By Bryan Jew , VeloNews Senior Writer
All week long the reports from northern France promised epic conditions for the 99th edition of Paris-Roubaix, and the race on Easter Sunday lived up to all the hype. This year’s race served up 24 sections of cobblestones in absolutely awful condition, turning the race into total chaos from the beginning. Although the heavy rain at the start diminished throughout the day, and the sun finally popped out late, it truly was an epic race all day long. And once the race hit the cobbles in the second half of the race, the Belgian Domo-Farm Frites team showed that it is ready to assume the title of dominator from the Mapei-Quick Step at Paris-Roubaix. The 1-2-3 finish, with Dutchman Servais Knaven leading the way, was just as impressive as any of Mapei’s three consecutive wins, 1998-2000.
Among those who were shackled by Domo was American George Hincapie, who on Wednesday scored his first major classics win at Ghent-Wevelgem. The U.S. Postal Service rider was in the select lead group for the entire race, but unfortunately he was constantly surrounded by grey jerseys from Domo: Knaven, last year’s winner Johan Museeuw, world champion Romans Vainsteins and Belgian strongman Wilfried Peeters.
“It was an impossible situation for me. They [Domo] rode an amazing race. They really didn’t do anything all day, they were able to conserve energy all day, they never took a pull until the end, and they had a super day today,” said Hincapie.
By the third set of cobblestones, section No. 22 of 24 counted in descending order, Hincapie was right where he needed to be, in a chase group of 11 bearing down on six early leaders, who had broken away at kilometer 44, about halfway to the start of the cobblestones.
The six in front were Steven De Jongh (Rabobank), Florent Brard (Festina), Jens Voigt (Credit Agricole), Christophe Agnolutto (AG2R), Stephane Berges (AG2R) and Sylvain Chavanel (Bonjour). They had survived a wet opening 98km, that had already seen dozens of flat tires and crashes, even on the smooth, paved roads leading north from Compiegne.
Behind them, the 11 chasers included several big hitters, including Museeuw, Knaven and Peeters; Hincapie; Leon Van Bon (Mercury-Viatel), Steffen Wesemann (Telekom) and Ludo Dierckxsens (Lampre-Daikin).
Over the next few sections of cobbles, the group swelled to 19, with Vainsteins and Franco Ballerini (Mapei-Quick Step) among those joining the leaders.
Meanwhile, behind them, everyone else was just in a fight for survival. “There were crashes everywhere, cars were stopping everywhere. It was a big mess,” said Postal’s Viatcheslav Ekimov, who experienced bad conditions at Paris-Roubaix for the first time. “It was chaos.”
Among those who was falling victim to the chaos was 1994 champion Andrei Tchmil (Lotto-Adecco), who never quite made it up to the lead group, although he was close to chasing them down in the Arenberg Forest, but continued to encounter technical problems.
Before Arenberg, Tchmil had to chase through the three new sections – 16, 15 and 14 – that were added to the race to make it more difficult and intense leading up to the famous forest. And they did just that. Covered in slick mud, the cobblestones were practically invisible, and when there wasn’t mud, there were pools of water making the sides of the roads unrideable.
Those course continued to exact a toll on the riders through those sections, but as the lead group, now down to 15, entered Arenberg, Hincapie was looking strong, riding technically well, and right on the front of the race.
Unfortunately, right at that moment he suffered an untimely flat, and was forced into chase mode, expending precious energy.
But that was far from the deciding factor. One section later, Peeters went on the attack, and the tactical tone of the rest of the day was set: one Domo rider out front, and three sitting on the wheel of anybody trying to catch.
Peeters would stay out front for the next 75km, even after suffering a flat tire with seven sections of cobbles remaining, at the 214km mark.
Behind, the chase group was whittled down to five: Hincapie, Museeuw, Vainsteins, Knaven and Dierkxsens. With three Domos in tow, Hincapie and Dierkxsens were basically helpless, although each tried to push the pace over the cobbles, in hopes of shedding one or two of the Domo riders. There was a faint glimmer of hope when Museeuw flatted as well, but last year’s winner showed what he had left with an impressive bridge back to the leaders.
After Peeters was caught with 16km to go, Museeuw began to launch the attacks, forcing Hincapie and Dierkxsens to chase. With those two blows to soften the competition, Knaven took his shot with 11km remaining.
“I knew we were going to save Vainsteins for the sprint, so I guess it was my turn to attack,” said the Dutchman.
He took his turn, and then made the best of it, extending his lead out to more than 30 seconds once he hit the velodrome in Roubaix. He was able to celebrate on his final lap around the stadium, just as Museeuw, who attacked in the final 2km, entered the track to celebrate with his teammate.
All that was left was the sprint for the sweep, and Vainsteins did his part, beating out Hincapie for the final podium spot.
“To be in the final with riders like Museeuw and Vainsteins is such a good feeling,” said Knaven in a big understatement. “I’m not as good as they are, but to know they’re on my side made me a winner.
99th PARIS-ROUBAIX, France. April 15.
1. Servais Knaven (Nl), Domo-Farm Frites, 254.5km in 6:45:00 (37.703 kph); 2. Johan Museeuw (B), Domo-Farm Frites; 3. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), Domo-Farm Frites, at 0:41; 4. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 5. Wilfried Peeters (B), Domo-Farm Frites; 6. Ludo Dierckxsens (B), Lampre-Daikin; 7. Steffen Wesemann (G), Telekom, all s.t.; 8. Andreï Tchmil (B), Lotto-Adecco, at 2:35; 9. Chris Peers (B), Cofidis, s.t.; 10. Rolf Sørensen (Dk), CSC-World Online, at 2:59; 11. Dario Pieri (I), Saeco, at 3:07; 12. Max Sciandri (I), Lampre-Daikin, at 3:17; 13. Nico Mattan (B), Cofidis; 14. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Mercury-Viatel, all s.t.; 15. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Tacconre-Vini Caldirola, at 7:57; 16. Rolf Aldag (G), Telekom; 17. Christophe Mengin (F), La Française des Jeux; 18. Denis Zanette (I), Liquigas; 19. Arvis Piziks (Lat}, CSC-World Online; 20. Enrico Cassani (I), Domo-Farm Frites, all s.t.
Others: 24. Peter Van Petegem (B), Mercury-Viatel. 197 starters; 55 finishers.
2001 UCI WORLD CUP (after three races) 1. Vainsteins, 116pts; 2. Bortolami, 111; 3. Knaven, 101; 4. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom, 100; 5. Museeuw, 80; 6. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 75; 7. Hincapie, 73; 8. Sørensen, 72; 9. Mario Cipollini (I), Saeco, 70; 10. Zanette, 58.