It’s not often a rider enters the Roubaix velodrome alone, and an Australian has never done it in the 105-year history of cycling’s hardest one-day race.
Stuart O’Grady did both Sunday in an emotional and powerful victory to become the first Aussie to win Paris-Roubaix in the hottest “Hell of the North” as far as anyone can remember.
“It’s a dream come true,” said O’Grady, who won 52 seconds ahead of Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt). “I only want to win big races now. I sacrificed the green jersey. I sacrificed sprinting for stages. I prefer to win one classic than 10 small races. I didn’t think it was going to happen this week, to be honest.”
The 33-year-old set about erasing a winless streak dating back to the 2004 season when he rode away from a group featuring Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) and defending champ Fabian Cancellara (CSC) with about 25km to go in the hot and dusty 259.5km run over the cobbles of northern France.
O’Grady – who rode through last year’s Tour de France with a fractured vertebra in his back – reeled in and then passed a four-man group that included Wesemann, Flecha, Bjorn Leukemans (Predictor-Lotto) and Roberto Petito (Liquigas). From there, he barreled over the final four of 28 pavé sections with clear roads to a standing ovation inside the fabled Roubaix velodrome.
“I punctured halfway through the Arenberg and I rode about 1km with a flat tire. I came out of the Arenberg about one minute behind the lead group and I thought it was pretty much over then,” said O’Grady, who patiently worked his way back to the front group of favorites. “I looked around and everyone was looking pretty hammered. We came out of one section and it was all twos and threes. I was still feeling not as bad as everyone looked.”
O’Grady’s win makes it two in a row for Team CSC at Roubaix. The team rode impeccably Sunday, putting four men into an early 30-man breakaway and then counting on veteran Lars Michaelsen, riding in his final pro race, to help increase the tempo late.
Tens of thousands of fans and VIPs stood to cheer O’Grady as he savored his final victory lap around the Roubaix oval. The tough Aussie broke down in tears as he won in dramatic style.
“This is the queen of the classics. This is the ‘Hell of the North.’ It was blood, sweat and tears out there today,” said Team CSC sport director and fellow Aussie Scott Sunderland “This is the biggest win in Australian cycling history. Now we just have to win the Tour de France.”
O’Grady’s given up on his Tour de France dreams of winning the green jersey. He traded those in last year to chase the classics. On Sunday, he had no doubt he made the right decision.
The key to O’Grady’s victory was the condition of defending champion Cancellara. The big Swiss rider was melting under temperatures that climbed into the 80s while O’Grady seemed like he was back home under the hot Australian sun. Cancellara settled for 19th at 2:38.
“I know I said I was the big rider today and I think the others lost because they went behind me,” Cancellara told VeloNews. “Today was a big demonstration about how good the team was. Last year was perfect and this year is perfect. I know what that feeling is like to ride into the velodrome. I’m very happy for him.”
When it was clear that Cancellara wasn’t at his best, the team decided to cut O’Grady loose. The Aussie crashed while overcooking a cobblestoned corner, but quickly remounted his bike to stay in contention.
When the revived Wesemann made a blistering acceleration out of the lead pack, O’Grady decided to try to follow.
“(Fabian) said he wasn’t 100 percent and he didn’t even finish spitting out the words when I attacked,” O’Grady said. “I pursued Wesemann and after that, there was no holding back. I put myself on the limit. I was committed and there was no turning back.”
While O’Grady powered to the biggest win of his career, everyone else in his wake was wondering what hit them.
Flecha hung on to finish second for the best-ever finish by a Spanish rider in Paris-Roubaix, bettering his previous best of third and fourth.
“It wasn’t great for us tactically early because we just had a Roubaix rookie in the early breakaway and then we had two young guys who had to pull,” said Flecha, who sprinted ahead in a four-up sprint to take second. “When O’Grady attacked us, I didn’t have anything left to give. The heat was so bad. I tried to follow later, but it was too late.”
Coming through for a surprising third was Wesemann, the veteran German who won the 2004 Tour of Flanders. Left without a contract following the 2005 season, Wesemann proved he can still deliver a big result.
“We said this morning that we cannot afford to wait to the last 10km to go. I tried to attack at the Arenbeg and I felt very strong, so I attacked with about 30km to go and it worked out for me,” Wesemann told VeloNews. “It’s unbelievable for me. Last year, T-Mobile didn’t give me a contract because they said I was too old. This small team took a chance on me. It means so much.”
Having another excellent ride was Roger Hammond (T-Mobile), fresh off second at Ghent-Wevelgem. He snuck away early in a monster, 30-rider group that split off the front in the opening 30km. Then he latched on to the wheel when the favorites finally caught them in the final 40km and finished seventh at 55 seconds back.
Boonen electrified the crowd when he attacked on the velodrome to almost catch the Flecha-Wesemann group, but settled for sixth at 55 seconds back.
“You can’t catch the big fish every year,” Boonen said. “Everyone was looking to me because I was the big favorite and that makes things complicated.”
Discovery Channel – riding for the first time in eight years without the services of George Hincapie – pushed two riders into the top 20. Vladimir Gusev was 17th and Stijn Devolder 18th in the third chase group at 2:28 back.
Big heat into the Arenberg
It was so hot in the morning that veteran Peter Van Petegem stepped out of the QuickStep-Innergetic team bus with the sleeves cut off his jersey.
“I’ve done 37 Roubaixes, and I don’t remember it ever being this hot,” said Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevere. “I think you have to go back a long way in history to find one like this.”
Temperatures were well into the upper 80s by the end of the race and teams were leaving nothing to chance. QuickStep had seven cars and Team CSC six hop-skipping along the course with bidons and wheels.
“We’re not worried so much about the heat but what the heat brings – that’s dust on the cobbles and dehydration,” said Team CSC sport director Scott Sunderland. “The dust is like powder on the cobbles. It’s almost worse than the mud. It favors the strong guys.”
Riders were already expecting the worst. As anyone knows, Roubaix is never easy.
“In our training ride yesterday, the dust was 3cm deep on the cobbles,” said Hammond, fresh off second at Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday. “Eating and drinking is never easy at Roubaix. It’s going to be a huge factor today.”
It didn’t take long for hostilities to begin. A huge group pulled away at about 30km, including: O’Grady, Matti Breschel and Luke Roberts (CSC); Matteo Tosatto and Kévin Van Impe (Quick Step); Enrico Franzoi (Lampre); Bram De Groot (Rabobank); Ludovic Auger (Française des Jeux); Bert Grabsch, Hammond, Andreas Klier (T-Mobile); Tom Steels and Greg Van Avermaet (Predictor-Lotto); Tristan Valentin (Cofidis); Ralf Grabsch (Milram); Fabien Bacquet, Clemént Lhotellerie and Floris Goesinen (Skil-Shimano); Erki Pütsep (Bouygues Telecom), Volodymyr Bileka (Discovery); Petito and Frederik Willems (Liquigas); Nicolas Portal and José Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne), Thomas Fothen, David Kopp and Tom Stamsnijder (Gerolsteiner); Julian Dean (Crédit Agricole); Stéphane Poulhies and Nicolas Rousseau (Ag2r), Iban Irinondo (Euskaltel); and Artur Gajek and Olaf Pollack (Wiesenhof).
The quick opening hour of 47.7kph had some suggesting that the record speed of 45.129kph set by Peter Post in 1964 could be endangered. In the end, O’Grady’s winning average speed of 42.181kph was within the top 10 fastest Roubaixes ever.
Fumiyuki Beppu (Discovery Channel) became the first Japanese rider to actually race on the Roubaix cobbles after reaching the Troisville opening sector. Last year, Masahiro Shinagawa (Skil-Shimano team) started but pulled out before the first cobbled section at 98km.
Ralf Grabsch (Milram) surged out of the lead group on the cobbles at sector 22 (Verchain-Maugré) to hang about a minute off the front. The peloton was coming to life, however, as the bunch surged toward the decisive Arenberg sector at 163km.
Michaelsen – riding in his last race as a professional – led the peloton onto the treacherous, 2400-meter sector of bumpy cobblestones. O’Grady punctured and eased to the right side of the narrow stretch, causing a nasty pileup in the middle of the pack as cross-eyed riders plowed into each other trying to brake and steer around the logjam.
The favorites barreled through the other side of the forest to be in position for the decisive finale.
Heating things up
Things became unsettled as the early attack continued dangling about two minutes off the front and the leaders regrouped after coming through the Arenberg.
Things were getting down to crunch time by sector 10 at 210km with the top favorites whittled down to about 20 big names. Among them were Boonen, Van Petegem, Cancellara, O’Grady, Michaelsen, Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Filippo Pozzato and Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas), Gusev, Flecha and Wesemann, among others.
Van Impe and Kopp pulled out of the front group while the leaders reeled in the early break, some of whom would hang onto the wheel. Flecha, Sébastien Rosseler (Quick Step), Leukemans and Michaelsen attacked out of the chasers while the top names were about 52 seconds back with at 220km.
Troubles began for Cancellara as Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) and then Boonen took stabs that unstuck the big Swiss time machine. With the defending champion starting to choke on the dust at the back of the bunch, O’Grady was given the green light to race his own race.
With 15km to go, he had 1:10 on the Flecha group (Flecha, Rosseler, Leukemans and Michalsen) and 1:30 on the Boonen group (Hammond, Hoste, Cofidis’s Staf Scheirlinckx and Devolder). O’Grady swept through the Camphin cobbles and grabbed a bidon from one of the waiting Team CSC
From there, it was clear all the way to Roubaix.
Paris-Roubaix — top 10
1. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), CSC, 6:09:07 (42.181 km/h)
2. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sp), Rabobank, at 0:52
3. Steffen Wesemann (Swi), Team Wiesenhof, same time
4. Bjorn Leukemans (B), Predictor-Lotto, at 0:53
5. Roberto Petito (I), Liquigas, at 0:55
6. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, s.t.
7. Roger Hammond (GB), T-Mobile, s.t.
8. Enrico Franzoi (I), Lampre, at 0:56
9. Kévin Van Impe (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, at 1:24
10. Fabio Baldato (I), Lampre, at 2:27
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1. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), CSC, 6:09:07 (42.181 km/h)
2. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sp), Rabobank, 00:52
3. Steffen Wesemann (Swi), Team Wiesenhof, 00:52
4. Bjorn Leukemans (B), Predictor-Lotto, 00:53
5. Roberto Petito (I), Liquigas, 00:55
6. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 00:55
7. Roger Hammond (GB), T-Mobile, 00:55
8. Enrico Franzoi (I), Lampre, 00:56
9. Kévin Van Impe (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 01:24
10. Fabio Baldato (I), Lampre, 02:27
11. Lars Michaelsen (Dk), CSC, 02:27
12. David Kopp (G), Gerolsteiner, 02:28
13. Leif Hoste (B), Predictor-Lotto, 02:28
14. Matti Breschel (Dk), CSC, 02:28
15. Ralf Grabsch (G), Milram, 02:28
16. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Cofidis, 02:28
17. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), Discovery Channel, 02:28
18. Stijn Devolder (B), Discovery Channel, 02:28
19. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), CSC, 02:38
20. Marcus Burghardt (G), T-Mobile, 03:43
21. Sébastien Rosseler (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 03:45
22. Stéphane Poulhies (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 05:04
23. Peter Van Petegem (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 05:04
24. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Ag2r Prevoyance, 05:05
25. Frédéric Guesdon (F), Francaise des Jeux, 05:05
26. Joaquin Jose Joaquin (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne, 05:05
27. Guennadi Mikhailov (Rus), Astana, 05:05
28. Bert Grabsch (G), T-Mobile, 05:05
29. Greg Van Avermaet (B), Predictor-Lotto, 05:06
30. Olaf Pollack (G), Team Wiesenhof, 05:07
31. Floris Goesinnen (Nl), SKS, 05:12
32. Nico Eeckhout (B), Chocolade Jacques – T Interim, 08:28
33. Filip Meirhaeghe (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 08:28
34. Nicolas Rousseau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 08:29
35. Filippo Pozzato (I), Liquigas, 08:29
36. Volodymyr Bileka (Ukr), Discovery Channel, 08:31
37. Aivaras Baranauskas (Lit), Agritubel, 09:27
38. Steven De Jongh (Nl), Quick Step-Innergetic, 09:38
39. William Bonnet (F), Credit Agricole, 09:38
40. Marcel Sieberg (G), Milram, 09:38
41. Rony Martias (F), Bouygues Telecom, 09:38
42. Sven Krauss (G), Gerolsteiner, 09:38
43. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Credit Agricole, 09:38
44. Florent Brard (F), Caisse d'Epargne, 09:38
45. Bram De Groot (Nl), Rabobank, 09:38
46. Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe), CSC, 09:38
47. Magnus Backstedt (Swe), Liquigas, 09:39
48. Andy Flickinger (F), Bouygues Telecom, 09:39
49. Peter Wrolich (A), Gerolsteiner, 09:39
50. Jorg Ludewig (G), Team Wiesenhof, 09:39
51. Koen De Kort (Nl), Astana, 09:39
52. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux, 09:39
53. Tom Steels (B), Predictor-Lotto, 09:39
54. Angel Gomez (Sp), Saunier Duval, 09:39
55. Christophe Mengin (F), Francaise des Jeux, 09:40
56. Robert Wagner (G), Team Wiesenhof, 09:40
57. Paolo Fornaciari (I), Lampre, 09:41
58. Wim Vansevenant (B), Predictor-Lotto, 09:43
59. Lorenzo Bernucci (I), T-Mobile, 09:43
60. Roy Sentjens (B), Predictor-Lotto, 09:45
61. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre, 09:52
62. Yohann Gene (F), Bouygues Telecom, 12:21
63. Iban Iriondo (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 12:21
64. Kasper Klostergaard (Dk), CSC, 12:21
65. Bernhard Eisel (A), T-Mobile, 12:21
66. Max Van Heeswijk (Nl), Rabobank, 12:21
67. Gregory Rast (Swi), Astana, 12:21
68. Bas Giling (Nl), Team Wiesenhof, 12:21
69. Raul Alarcon Garcia (Sp), Saunier Duval, 12:22
70. Servais Knaven (Nl), T-Mobile, 16:22
71. Fabio Sabatini (I), Milram, 16:22
72. Fabien Bacquet (F), SKS, 16:22
73. Wouter Weylandt (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 16:23
74. Niki Terpstra (Nl), Milram, 16:41
75. Raivis Belohvosciks (Lat), Saunier Duval, 16:41
76. Steven Caethoven (B), Chocolade Jacques – T Interim, 16:43
77. Christophe Laurent (F), Credit Agricole, 16:43
78. Maarten Den Bakker (Nl), SKS, 16:43
79. Markel Irizar (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 16:44
80. Alessandro Cortinovis (I), Milram, 16:44
81. Koldo Fernandez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 16:48
82. Mathieu Heijboer (Nl), Cofidis, 16:49
83. Andreas Klier (G), T-Mobile, 16:56
84. Tristan Valentin (F), Cofidis, 17:53
85. Pedro Horrillo (Sp), Rabobank, 18:25
86. Carlo Westphal (G), Gerolsteiner, 19:17
87. Wouter Van Mechelen (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 20:37
88. Tom Stamsnijder (Nl), Gerolsteiner, 20:57
89. Erki Pütsep (Est), Bouygues Telecom, 20:58