ROUBAIX, France (VN) — When prognosticators guessed that a former cyclocross star might be a major factor on the Paris-Roubaix cobbles on Sunday, they were largely thinking of Lars Boom (Blanco), who rode to a convincing top 10 in last year’s edition of the race.
Few, if any, guessed that Roubaix rookie Zdenek Stybar would be the only man capable of covering favorite Fabian Cancellara’s bid for race victory. But when the big Swiss surged out of a group of Roubaix favorites, it was the Czech two-time cyclocross world champion who went with him.
Likewise, when team leader and defending champion Tom Boonen crashed out of the Ronde van Vlaanderen last week, few guessed that his Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad would be the team that delivered the most exciting — and simultaneously the most star-crossed — racing in Roubaix.
Absent Boonen, the team chose to simply pour fire into the race. They threw everything they had at the front in an effort to disrupt RadioShack-Leopard’s plans to control the race until Cancellara delivered his fatal blow.
They succeeded. Omega Pharma put no fewer than five men into the fray. First was Geert Steegmans, one of only two survivors of an early break that lasted until there was barely an hour left in the race, keeping the pressure off Omega Pharma’s pinch-hitting leader, Sylvain Chavanel.
But Chavanel suffered a mechanical at perhaps the most inopportune moment possible, missing the decisive split and leaving the race in the hands of teammates Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, and Niki Terpstra.
Still, with three strong cards left to play and barely 20km left in the race, Omega Pharma’s hand appeared to be trump. Vandenbergh worked himself into a late break with Blanco’s Sep Vanmarcke, while Stybar, in the chase group, marked Cancellara’s every move.
“I was actually in a perfect situation,” said Stybar after the finish. “I had Stijn in front, so I didn’t have to pull, I was just following Cancellara, and I had really perfect legs. I was really feeling very good.”
The one-two punch may have been enough to stagger Cancellara, still suffering the effects of two crashes earlier in the week. Instead, disaster struck on the cobbles. First, Vandenbergh, riding in the gutter, clipped a fan on the side of the road, landing hard, sliding on his back on the cobbles. Moments later, Cancellara and Stybar joined Vanmarcke at the front.
“Then we were only with three away, so I was like, ‘Oh, dammit, I think I am here one of the fastest,’ so I was really focusing on what I can do in the final,” Stybar said. “Niki was behind me, so I didn’t have to pull at all. So I was really in a super situation.”
But it was not to be. Stybar, too, ran afoul of a fan. His shifter hit a fan’s telephoto lens and he shot across the road, barely in control. Though he miraculously stayed upright, the encounter opened a gap that he could not close. Stybar chased valiantly, but ineffectively, then drifted back through no-man’s land, his podium hopes dashed.
With Terpstra riding comfortably in the chase group, the team still had a final shot for the podium; the Dutch rider would go on to hold off Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in the finale on the track, perhaps salvaging an otherwise dismal season for the Belgian squad.
After the race, feelings were decidedly mixed, but the message was clear.
“I’m really happy to be on the podium, of course,” said Terpstra. “The team was really strong, and on the podium we [could have had] Stijn Vandenbergh or Zdenek Stybar too. So I think we could have played a really nice tactical game in the final. In the end I’m happy.”
Stybar, visibly emotional about the near miss as he rested on his bike on the side of Roubaix’s legendary velodrome, said he also believed the team had proven something today.
“I think we did as a team a really perfect job,” he said. “Every time, already from kilometer zero, there was always someone in the breakaway and there was not once a group without our team. So I think after the bad luck with Tom Boonen we proved we could do a really good job as a team. And all the group was really very focused and very motivated already these last days and weeks, but we had always pretty bad luck.”
But the 27-year-old Czech, riding the classics for the first time, said for him the race had also been an opportunity to prove himself.
“You know,” he said, “after Flanders I felt that my shape was really exceptional. I think that it was [the best condition of my life] those last few weeks, but I never could really prove it. And today I think finally I let [everybody] see that I made a good move to change from cyclocross to road, especially for this kind of race.”
So, too, said team manager Patrick Lefevre. It was chance, not simply strength, he said, that had determined the outcome today.
“We had a very strong team,” he said. “Probably the best team in the race, but to be the best team is not enough to win; you need some luck. But today the luck was not with us, like the whole year. I can also say, that the team did great, doing the race without a real leader.”
Indeed, Omega Pharma’s 2013 campaign may be the very embodiment of cycling’s cobbled monuments. You can build a perfect team and a perfect plan and maybe even a perfect plan B. But on the cobbles all you can do is ride your heart out. The rest is in the hands of fate.
“This race,” said Stybar, who finished sixth after nearly tasting the biggest victory of his young road career, “once we hit all those cobbles and I saw the crowds, I was like, yeah, it’s really like you need to be lucky and you need to be strong, focused for every single second.
“And on one moment you can lose everything or you can win everything. You don’t know what’s waiting behind the corner.”