Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Perfect Race

In a world where possibility can be celebrated, there are times when even the expected can seem unexpected and the unanticipated can seem orchestrated. So it was that when Tom Boonen stood up and sprinted away from Alessandro Ballan and Fabian Cancellara in the final 200 meters of Paris-Roubaix it was hard not to cheer in triumph. It was the quintessential ending to the ultimate race.

It was the second Classic to end thus this season. In seeing Stijn Devolder in the Belgian National Champion’s jersey crossing the line alone in triumph, the world achieved a certain satisfactory order. The alliterative quality of a Flandrian wearing the flag in Flanders fits. Could there have been a more appropriate outcome?

The fact is we love great champions. The masterful stroke of the great hardman never disappoints and we love to see the move of exceptional strength and style. But the danger here is dominance. We want the possibility of a range of winners, an as-yet-to-be-determined outcome, rather than the foregone conclusion. For most folks Indurain’s Tour wins in ’94 and ’95 were, well, boring. And not too many of the cycling cognoscenti were psyched about Lance’s exploits in the ’05 Tour. And lest anyone think that winning is routine for Boonen, just check the delight on his face; we should all be so lucky as to find such joy.

In a Classic the possible winners number nearly 200 and to those of us weaned on the either/or of football, basketball and baseball, possibilities on that order might as well be infinite. Compared to bike racing, betting on football is easy; even roulette offers better odds.

It's true that seeing a domestique such as Wampers or Demol win can be exciting, but often such a victory is a let-down for its lack of the mark of a known champion. Which is why young Martijn Maaskant’s fourth place might have been the ideal compromise. While the win went to a definitive star of Roubaix, Maaskant’s fourth was a memorable rookie performance and yet another great statement from what is arguably cycling’s most conspicuously clean program.

Had Boonen rolled out of Compiégne with a dozen wins in hand from this spring, the threat of his utter dominance would have cast him in the roll of villain, the obstacle to be overcome. And at Roubaix, the star of the day should always be the course; nothing should ever upstage the stones. Without the wins in hand, we wondered when Tornado Tom would delight us with yet another display of his power. Similarly, Cancellara was an unknown, but for different reasons. Having already performed brilliantly at Milan-San Remo and Monte Pasche Eroica—heck, he’d been going well ever since the Tour of California—we knew he was strong, but he missed the move at Flanders, and frankly, you had to wonder if he could maintain winning form for yet another week. And let’s not forget Ballan. He’d put it together once before and was showing great form at Flanders.

When that trio went up the road part of the satisfaction we felt was in our understanding the dynamic. To the uninitiated, they were just three very fast cyclists. To us, they were the masters, eliminating the weak and working the odds; it was as much chess as it was brute force.

As they entered the velodrome in Roubaix, we knew the winner would come from that trio and while we can each be forgiven our partisan preferences, we knew any one of them would make for a fitting winner, a champion in the classic sense. Ballan would be a surprise for extending his range, Boonen would be a pleasure in seeing him confirm his mastery of the cobbles and Cancellara would be a shock for the sheer unlikeliness of the repeat and of carrying his form for weeks on end.

With reality increasingly scripted by Hollywood, the sight of Ballan, Boonen and Cancellara together was both more natural and more surprising than we've come to expect. In the end, Boonen’s sprint was a definitive statement that eliminated the almost, the what if, giving him what every champion deserves, a place in history.

Photo courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International


Captain said...

Let's not forget the part that O'Grady and Devolder played in the race. They were both worthy of the win too.

Their cat-and-mouse in the closing kilometers as they tried to bridge to the leaders while dropping their companions was fun to watch.

flahute said...

Could it really be considered a "repeat" when there would have another winner in the interim year?

Boonen won in 2005. Cancellara won in 2006.

And since O'Grady won last year, I don't think either Boonen or Cancellara qualify as "repeat" winners.

That's like saying the Red Sox are repeat winners of the World Series (which they last won in 2003, and previously won in 1918).

To me, it's not a repeat unless it's in consecutive years.

Anonymous said...

it's a repeat for any induvidual who wins twice

Anonymous said...

what about Cancellara just empty on the sprint, Boonen won by a mile, I would argue he did dominate the laed group but played his cards right and let no one know so as to keep the rotations going.

bikemike said...

Boonen's win is more impressive because of the strength displayed in that final sprint. Cancellara was cramping, and done, and Ballan was just plain done as he hadn't been able to pull for a good many km's. Boonen still had the strength after pushing the pace and countering every move tried by Cancellara. The man is a great winner.

Anonymous said...

Brazilian Murilo Fischer (Liquigas) was strong too. I believe him.

bikesgonewild said...

...a raised bier glass, padraig !!!...

..."at roubaix, the star of the day should always be the course; nothing should ever upstage the stones"---winning, making the podium or just finishing paris-roubaix takes 'stones' the size of the cobbles themselves...

Chuck Walter said...

Not to change the topic too much but I just want you to know that I will be rocking the BKW bottles from now on! Just ordered a pair for my ride.

Anonymous said...

...and then, of course, was wednesday's Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, where boonen raised his hands in celebration only to be passed in the final meters by Cavendish. Definitely not "the perfect race."

Anonymous said...

I'll be ordering my bottles soon. When are the jerseys coming!

Nice comments by Competitive Cyclist about BKW, but they need to drop the part that starts with, "Admittedly, as of this writing BKW is in a bit of a slump."

Excuse me, but you guys are rocking the house. Keep up the great work!


Padraig said...

Devolder is having the season of his life. Johnny Pierce says watch out at L-B-L if Devloder makes it over La Redoute with the leaders.

To be fair, Flahute has a point. It's not a true repeat if it isn't consecutive.

Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen was the norm (in that it was a non-perfect outcome) that helps demonstrate why this Paris-Roubaix was so special.

Glad you all like the bottles!

We're pleased with the write-up from Competitive Cyclist. Brendan at Competitive Cyclist is a fine writer in his own right, so his praise, tempered by some steel fatigue is welcome. It's just the sort of feedback you only get from a true friend.

Anonymous said...

I'm particularly happy for Boonen, given the way he rode for Devolder at Flanders, which you know he wanted to win.