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Defending champion Vansummeren at peace before ‘Hell of the North’

  • By Dan Wuori
  • Published Apr. 6, 2012
  • Updated Apr. 6, 2012 at 10:32 PM EDT
The tall rider looks forward to defending his title next season. Photo: Andrew Hood

ROUBAIX, France (VN) — Two days before his Paris-Roubaix defense, 2011 winner Johan Vansummeren is at peace. The Garmin-Barracuda classics specialist has been eating well, training hard and feeling surprisingly little pressure as he prepares for Sunday’s “Hell of the North.”

Meeting the soft-spoken champion at his team’s hotel in Chantilly, just outside Paris, it’s almost difficult to imagine he managed the feat. Where other riders exude cockiness and power, Vansummeren is a gentle giant. At over 6 feet, 5 inches, the wiry, 31-year old Belgian stands out in a crowd, appearing at times like two cyclists stacked one upon another.

In conversation, Vansummeren is humble and easy with a smile. Asked about the pressure of beginning Sunday with the number 1 on his back, Vansummeren opens up.

“All the pressure I feel, I put on myself, because I want to do good. I want to do a good performance for my team,” he explained.

“But I’ve done everything I should do and that’s why I’m not worrying too much. I will be nervous when I’m going to the start or [Saturday] afternoon at the presentation, but otherwise, I’m not thinking about it too much. For now it’s just, I have to ride fast.”

Could this mean a repeat performance in the Roubaix velodrome? Vansummeren admits that slipping away in a break like the one he rode to victory in in 2011 is unlikely as the defending champion.

“I think [the race favorites] will not let me go. If they would, then ‘thank you!’” he said with a laugh. “But no, I don’t think that will happen for me this time.”

What are Vansummeren’s aspirations for Sunday?

“I want to be there in the final and play a key role. When it comes to winning, I know I am not so fast at the finish line, so the guarantee is maybe not so big [should the race end in a sprint]. But I will do my best to make a nice race and we’ll see where we can get.”

As for his most famous victory, fans may be surprised to know that Vansummeren recalls almost nothing of his 2011 win in Roubaix.

“Everyone asks me that question and I have to tell them, ‘Yes, I’ve watched it on YouTube. And I’ve seen some pictures.’ I had a flat tire [at the end] and I was so concentrated on that flat tire. I was worried whether I could ride one-and-a-half laps with that (tire) without sliding off the velodrome. I was too focused to think.”

The Belgian did find time to enjoy the post-race whirlwind — at least briefly.

He proposed to his longtime girlfriend while still caked in dust and road grime and was greeted as a conquering hero at the Amgen Tour of California weeks later. But Vansummeren knows that cyclists can ill-afford to stop and smell the roses.

“I’m still a bike rider and you can’t let [the recognition and accolades] change you too much,” he explained.

“You still have to go out and train whether you’ve won Paris-Roubaix or not. If you change your life, then you get dropped in every race. I had a good break after the classics last year. It was fun. But then at a certain moment you have to really start training again, because otherwise you come past the finish line every time with the last group.”

After riding the Tour of Flanders last weekend and crashing into the barriers on the Paterberg climb, Vansummeren believes he has recovered fully. Indeed, he may just be built for the classics.

“When I was in Roubaix last year, I saw some riders coming into the velodrome like they didn’t know where they were anymore. And sometimes you read interviews where riders say, ‘My hands were completely blistered and open after the cobbles.’ But I’ve never really been like that.

“I like to suffer on my bike, but when you’re going good it’s not really pain at all. It’s only suffering when you’re hanging in the pack. When you can race in the front, then it’s fun.

“I think my body is made for cobblestones.”

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