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Studying Roubaix 2001: When numbers counted

On one of Roubaix's muddiest days, the numbers game pays off and an unheralded domestique wins the day.

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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?

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Paris-Roubaix is cycling’s hardest race, and its best editions are reduced to a mano-a-mano struggle, pitting the best cobble-bashers against one another all the way to the Roubaix velodrome.

But numbers also count in a big way at Roubaix. Over the past two decades, the teams of Belgian manager Patrick Lefevere have come to dominate the “Hell of the North.” Starting in the mid-1990s — first under the Mapei name, then Domo-Farm Frites, and most recently as Quick-Step — the Lefevere franchise has won 12 Roubaixs since 1995. No team or manager can come close.

It’s a highly effective strategy: Bring a team with not just one captain, but several. That immediately puts everyone except the strongest, like a Peter Sagan or a Greg Van Avermaet, on the back foot. And Lefevere is still doing it. The 2018 classics season has been a master class on Lefevere’s tactics.

What happened? Rain and mud were the main protagonists in what would be one of the last wet editions of Roubaix (the 2002 edition has been the last rainy Roubaix). And punctures. Defending champion Johan Museeuw had no less than five across the afternoon in hell, including one on the decisive Carrefour sector, and he still ended up second.

Unsung Dutch rider Servais Knaven, then a “fourth option” in Lefevere’s lineup in what was the first year in the Domo-Farm Frites team after Lefevere left Mapei to create his own classics-focused team.

Knaven and teammate Wilfried Peeters (now a Quick-Step sport director) were charged with following moves. George Hincapie, Steffen Wesemann, Ludo Dierckxsens, and Nico Mattan had taken the race to Museeuw and even gapped Musseuw as he struggled with punctures. Knaven found himself in ideal position, and after Museeuw and Peeters chased back on, Knaven took his chance with about 10km to go.

“I was just a helper that day for Museeuw,” he told VeloNews at Tour of Flanders this year. “I led the guys into Arenberg and my teammate Wilfred Peters attacked and he was in the front for a long time so I could save a lot of energy there.

“The group got smaller, and I thought, ‘OK we are eight guys, so minimum I am eighth.’ After Carrefour de l’Arbre I was in perfect position. We got the calls from the team car that we should start attacking. One by one, Museeuw and myself. The third attack of mine I got away and took 30-40 seconds.”

And with three teammates sitting back to cover the counter-attacks (world champ Romans Vainsteins was also there), Knaven rode home with the biggest win of his career. Domo-Farm Frites roared into the velodrome, with Museeuw second, Vainsteins third, and Peeters fifth. Only Hincapie in fourth disrupted the Domo sweep.

“Winning Roubaix, that was the highlight of my career, of course,” Knaven said. “It was raining from the start. It was really muddy, and there were many crashes on the first sectors. The group kept getting smaller and smaller. It was a huge day.”

Knaven never washed his victorious bike, and the mud and grime remain caked on to the frame today, proving that Roubaix’s mud is indeed eternal.

What we learned? Having multiple cards to play in a race as hard as Roubaix is a clear advantage. Few teams have the depth or budget to bring so many top hitters to the race. A similar scenario played out in 2014, when Lefevere’s Etixx-Quick-Step team had Niki Terpstra attack at a similar distance with Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar also in the group.

The strongest riders need to avoid this frustrating situation and often try long-distance attacks to disrupt the Lefevere stranglehold. Cancellara was the master of attacking very far, putting pressure on the entire group.

Can this play out again? This weekend Quick-Step will try to replicate its winning strategy, and most experts think it’ll work again.

Of course, punctures, crashes, and a dozen other top names are out to spoil the party. The other teams have yet to crack Quick-Step’s winning formula, though. Only Peter Sagan has managed to disrupt the Belgian team’s perfect season, with a brilliant sprint at Gent-Wevelgem. But he doesn’t seem perfectly suited for the brutish French cobbles quite like Niki Terpstra or Zdenek Stybar are.