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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?
Before this season, Niki Terpstra was an unlikely winner of Paris-Roubaix, vaulted to the top of the podium thanks to some crafty tactics by Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Yes, Terpstra’s win brought back memories of Servais Knaven’s big Roubaix victory from 2001 and showcased a similar strategy. The team with the most cards to play in the final 30km is destined to win. The win was Terpstra’s first major victory. It transformed him into a cycling hero from his previous role as that one Quick-Step guy who isn’t Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, or Geert Steegmans. Now, in 2018, he’s come into his own with wins at E3 and Tour of Flanders — Peter Sagan has yet to find an answer for Quick-Step’s dominance.
What happened? Another dry, hot Roubaix led to high speeds and ferocious early racing. A breakaway of eight separated itself just three kilometers into the race and built a sizable lead on the pack for the opening 100km. The first important action occurred just past midway when Trek rider Hayden Roulston crashed while hopping off a curb. The crash delayed his team leader, Fabian Cancellara, and Omega Pharma took advantage, driving the pace and forcing Cancellara to chase. Boonen was particularly aggressive, attacking multiple times just before sector 11 in Auchy-lez-Orchies a Bersee.
Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke mounted a comeback and caught Boonen, who was then distanced after a young Peter Sagan made a move. Terpstra actually helped his team leader chase back on, and as the peloton rumbled into the final pavé sector, Willems a Hem, the front group had swelled to 11 riders, including Boonen, Terpstra, and Stybar.
At 7km to go, the peloton eased up, as if to catch its breath. That’s when Terpstra went, speeding away on a narrow section of paved road. In typical cycling TV fashion, the cameras were too busy showing Bradley Wiggins riding in the group to capture Terpstra’s move. The ensuing chase, led by Sky and Giant-Shimano, was lethargic, at best, and Terpstra finished with a 10-second advantage.
What did we learn? Terpstra reinforced the Servais Knaven lesson, which is that the team with the most cards to play in the finale usually wins Paris-Roubaix. The new lesson, however, was that the first attack can be decisive if the peloton is totally gassed. Knaven and Johan Museeuw took turns attacking in 2001, with Knaven getting away after attack number three. In Terpstra’s case, he sped away after just one surge. After 70km of furious racing, the other riders simply had no fight left. It was almost as if the peloton was begging someone to attack, to allow them to simply coast to the velodrome.
Can this play out again? Of course it can, and Quick-Step is again the team to execute this strategy. Between Terpstra, Stybar, Yves Lampaert, or even Philippe Gilbert, Quick-Step has ample cards to play, just like it did at Tour of Flanders when Terpstra won his second monument.