Paris-Roubaix preview. Six riders under the gun.
Time to cast stones.
If you’re a classics rider, a man for the cobblestones, then Flanders and Roubaix pretty much define your season. You might pick up a placing in a semi-classic and that’s nice but what you did in those two weeks in April defines your year. Screw them both up and your career starts going backwards. Here are a few particular riders under the gun for this Sunday’s Queen of the Classics, Paris Roubaix.
The misplaced Italian on Kutusha, The Russian Global Cycling Project! The rider who took 2nd place in the 2009 Hell of the North has turned into a project according to his team bosses. Andre Tchmil, a former hardman himself, has publicly questioned Pippo’s race tactics. A few days ago, directeur sportif Serge Parsani underlined his disappointment with Pozzato’s race results by suggesting the rider examine his conscience. An underwhelming 38th in Flanders means a top five is almost mandatory for the man with the full back tattoo that reads “Only God Can Judge Me.” Yeah, God and a few hundred cycling journalists and all of Italy.
It was only a few seasons ago that Tornado Tom was considered almost invincible on the cobblestones of Flanders and Roubaix. Then a terrible disaster befell the Belgian star: a guy by the name of Fabian Cancellara. Last year, Boonen was not only beaten but embarrassed and shamed on the way to the velodrome. Things have been looking up this season but the pressure is on since Boonen missed the Flanders podium and admitted afterwards that Cancellara was too strong on the early climbs for him. Podium or firing squad in Belgian media.
The BMC Boys.
While there’s no 60 ton weight on the shoulders or albatross hanging around the neck, Alessandro Ballan and to a lesser extent George Hincapie go in with pressure and expectations. Ballan has shown this season that he’s back to his world champion level form after two years of squat. He’s had a few strong showings and near misses but Sunday is the day to put it all together. Ballan is now under an even bigger gun — his name surfaced again today as part of the long-simmering Mantova doping investigation. Mantova, Italian for slow justice.
At the advanced age of 37, Hincapie goes into the race only with self-imposed pressures. While he recently announced he’ll ride another year, this could be his last shot at the cobblestone trophy. A huge sentimental favorite and a strong 6th place in Flanders but does anyone really think he’ll make the top three? We’d like to think BMC stands for Big Men on Cobbles but it seems unlikely.
Is Superman, Spartacus, the Swiss Time Machine, the Most Marked Man in the Classics, really under pressure? A failure to win in Roubaix or make the podium would lead to an ugly conclusion that Cancellara would like to avoid at all costs: he’s human. Human as in beatable, shield of invincibility down, lack of hidden motor, signs of real blood, a weakness. Cancellara owns a huge psychological advantage over every other rider based on the authority and brutality of the beatings he’s administered. For that reason alone, Fabian is putting pressure on himself. He doesn’t wish to be seen as human because those puny humans ride slower on bikes.
He’s the world champion in the rainbow jersey, with a 2nd and 3rd in his last two Roubaix rides but he’s very much under the gun. And the man holding the gun is Garmin-Cervelo’s Jonathan Vaughters, who said last week “I can’t say I know why he’s not on top of his game.” Not exactly a vote of confidence and Vaughters went on to state that other than sprinter Tyler Farrar nobody in the team has brought their A game. Here’s one of the golden rules at Paris-Roubaix: Don’t bother bringing your B Game. The Norwegian had better put in an impressive ride or things at Garmin are going to get testy.
Odds are that one of these six top riders will deliver the big win on Sunday. For the other five, there will be no champagne, only second-guessing, recriminations and disappointment.