The “Hell of the North” has always delivered a dramatic display of racing, no matter who is racing or when. Rain or shine, this is a race that makes legends of its champions and always delivers one of the most exhilarating spectacles on the cycling calendar for its rabid fans. The 2013 Paris-Roubaix, though, was truly spectacular.
Once the early-race pleasantries had been exchanged, the leg-beating attacks in the Arenberg Forest passed, and the formalities of the early cobbled sectors executed, the most prestigious classic was going off. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) was a huge favorite, and he was hovering near the front of the race all day.
Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) had been off the front with Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) with less than 30km to race, while Spartacus, fresh off a demonstrative win at the Tour of Flanders, was behind in a group with Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma), Bernhard Eisel (Sky), and Lars Boom (Blanco). Was Cancellara, who had soloed to victory a week earlier at the Tour of Flanders, on an off-day? Was he tired? Was he bonking? Was he bluffing? Cancellara surged a few kilometers later, dragging Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma) along for the ride, and soon four very strong men were perched at the head of the race. And that’s when it started to come apart. First, Vandenbergh hit a spectator and fell heavily. Then there were three. Cancellara pressed on; Vanmarke had a go, and soon Stybar, surely the fastest finisher among the three, collided with a photographer. Remarkable handling skills saved him from a meeting with the cobbles, but the gap that formed when he flailed was too much to overcome.
Then, there were two.
With 6km remaining, Cancellara and Vanmarcke were trading pulls, the young Belgian taking the measure of the immense Cancellara. He had a dig, but Cancellara marked him easily. The two entered the fabled velodrome together, meeting a wall of noise in the bright afternoon.
Cancellara entered first. With characteristic technical savvy, Cancellara forced Vanmarcke to come around him on the first turn, while stalling high on the banking. He then dove off the pitch and onto the Belgian’s wheel, and took him at the line in a remarkable display of patience and brute strength.
Cancellara collapsed on the ground shortly after the win, destroyed, but reveling, like so many Roubaix champions before him, in the ecstasy of victory.