Perhaps it’s with typical French flair that the best finish by a French rider in more than a decade fell on the exact same day when the last Frenchman to have won across the cobblestones raced Paris-Roubaix for the final time.
Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) had the ride of his young and promising career on the same afternoon that Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ-BigMat) competed Roubaix for the 17th and final time of his long and storied career.
Turgot’s second place finish was the best by a Frenchman since Guesdon won in 1997 — impressive stuff for a rider who’s only won one race since turning pro in 2008.
“I still don’t realize what I have done,” Turgot said after collapsing on the velodrome infield on Sunday. “I am in euphoria. Later, when I am on the bus or at home, I will have a chance to reflect on what I have achieved.”
What the 27-year-old from Limoges did was give the long-suffering French fans something to cheer about in their treasured cobblestone classic.
While the French drought on the cobbles is not nearly as long as it is for the Tour de France — Bernard Hinault remains the last French rider to win the Tour in 1985 — many were wondering when a French rider would make their presence felt in the “Hell of the North.”
Since Guesdon’s victory in 1997, the French have been largely absent from Roubaix’s honor roll. In that 15-year interim, riders from Belgium, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland and Holland have won.
While French riders have won Roubaix 28 times, most of those wins came before World War II. Belgium has the record with 55 for exactly half of the race’s 110 editions.
Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who won in 1992 and 1993, was the last Frenchman to truly excel on the cobblestones.
Guesdon had his one big win in 1997 and set a record Sunday, shared with George Hincapie (BMC Racing), with a record 17 Roubaix starts.
French national champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has shown promise, but his chances Sunday deflated with his ill-timed puncture just as eventual winner and teammate Tom Boonen attacked with about 57km to go.
Turgot’s performance Sunday was perhaps the biggest surprise of the day.
And pipping Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) by millimeters in a true photo-finish for second showed that Turgot’s track racing experience came in handy; inside the velodrome he and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) caught on the back of Ballan, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) to battle for the podium.
“My legs started cramping up on the final corner,” he explained, “but I gave everything I had.”
The former trackie turned pro in 2008 with Bouygues Telecom and finished third later that year at Paris-Tours, only to be passed in the closing meters by eventual winner Philippe Gilbert.
His lone professional victory came in 2010, when he won stage 2 at the Three Days of De Panne.
Europcar sport director Dominique Arnould said Turgot has got the goods to go even further on the cobbles.
“He’s tenacious, he’s there all year, he never gives up, he’s never satisfied,” Arnould told L’Equipe. “He sometimes has problems with his weight in the winter, but this year, he did his work, and now he gets the payback. His ride on Roubaix will be a nice (confidence) booster.”
Turgot’s previous Roubaix performances were hardly indicative of what the world saw Sunday. In his first ride across the cobbles in 2009, he finished beyond the time cut. In 2010, he abandoned while last year he was 34th.
On Sunday, both he and his Europcar team exceeded expectations.
Canadian David Veilleux rode into the day’s main breakaway and was present when Turgot bridged up to the remnants of the move after crossing the Arenberg trench in good position.
Turgot was part of a string of counterattacks that came in the wake of a crash with about 80km to go that split the peloton, catching the likes of Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini) out of position.
When Boonen punched the accelerator, Turgot knew he didn’t have the gas to go with him.
“I was there for a moment, but I could see that Boonen was very strong,” Turgot said. “I decided to hold back in the chase group and reserve my legs, because it was still a long way to go. No one expected Boonen to stay away.”
Turgot proved he could finish off the kill with a superb sprint that put him in elevated company with second place on the podium after his finish-line bike stab knocked Ballan into third.
“I have learned that I am made for Roubaix and these kinds of races in Flanders,” Turgot said. “Now I will work hard to try to win.”