GENT, Belgium (VN) — Martijn Maaskant is hoping to rediscover the magic that saw him hyped as a possible winner of the “Hell of the North” at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
Back in 2008, Maaskant (UnitedHealthcare) roared to fourth in his Roubaix debut — a performance that had many believing he could one day win. Flash-forward to 2014, and Maaskant, who made an off-season move from Garmin-Sharp to UnitedHealthcare, is still searching for another strong ride in the fields of northern France.
“I didn’t think that, but maybe some people on my team thought that, that he could win it one year. It hasn’t happened yet,” Maaskant told VeloNews. “It’s such a hard race. I am very motivated to show myself this year.”
Now 30, Maaskant exploded onto the northern classics scene in 2008 as a rookie with the fledgling Garmin squad, then known as Slipstream-Chipotle. The then-24-year-old was impressive in his first run across the treacherous pavé, finishing alone in fourth at 3:39, the lead chaser behind the winning threesome of Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Alessandro Ballan.
Fourth the following year in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) served as confirmation that Maaskant was a classics contender in the making.
Then, just as quickly, he seemed to fade off the radar. Crashes, illnesses, and a string of poor results piled up. In 2010, he finished a respectable 22nd at Roubaix, but missed the classics season in 2011 following a heavy fall at Paris-Nice that left him with seven broken ribs. He missed another Roubaix start in 2012 after crashing out of Flanders, and last year mustered only 73rd.
After six years in the Garmin franchise, Maaskant was cut loose in a full-scale facelift by the American team. UnitedHealthcare came calling, and he’s hoping to pay back their trust with a strong performance in the team’s Roubaix debut Sunday.
“When I got fourth it was my first Roubaix, so it was all new. Now I’ve done the race a couple of times. I didn’t always do so good,” Maaskant said. “It’s always a special race for me. I always focus on Roubaix. You never know what’s going to happen, but it’s my main goal this spring.”
The 6-foot-1 Maaskant has had a busy spring, thanks to a world-class racing schedule for UnitedHealthcare, a U.S.-registered UCI Pro Continental team. After debuting at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, Maaskant was 60th at the hilly one-day classic Strade Bianche in March. He posted a pair of top 20s at the Ronde van Drenthe and Dwars door Drenthe in the middle of March, and was 38th at Milano-Sanremo.
“I felt good at Sanremo, but I didn’t make the first group. I was going on the right direction on my form; unfortunately I got sick,” Maaskant said. “I am feeling better. I am confident for Paris-Roubaix.”
UnitedHealthcare races Wednesday at GP Scheldeprijs, and will preview the decisive cobblestone sectors later this week before Sunday’s start in Compiègne. Sport director Hendrik Redant said the team was rallying around Maaskant, by far the rider with the most experience on the cobblestones.
“Martijn knows these races, he’s been fourth, he knows how it works. He will be our leader. Our guys will have to work to put him in the best position,” Redant told VeloNews. “I tell the guys, ‘we have power, we have the form, we have the quality, we are united, let’s try to beat them.'”
The veteran Belgian director admitted that the team is not on the same level as the top favorites, but said anything’s possible in a bike race — particularly one playing out over 51 kilometers of stones.
“As far as I know, I think those guys have two legs, we have two legs as well, so we’re going to try to beat them,” Redant said. “We have big hopes for Roubaix. I think Martijn can surprise people.”
Maaskant knows not many people will be counting on him for a return to his 2008 level, but he knows that all it takes is one good ride.
“For our team, it’s important to show ourselves. I have to try and follow. If I am good, then I can think about doing something in the final. First, you have to be good, then you see what happens in the end,” he said. “I hope to get good result as I can. I got fourth there a couple of years ago, I really love the race. I want to get the best out of myself there.”
And his love for Roubaix hasn’t diminished despite his up-and-down results at cycling’s hardest one-day race.
“I really love it. It’s one of the hardest races. If you’re good, then it’s easier to stay in the front,” he said. “You’ve got to have the legs, and you’ve got to have the luck. If you have good legs, but you have 10 flat tires, you’re not going to win. If everything goes right, I know I can do something good.”
For Maaskant, another strong Roubaix would mean the world to him. It’s the race that defined him early in his pro career, but has become a burden as he’s tried to live up to that early success.