He’s never won a cobbled classic, and he’s yet to figure out how to beat pre-race favorites Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. But this weekend Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha is taking the start at Paris-Roubaix intent on beating both for the win.
Much like American George Hincapie, Flecha has often been very close at Paris-Roubaix. He finished third behind Boonen and Hincapie in the velodrome in 2005, fourth in 2006 behind a solo Cancellara, second in 2007 out of a lead group of seven riders who finished a minute behind winner Stuart O’Grady, and sixth in 2009 after causing a key pileup that took out Leif Hoste and Filippo Pozatto, opening the door for Boonen to take another solo win when Thor Hushovd crashed just moments later.
First, however Flecha will have to figure out how to beat the two-headed snake that the two big pre-race favorites create — Cancellara is the strongest man in the race, while Boonen is the superior sprinter.
“Okay, one is strong, the other is fast; I will have to adapt,” Flecha said. “If I am there at the end I won’t just sit on, I will try to beat them. Maybe I will attack, maybe I will get rid of them. Maybe it will be a battle at the velodrome. Obviously Boonen knows that track, and how to win there. But remember when I was second behind O’Grady (in 2007) I won a sprint, and beat Steffen Wesemann in that sprint. I am going to be ready for that. I am not going to think about the two or three ways I cannot win. If I am thinking about that it’s better I don’t start at all. I believe from the start line everyone has the same chances of winning.”
The ordinarily affable Flecha bristled at the suggestion that a back-to-100-percent Pozatto might help increase his chances, even though another rider to aid in Boonen’s chase of Cancellara at Flanders might have helped reign in the Swiss time trial ace.
“I saw him Wednesday (at GP Scheldeprijs), and you could tell he has had a stomach virus,” Flecha said. “He looked skinnier and pale, and he probably lost some strength. And of course he missed an important 6.5-hour race on Sunday. But he’s a great rider and I’m sure he will there. I don’t know how good he will be, if he will be a little bit better or a little bit worse, or how he will be at the end. He’s just another strong guy there. I don’t race thinking about how one strong rider will affect the race. I don’t know how Pippo will play out. There are a lot of scenarios. But why do you ask if he would affect my race?”
At last year’s Roubaix, Flecha was leading a four-man pursuit of Boonen and Hushovd when he crashed on a dusty turn at the entrance of the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector of cobbles. Hoste went straight into the back of Flecha and hit the deck; Hoste’s teammate Johan Van Summeren did an impressive power-slide to stop and aid his fallen captain, while Pozatto was momentarily forced to stop to avoid the pileup. Pozatto never saw Boonen again, and at the finish both Hoste and Pozatto blamed Flecha for their misfortune.
“I can tell you with Hoste our relationship before that crash and after that crash was the same,” Flecha said. “I have no problem with what he said at the finish line. I’m sure he was frustrated, and had to blame someone. I completely understand, sometimes the easiest way to solve the situation is to blame someone else. After that race with Leif, we are the same. With Pozatto I was more upset about what he said. Even weeks later, months later, he blamed me, and said he lost Roubaix because of me. What no one speaks about is that Hushovd crashed one corner later, and Pozatto also had to avoid him. And if he had been behind Hushovd… He said ‘I lost because of you.’ And I said, ‘Okay Pippo, you know you are wrong.’ Hushovd also crashed, and no one is talking about him, because I am the easiest to blame.”
Flecha said he’s confident in his team, and is hoping for big things from Australian Mat Hayman, a former teammate at Rabobank who has aided Flecha at Roubaix several times.
“I want Mat there in the final,” Flecha said. “You saw him performing well at Flanders, perhaps too much in the first half of the race. I want him there at the end. I was telling him at Ghent-Wevelgem, ‘At Paris-Roubaix you will be in the final, but you have to save your legs.’”
Hayman said if there’s one thing he’s learned from races like Flanders and Roubaix, it’s to keep calm.
“There are going to be crashes, there are going to be punctures,” Hayman said. “You have to just keep going towards the velodrome. Last year Juan had to change a wheel 2km before the Arenberg Forest. That’s probably the worst place to have a puncture, but he got back on. Sure, it cost lot of energy, you have to get around everyone and get through the forest, with all the fans and stopped cars, but you keep plugging away. When you panic you waste your energy.”