American George Hincapie (Team Discovery) has had a long-standing love affair with the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic bike race, called alternately The Queen of the Classics and The Hell of the North, despite not having had the best of luck in the race. He’s been competitive over the years, however, going from 8th (2004) to 6th (2002 and 2000) to 4th (2001 and 1999) to – finally – a podium position last year with a 2nd place finish. This looked to be Hincapie’s year.
George Hincapie early in this year's Paris-Roubaix, looking confident.
We got up at 5:45am to tune into the live coverage, thinking we’d catch the race just before what tends to be a critical point. They were a bit ahead of schedule, though, so we just missed that point – which did turn out to be critical. It’s a particularly difficult cobbled section through the Forest of Arenberg, and it’s where the definitive break happened this year.
Fabian Cancellara leads the group through the fans lining the cobbled road of the Arenberg.
As they entered the 2.4k pavé section of the Arenberg, Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland, Team CSC) led a small group, including last year’s winner and current world champ Tom Boonen (Belgium, Team Quick.Step) away from the peloton. Boonen looked good, but had no teammates in the break to help him. Hincapie had two teammates, and several other potential winners had one teammate apiece. The Quick.Step riders quickly realized their mistake, and worked like dogs at the front of the peloton to bridge the increasing gap. It wasn’t to be, however, and it became evident that if Boonen was going to win this one, he wasn’t going to have any help.
(L) Tom Boonen on the front of the lead group; (R) The lead group makes its way over a cobbled section of the course.
Quick.Step’s mistake was Discovery’s gain – things were looking picture perfect for Hincapie. Until, that is, a section of pavé with approximately 45k to go. The steerer fork on Hincapie’s bike snapped, leaving his handlebars dangling off the front of the bicycle, and leaving Hincapie with no way to steer or brake. Luckily, he seems to have noticed the break was happening before it did, because he sat up just before the handlebars snapped off (and he therefore spared his chin an unhappy meeting with the bike frame). He then tried to put his feet down in an attempt to slow or steady himself, but ended up falling over the front of the bike, landing hard on his right arm and shoulder.
George Hincapie after his fall.
In what can only be described as the very picture of heartbreak, Hincapie sat in a crumpled heap at the side of the road, his right arm dangling at his side as if he’d broken his collarbone (the after-race reports are that he didn’t break anything, but his shoulder sustained an injury which may require surgery), his broken bike lying beside him, as he watched the lead group ride away. He was in tears, probably just as much from the lost shot at victory as from the pain of the fall.
George grimaced after he fell, probably in equal parts grief, shock and pain. You can see in the bottom picture that the handlebars aren't where they're supposed to be.
Eventually, Cancellara pulled away from what was left of the lead group. Only one rider was able to go with him, but even he was dropped rather quickly. Boonen couldn’t match any of the breaks, having worked so hard on his own all day long, and it became quickly apparent that it was Cancellara’s race to lose. An accomplished time triallist, Cancellara rode the last 15k like the time trial of his life – he never looked back. He entered the Roubaix velodrome alone, giving him time to celebrate as he crossed the finish line.
Cancellara took off like a bolt of lightening, and didn't even look back to see who might come with him.
Cancellara rode solo around the velodrome before crossing the finish line in a victory salute. He broke down afterwards, tears running down his dust-covered face. This is Switzerland's first victory in Paris-Roubaix since 1923.
Cancellara hoists the coveted - and heavy - Paris-Roubaix trophy, featuring one of those dreaded cobbles.
Back on the road, there was still a bit of drama unfolding, as the riders were stopped by a train crossing. The group of three riders closest to Cancellara (but still 40 seconds back) slipped through the crossing gates just before the train zipped through, but Boonen’s group (10 seconds behind them) was stopped. In the end, the three who went through the closed gates were disqualified – it’s against the rules to go through those gates, even if the train hasn’t yet arrived. Their disqualification meant that Boonen, who finished 5th, was moved up to 2nd place overall.
Boonen (in the rainbow-striped jersey) and his compatriots wait for the train, and then continue on once it's passed.
Luck plays an important role in any sporting event, including cycling, and it’s especially important in a race like Paris-Roubaix. Hincapie said yesterday that, barring any bad luck, he was going to be racing for the win. Well, he got hit with good, bad and completely crazy luck this year. It’s always possible that the cards could fall differently for him next year and he could finally get his chance at the top spot on the podium, but it’s unlikely.
All photographs are from here or here.