Beautiful blue skies, unseasonably warm shirt-sleeve temperatures, knowledge crowds thickly lining the roads, hard to see how it could get much better for the 109th running of the 258-kilometer (160 mile) Hell of the North. It’s been named that mostly because of the 27 cobbled sectors (51.5 kms) that the riders bounce over on bumpy field paths that are often difficult to walk on, much less ride a bike on at 40 kmh. Another reason for the name, there’s no weather on earth that makes this ride enjoyable. While the fans drank in the wonderful spring day, the cyclists suffered because of it, seems they never catch a break in this torturous contest. If it’s cold, they shiver. If it’s damp, they slip and fall (more than usual). And if it’s dry for 2 weeks and warm like today, they drink massive quantities of liquids to wash down the handfuls of dirt they’ve been eating kicked up by the bikes, motorcycles, and team cars jockeying for position on the same 6-foot wide cattle lane they’re maneuvering on. Hell of the North sums it up!
Riders hope to keep a team car close – not easy on these narrow paths – so they can grab approximately 10-15 bottles per rider to replace lost fluids during the 6+ hours in the saddle on a day like it was here in northern France. And to cap it off, while the riders are trying to gulp air for all their worth as their heart is thumping out of their chests, they want to keep their mouth closed unless they enjoy the taste of northern France’ la terre ferme and the appealing post-race interview-look of a coalminer whose consumed a good portion of the day’s diggings.
In any case, it was a great race as always. Thrills, spills, and chills in abundance. Lets start with the thrills; Team RadioShack’s Gregory Rast (SUI) looked incredibly strong all day and came within a wheel of making the podium. This tall, powerful rider almost walked away with the biggest classics race there is and it was fun to watch how much he had left at the finish, though he said later that in the last 150 meters his legs finally gave out. No matter. He road an exceptional race – right to the line.
The spills came in huge handfuls, as is somewhat common in this race. But perhaps the early speeds – nearly 45 kmh contributed to a few more than usual. When the cobbled sections started so did the attacks as many potential hopefuls had just been trying to hang on rather than pass, at the earlier pace. At about the halfway point, some 10 riders were free of the peloton including The Shack’s Nelson Oliveira.
The speed just kept increasing as the peloton wanted to reel the break in as much as possible prior to some crucial cobbled segments. Crash after crash ensued along with enough tire punctures to make manufacturers perhaps rethink the weight versus durability equation. Chain failures also kept mechanics jumping in and out of their cars and some top names from doing well. Quickstep’s Tom Boonen (BEL) lost a chain and all hope at a crucial point then later crashed trying to pull back. BMC’s George Hincapie (USA) punctured out of contention. Quickstep’s Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) punctured. Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas (GBR) flatted, Garmin-Cervélo’s Roger Hammond (GBR) crashed out. So too did their Australian rider Heinrich Haussler. The eventual winner Garmin’s Johan’s Van Summeren went down. So too did Omega-Lotto’s Jurgen Roelandts. Then Chavanel went down for good, taking the last Quickstep hope with him to the deck. Liquigas-Cannondale wasn’t to stay upright either with Peter Sagan (SVK) going down and so did Katusha’s Filippo Pozzato (ITA). Vanansoleil-DCM’s Björn Leukemans hit the deck more than once. Did I miss mentioning someone? Yes, by way more than a dozen, this was just a taste of some of the big-named hopefuls going to ground with their team’s aspirations in tow.
Back to the chills. Meantime, Grégory Rast was right in the thick of it, jumping with a 4-man group intent on closing to the leaders. After a bunch more pedaling, they eventually did. With The Shack’s Robbie McEwen and Sébastien Rosseler pretty much out of contention, RSH’s hopes were on one rider. Coming on race camera, entering the storied Roubaix Velodrome, Rast was holding second-place, but racing against a current legend, Leopard-Trek’s Fabian Cancellara (SUI) and a rider who could be quicker to the line Rabobank’s Maarten Tjallingii (NED). Probably not your first choice of opponents in any race, much less this one.
Gregory did what he had to do. In a poor position, leading both of them on the final lap, he made the most of it and jumped, trying to take their power a kick away. He almost got away with it. However, both drafting riders slingshotted past and just snatched the final two podium spots with a 2nd and 3rd place finish that was surely not as convincing as some cycling journals will record it.
As I watched the conclusion of the race in the town of Hem, France, I couldn’t help but feel badly for Gregory, but also glad too. He performed beyond many people’s expectations (though a 10th last year signaled things to come) in one of the hardest, longest, most difficult monuments in professional cycling and showed that, under the right circumstances, he could win this thing. After 6 hours, 7 minutes, he was just 19 seconds from the leader, right there with the same time as Cancellara and Tjallingii. A great ride!
Paris-Roubaix 2011 Results
• VAN SUMMEREN, Johan (BEL) Garmin-Cervélo 6:07:28
• CANCELLARA, Fabian (SUI) Leopard-Trek +19
• TJALLINGII, Maarten (NED) Rabobank +19
• RAST, Gregory (SUI) RadioShack +19
• BAK, Lars (DEN) HTC-Highroad +21
• BALLAN, Alessandro (ITA) BMC Racing +36
• EISEL, Bernhard (AUT) HTC-Highroad +47
• HOSHOVD, Thor (NOR) Garmin-Cervélo +47
• FLECHA, Juan Antonio (ESP) Team Sky +47
• HAYMAN, Mathew (AUS) Team Sky +47
By George Hurst, staff writer