien Turgot).

“We’re very happy with how the team rode on the cobblestones,” said team manager Jim Ochowicz at the Roubaix velodrome. “Of course, we’d like to get the win, but to earn two podiums in what are the hardest races of the year shows how deep this squad is.”

Though he was initially on Tom Boonen’s wheel Sunday, Ballan didn’t answer when the Belgian punched the accelerator with about 55km to go.

The Italian former world champion later rode in the chase group in Boonen’s wake, intent on saving the day and making it on the podium.

“When Boonen attacked, I worked hard to reach him and Pozzato. At that moment, Pozzato asked me to take a turn, but I was really tired. Behind me was Hushovd and even the sport directors told me not to force it,” Ballan said. “That allowed Boonen to open up the gap. I thought there would be plenty of road to reel him in, but in the contrary, he proved he was very strong.”

Gilbert didn’t start Roubaix, as planned, and is preparing for an assault on the Ardennes after struggling through Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders without being a factor in either race.

Worse off was Hushovd, who said he was hitting peak form in time for an run at the elusive Roubaix title when disaster struck after coming through the Arenberg Forest in good position.

Hushovd bunny-hopped a curb in a left hand corner, but landed off-line and hit the deck in the middle of the traffic circle. That took the wind out of his sails and he never regained contact with the front group in what was another Roubaix disappointment. He finished 14th, more than three minutes behind Boonen.

“I knew it was over for me as soon as I crashed,” Hushovd said. “With the strong winds and the pace of the leaders, I knew I could never get back. I also didn’t feel so great after crashing. Of course, I am disappointed. There’s no Roubaix curse, just as there is no rainbow jersey curse. It’s just that Roubaix is the hardest race of the season.”

BMC Racing otherwise rode well going into the Arenberg trench.

Danilo Wyss and Michael Schar did journeyman work in the middle part of the race before Roubaix rookie Taylor Phinney took pulls at the front as the peloton roared toward the Arenberg.

He would emerge unscathed and ride to an impressive 15th place in his first-ever run over the cobbles as a professional. (Phinney won back-to-back U23 Paris-Roubaix titles in 2009 and 2010.)

“I just love this race. This is my favorite race of the year and it’s an honor for me to be racing with guys like these,” Phinney said at the line. “I didn’t have any major problems today. I felt good on the cobbles all day. It just makes me motivated to come back again in the future to try to win this thing someday.”

George Hincapie didn’t have the same luck, puncturing in the Arenberg, forcing him to chase hard to regain contact just as the race was blowing up.

“It was really difficult to regain contact and at that part of the race, it’s almost impossible to come back,” said Hincapie, who matched Frédéric Guesdon with 17 career Roubaix starts. “This is such a special race. I love this race. I am really proud that we rode well strong today. And I am very impressed with how Taylor rode. I think he will become the first American winner of Roubaix.”

Ochowicz said the team would once again be among the protagonists as the racing transitions into the hilly Ardennes courses.

“Philippe is ready and he’s motivated. We’d take a win in any three of them,” he said of the Ardennes classics. “We will also have Cadel (Evans) for all three. We will bring a strong team with guys who are preparing especially for those races.”