Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The day the superstars didn’t shine

Depending on whose viewpoint you want to believe, the Garmin-Cervélo team was either (1) totally brilliant or (2) toxically negative.

Garmin’s Paris-Roubaix gambit was a gamble

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This ninth installment focuses on the stories behind this past Sunday’s victory of Johan Van Summeren at Paris-Roubaix.

2011 Paris-Roubaix
Van Summeren gets cycling's heaviest trophy. Photo: Graham Watson

Depending on whose viewpoint you want to believe, the Garmin-Cervélo team was either (1) totally brilliant in engineering Johan Van Summeren’s solo win at Roubaix Sunday afternoon or (2) toxically negative in stopping its world road champion Thor Hushovd from racing with Leopard-Trek’s world time trial champ Fabian Cancellara, resulting in a lesser rider winning the sport’s most prestigious one-day prize.

Perhaps it was fitting that the very likeable Van Summeren celebrated his success Sunday night by drinking beer with overjoyed supporters at his hometown of Lommel in northeast Belgium. No fancy champagne flutes for these meat-and-potatoes fans. They knew that their very own “Summi” doesn’t have the talent of a superstar athlete and that his Paris-Roubaix victory is not one likely to be repeated.

No one will deny that this 109th running of the monumental French classic was exciting, with as many unlikely twists to the storyline as would evolve later in the day at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia. And just as the world’s most famous golf tournament gave rise to a winner, Charl Schwartzel, that few people had heard of, so a journeyman cyclist won the Queen of the Classics.

Yes, Paris-Roubaix was exciting, but it was being played out by second-tier riders. Van Summeren’s final opponents were named Lars Ytting Bak, Grégory Rast and Maarten Tjallingii, all of them domestiques who had reached their 30s without coming close to winning a single classic, even a minor one.

They’re all solid riders and on Sunday they were the best of a large group of men who had emerged at the front before the “serious” racing began; and they were still there at the end because of tactical intricacies, crashes and technical problems affecting the stars. Other major riders weren’t even on the start line.

For instance, Belgium’s Omega-Lotto team had three men in the front group from which the winning move emerged, but its true leader, Philippe Gilbert, was sitting this classic out. That didn’t happen in the time of Sean Kelly, a similar rider to Gilbert; in fact Kelly took his two Paris-Roubaix victories (in 1984 and 1986) less than 48 hours after winning Spain’s five-day Tour of the Basque Country.

Ironically, the normal team leaders of Rast at RadioShack and Tjallingii at Rabobank swept the podium at this past week’s Basque tour, where The Shack’s Andreas Klöden and Chris Horner finished 1-2, with Rabobank’s Robert Gesink in third. But in this specialist era, very few leaders combine stage racing with the classics, especially classics as tough as Paris-Roubaix.

Van Summeren is a tough rider (who had previously placed eighth and fifth in the Hell of the North) and it can’t be said he was a “lucky” winner on Sunday. He executed a perfect race: He rode in the pack with the team leaders for the opening four hours, he got himself into the most important chase group just after the key section of cobblestones through the Forest of Arenberg with 83km still to race, and he then made the winning solo attack from a small group of leaders on the iconic Carrefour de l’Arbre pavé 16km from the Roubaix Velodrome.

2011 Paris-Roubaix
Cancellara received little help from Hushovd and Ballan. Photo: Graham Watson

Those were the bare facts of a race that fully lived up to its reputation for producing heroic deeds and untimely setbacks, but the multiplicity of incidents and tactical decisions meant that his Garmin team’s eventual coup could just have easily ended in disaster.

Tactics and falls

As so very often happens in a dry-weather edition of Paris-Roubaix, the stars were reluctant to make their moves too early. That was especially true after the first three hours were raced at a record pace of more than 45 kph. That speed, combined with the peloton not splitting up, led to more crashes than usual, many of them happening on the smoother parts of the course when the pack slowed after racing hard through a bumpy section of cobblestones.

That was the case on the often-decisive Arenberg “trench,” where the leaders continued to mark each other even when Quick Step’s co-favorite Tom Boonen stopped with a stuck chain and waited two minutes for his replacement bike. Then, after the peloton turned right out of the forest (instead of the usual left) toward a new section of cobbles at Millonfosse (only 3.5km after Arenberg), the pace slowed through the old mining village of Hanson, where the 1997 winner Frédéric Guesdon, now age 39, saw an opportunity.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through April 11)
1. HTC-Highroad 17 (seven riders)
2. Garmin-Cervélo 12 (seven riders)
3. Rabobank 12 (five riders)
4. Team RadioShack 11 (seven riders)
5. Lampre-ISD 10 (six riders)
6. Saxo Bank-SunGard 9 (four riders)
7. Liquigas-Cannondale 8 (four riders)
8. Leopard-Trek 7 (three riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 6 (four riders)
Movistar 6 (four riders)
11. Sky 5 (four riders)
12. Omega Pharma-Lotto 5 (two riders)
13. Katusha 3 (three riders)
14. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
15. Astana 2 (two riders)
AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
17. BMC Racing 2 (one rider)
Euskaltel-Euskadi 2 (one rider)

“In my head, I knew that it was necessary to start the battle a long way out,” said FDJ’s savvy Breton. “And that’s what I did.”

Guesdon barely accelerated as the peloton slowed and bunched up (causing yet another crash), but it was enough of an effort to create a gap for the Frenchman and the six men who went with him — all of whom had come through the forest near the head of the line.

Best of these was Rabobank’s Dutch hope, former world cyclocross champ Lars Boom, who’d showed insolent ease in gapping everyone on the Arenberg cobblestones; but a puncture saw him drop back from the Guesdon group before it fully developed. If Boom had remained there, the other teams would almost certainly have chased (and ended Van Summeren’s dream).

The riders that stayed with Guesdon were BMC Racing’s Italian Manuel Quinziato, Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Australian Baden Cooke, Omega-Lotto’s Belgian Jürgen Roelandts, Sky’s Australian Matt Hayman, HTC-Highroad’s Dane Bak and Van Summeren. It was a strong group because Quinziato and Roelandts were both listed as secondary favorites, Cooke was thought to be his team’s main chance for success, Bak was one of HTC’s better hopes, Hayman was a solid decoy for his team leader Juan Antonio Flecha, and Van Summeren was the same for Hushovd.

2011 Paris-Roubaix
Van Marke drives the break

This seven-man chase took about 18km, including three sectors of cobblestones, to cross a two-minute gap to the 10-man break that had been in front for most of the previous 100km.

An indication of who was the strongest of the chasers came a few kilometers before the two groups joined forces, when Van Summeren and Roelandts had a minor tumble. “It wasn’t serious,” Roelandts confirmed, “though I didn’t feel the same afterward. But Summi was very strong; he took us back to the others.”

There were still 60km still to race when the two front groups were joined by another quartet (which included Rast and Garmin’s Norwegian Gabriel Rasch); and the now 21-strong breakaway held a 1:30 lead over the 60-strong main pack.

This seemed to give the advantage to the main favorites, but several incidents had changed the dynamics: three-time Roubaix winner Boonen’s bike change and his subsequent crash on the Millonfosse cobbles, along with a flat and a crash suffered by his teammate Sylvain Chavanel, put the Quick Step team’s two leaders out of contention. And when the main group began ramping up its speed with 58km to go, a pile-up ended the plans of two other race favorites, the Katusha team’s Filippo Pozzato and Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan.

Frustrations and frights

Their absence greatly affected the racing when defending champion Cancellara keyed off an acceleration by Hushovd to duplicate his 2010 surge on the race’s most demanding section of cobbles at Mons-en-Pévèle, inside 50km to go.

Only Hushovd could stay with the Swiss, while BMC leader Alessandro Ballan bridged up a little later. But, without their troubles, Boonen, Chavanel and Pozzato also would likely have been there. And had that happened, they would certainly have worked with Cancellara to catch the leaders because there were no Quick Step or Katusha team riders out front.

2011 Paris-Roubaix, Garmin-Cervélo, Van Summeren's tire
Garmin soigneur Sandra Ni Hodnae shows just how flat Van Summeren's rear tire was at the finish. That was close! Photo: Nick Legan

Instead, Hushovd wouldn’t work because he had Rasch and Van Summeren in the now 14-man break ahead, and Ballan excused himself in deference to teammate Quinziato. Even so, Cancellara (with Hushovd and Ballan on his wheel) cut the gap to 30 seconds with 35km to go.

No doubt, Cancellara could have closed on the leaders, but he knew that the effort he was making would have opened him to immediate counterattacks, while Hushovd would have had two teammates with him to work toward an eventual sprint finish. So, instead, a frustrated Cancellara sat up, allowing some others to rejoin the trio, including Boom, Sky’s Flecha and the promising Garmin rider Sep Van Marcke.

Having to keep their options open, Garmin had Van Marcke ride tempo at the head of the new chase group, pegging the lead to 1:10 with 25km to go; but the 10 riders left in front weren’t eager to work hard in a strong-crosswind section and the gap was inside a minute when, with 22km to go, the comparatively fresh Bak jumped away with Van Summeren and Rast, while Tjallingii (who’d already been at the head of the race for 150km!) soon joined them.

These four men had 50 seconds on the Cancellara group when they hit the day’s third five-star (for difficulty) section of pavé, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, with 17km left to race. This was the moment Van Summeren had been waiting for, knowing that his only chance of victory was to finish solo — “Summi sprints like a snail,” Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters later observed.

Tjallingii chased when Van Summeren attacked, but the lanky Belgian didn’t let the brave Dutchman catch him; he accelerated a second time on the Carrefour’s last long, slightly uphill section of cobblestones between three-deep walls of spectators, where many decisive attacks have been made over the years.

Summi was on his way to the packed velodrome, but this race was far from over. Cancellara made his expected burst on the cobbles at the same place as Van Summeren — and Hushovd was, again, the only one who could hold his wheel. But though the gap came down to 40 seconds with 11km remaining, the Leopard leader wasn’t willing to tow Garmin’s Norwegian sprinter to the finish.

Up front, Tjallingii again chased after Van Summeren, getting within 15 seconds on the last serious section of cobblestones with 7.5km to go; but that was his final fling and he soon fell back to Rast and Bak.

2011 Paris-Roubaix
Cancellara makes one final attack. It was good enough to move him into second place. Photo: Graham Watson

Behind, Cancellara had cut his effort again, and there were now a dozen men on his wheel as their deficit increased to 1:10 with 5km remaining. No one, except the leader himself, knew that Van Summeren’s rear tire now had a slow leak; but he didn’t risk stopping for a wheel change.

It was a wise decision because entering the streets of Roubaix, up a short hill that has seen late drama in the past, Cancellara punched it again and this time he jettisoned Hushovd and the other limpets. The big Swiss hammered up the Avenue Général De Gaulle to sweep up Bak, Rast and Tjallingii.

It was too late to catch Van Summeren, but Cancellara easily took the four-man sprint for second place, 19 seconds down; and had Van Summeren stopped for that wheel change the world would now be raving about Cancellara’s brilliance and Garmin’s stupidity.

Instead, later Sunday night, the citizens of Lommel were raising glasses of Stella Artois, the common man’s beer, to their hero Johan Van Summeren of Garmin-Cervélo. Stella, of course, is Latin for star, and Artois is the region adjacent to French Flanders through which Paris-Roubaix passes. So the new Belgian star even made the right choice of beverage as well as the right choice of breakaways on a day when the superstars didn’t shine.