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