Steven Cozza had a front-row seat for his debut at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
The 24-year-old bolted into the day’s main breakaway and then led the move across the famous Arenberg cobblestone section. Luckily, he wasn’t seriously injured in a late-race crash on a slick corner and was able to finish the race.
Things didn’t go as expected for the Garmin-Slipstream crew, who were quietly optimistic Martijn Maaskant would reach the final, top-three podium.
But for Cozza and the rest of his teammates, Sunday’s disappointment at Roubaix only fuels their motivation to come back and settle the score with the Hell of the North.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Cozza to talk about his first experience on the cobblestones. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: So the team tactics were built around riding 100 percent for Maaskant?
Steven Cozza: We all had confidence in Martijn. It was all for him. We wanted to get someone in a move if a big break went up the road and if there were a lot of big teams represented. I saw the move go. It was in a crosswind section. Eight guys were going and I jumped into it. It was good for the team to have someone up the road and then be there to help when the rest of the team pulls up. Martijn ended up having some bad luck, with a couple of flats and a crash.
VN: So you were assigned to try to get into the early breaks?
SC: It was me, (Mike) Friedman and Hans Dekkers. We didn’t want to waste too much energy early, but if something substantial was up the road, we needed someone in there. It worked out perfectly and it was really cool see the race by being in the break. Some big names were in the break, so it was cool to be riding with them over the cobbles. I was quite disappointed when the front group caught us, because I was not strong enough to stay with the leaders. Tom Boonen came by like a freight train. I didn’t have much strength left by then.
VN: It seemed like it took awhile for something to go, how was it working into the breakaway?
SC: It went about 40km into the race. It was really tough. There was some crosswinds and I saw the peloton was getting strung out. They weren’t letting anything go. A few guys were jumping up the road and some gaps were opening. I jumped from one rider to the next and kept moving up and I jumped from three riders to get into the break. We were really driving it for the first hour, but they wouldn’t give us more than one minute. Some teams were missing, there was no one from Silence-Lotto or a Katusha, so they were chasing pretty hard. When we hit the first cobbles, we immediately saw the gap grow by two minutes. At the Arenberg, we still had three minutes, but everyone was weakening by then.
VN: You had some pretty interesting riders in the break, including former winner Knaven, what did you learn from that experience?
SC: I was paying attention to see how they were pedaling, their position. (Andreas) Klier and Knaven were saying, ride the paved sections hard and take the pavé easy, hard on asphalt, easy on cobblestones, until they catch us. We didn’t kill ourselves in the cobblestones, but it was interesting to see what gears they were pushing on the cobblestones. I thought you had to push a big gear on the cobblestones to stay grounded, but they spin quite a bit. Our break was working well together, everyone was taking a rotation.
VN: So how was it through the Arenberg?
SC: That section was sweet. I was able to lead it into the Arenberg. It was like riding into a tunnel of people. I had so much adrenaline, I didn’t even feel the cobbles.
VN: How much more did you ride before the break was caught?
SC: I was looking forward to having Martijn come through, but when the group caught up, it was disheartening not to see anyone there from the team. My radio wasn’t working, so I didn’t know what was going on. Then I got dropped pretty fast. I was in the group with Hincapie, but I went back through that, and then I found Wiggins in a group about 20 seconds back. Wiggins was pretty strong. He’s really good on the cobblestones, it’s actually a good race for him. If he focused on that, he could do quite well.
VN: So you tried to stay in that group to help Wiggins?
SC: There were about 30 guys, but it was such a weird group. When it hit a cobbles sector, about half the guys would go off the front, the others would get dropped. I was floating in the middle and we stayed together until the finish. I was pretty tapped out at that point. I was just focusing on finishing.
VN: And you crashed pretty hard late in the race, what happened?
SC: It was about 5km to go. I was leading my group through a turn, either fans were throwing beer on it or there was oil, because it was so click. As soon as I hit it, I knew I was going down. I didn’t have a chance. My front wheel just slid out. It was kind of funny, I made it all the way through Roubaix without a flat, no crashes, no troubles, and then on an easy turn with 5km to go, I crash. You just never know at Roubaix.
VN: Banged up, but no serious injuries?
SC: The shoulder I crashed on, I’ve broken it before. I whacked it pretty hard, but it was just bruised. I am just really sore. I didn’t break anything.
VN: Now that you’ve had a few days to recover, how do you reflect on your first experience at Roubaix?
SC: I really look forward to the race in the future. I had a good experience. I love the cobbles. They don’t scare me at all. During the break, I was happier on the cobbles than on the paved sections. It was an honor to be up there in such a big race. I’ve been watching Roubaix since I was 15 years old. It’s always been a dream to do the race, then to be in the break in my first Roubaix was just so exciting.
VN: Were the cobblestones as hard as you expected?
SC: I actually didn’t think there were as bad as they said they were going to be. The worse is in the Arenberg and there are a couple pretty bad sections after that. Personally, I had no problems on them. Felt had some special bikes made. They were awesome. Compared to our normal road bike, it really made a huge difference. It was a longer frame, with a bigger space between the tires and the forks were longer, so it was a more relaxed ride. We had brakes on the top of the bars, too, and Zipp made some special Roubaix wheels for us. They were super strong.
The cool thing that really helped me in the race is the Garmin computers were programmed for the entire race. The 27 sectors of cobblestones were programmed into the unit, so my Garmin would tell me all the details about each sector: how long before I arrived, how long each sector was. It was such a huge advantage. I could rely on my Garmin because you could not remember the entire course. It was pretty damn sweet and it’s all done with GPS, so it’s exact. It scrolled through automatically.
Plus, we had the entire team there at the race. It was a tremendous effort. We had six cars, five mechanics, four or five soigneurs. Every sector we had bottles and a set of wheels waiting for us. It’s crazy what can happen in this race, but I was really lucky.
VN: How did the team react to the disappointment of not putting Maaskant in contention to win?
SC: Our team did everything right, except the bad luck. Martijn was super strong, we had everyone where we wanted. I was in the break, Mike and Will helped him chase back after his flat, but in the end, it was too hard to come back from that many misfortunes. We realized it’s Roubaix, that kind of stuff happens. We did our best in the situation. Of course, we were bummed, but it wasn’t because of a lack of preparation. We did everything we could, but these things happen. We will live to race another day. I know we all look forward to coming back and getting revenge.
VN: Were there any riders in the peloton that you admired or followed when you were watching Roubaix as a young racer?
SC: I’ve always looked up to Hincapie. I always wanted him to win the race. On Sunday, I wanted Martijn, Hincapie or myself to win. I was really bummed to see George in that second group. The Boonen group came through and then you saw George in the second group and you knew he’s not in contention. I hope he decides to race it again next year. He’s had such bad luck, he’s bound to have a year that luck goes his way. He’s such a super talent.
VN: Do you see yourself trying to evolve into a classics specialists like Hincapie or Boonen in the future?
SC: I love racing in Europe. I have a contract with the team through 2011. By the time that’s up, I will be 27, so I have plenty of time to develop. It’s been a dream of mine just to race Roubaix. I look forward to getting as many results and do the best I can for the team. The classics are best for me. I’m a good time trailer and an alright climber, but I am not good enough to be a grand tour leader. I see myself doing well in the grand tours to help my teammates and maybe win a stage. I think I can focus on the classics. The longer, 250km races are good for me. The longer and tougher, the better it is for me.
VN: So after a well-deserved break, what’s next?
SC: I’m a reserve for the Giro, but I will probably do Catalunya and then the Tour de Swiss. Since I am a reserve, I have to train like I am going to do the Giro, so then if I don’t go, I will be super-fit for Catalunya.
VN: Will you be staying in Spain or returning to the United States?
SC: I will stay in Girona. I am pretty set up over here. I like it in Girona. I will be doing some fishing, maybe do a little camping. I go fishing down on the Med. It’s pretty fun and we’re close to the sea. I have a car, so I just drive out there. I just fish from the rocks. It helps take my mind off racing when I need a little break. There’s a lot of fish out there.