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With Paris-Roubaix only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “The Queen of the Classics.” The race favors the strongest riders who can handle the rough cobblestones, but a healthy dose of luck is always crucial in this unpredictable classic. What can we learn from the history of this grueling monument?
Johan Museeuw’s first win at Roubaix came in 1996, on the 100th anniversary of the race. He was joined on the podium by his Mapei-GB teammates, Italians Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi. Museeuw was on his way to becoming the “Lion of Flanders.”
In 1998, he went on a ridiculous streak of classics domination, capturing E3 Harelbeke and Brabantse Pijl in the same weekend, before taking his third victory at the Tour of Flanders to equal the all-time record. Then, his world came apart. One week later, Museeuw had a horrific crash at Paris–Roubaix on the Trench of Arenberg pavé, shattering his kneecap. A dangerous gangrene infection developed, which nearly forced doctors to amputate his left leg.
Through dogged determination, Museeuw returned to racing after a long recovery. He would finish third in Flanders and ninth as Roubaix in 1999, exactly one year after his crash.
His second Paris-Roubaix victory in 2000 was particularly emotional, coming nearly two years to the day after the crash. “I thought I would never ride again,” Museeuw later said. “I was off the bike for three months. When I got back on it I simply rode for an hour, taking my time. I felt as though I’d been reborn. It was the happiest day of my career.” When he crossed the line in the Roubaix velodrome, The Lion of Flanders pointed to his knee. Legend.
What happened? Mapei played the numbers game all day long, eventually sending its rider Max Van Heeswijk up the road with 75 kilometers to go on the Tilloy pavé. His teammate Museeuw dragged Frankie Andreu (U.S Postal Service) up to him with 59 kilometers to go. They established a gap that quickly grew to over a minute, with Mapei and the Postal Service team slowing things down in the bunch, having seven riders between them. Van Heeswijk didn’t last long, and Museeuw decided to set out on his own with 38 kilometers to go on the pavé at Ennetières.
At kilometer 247, his gap was 2:40 into a stiff headwind. Behind, his teammate Andrea Tafi, himself one of the favorites, was chasing down everything that moved. Telekom’s Steffen Wesemann put in a strong attack with 16 kilometers to go on the third to last pavé section; he was followed by George Hincapie and Romans Vainsteins. The gap was rapidly shrinking, down to 1:20 with 14 kilometers to go. Museeuw was visibly tiring. Then, Wesemann and the rest were caught and the bunch slowed enough to keep Museeuw’s lead at a minute with five kilometers to go.
The eight-strong front group closed the gap significantly to Museeuw in the closing kilometers — it was 15 seconds at the line — but were unable to nail him back. No 1-2-3 this time for Mapei, but it was an emphatic victory all the same.
Team manager Patrick Lefevere had to be taken to the hospital after the race when he fainted from joy.
What we learned? The legends of the sport should never be discounted. The greatest racers always find a way to get the best from their aging bodies, whether through sheer determination or experience, or both. And if a strong team (I’m looking at you Quick-Step and Patrick Lefevere) can play the numbers game to perfection, it can set up its leader to defeat a more powerful foe, e.g. Peter Sagan or Greg Van Avermaet.
Could it play out this way again? Absolutely. We saw that last year when Philippe Gilbert uncorked an unexpected ride on the bergs of Flanders. He might have what it takes to be there in the finale of Roubaix as well. However, he is up against a younger, faster crop of talent. Yet his team has immense strength and power in numbers, which should help.