A Pain Filled Trojan Horse Smashed into Roubaix - By The Time We Saw it Coming it Was too Late
Last week when Fabian Cancellara's luck ran out at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, he'd already stated before the race started that luck would play a part in the outcome, leaving it to the joker to decide. The Paris Roubaix will start in Compiègne tomorrow without Spartacus. The unpredictable nature of the course at the l'enfer du Nord, throws up the possibility each year that the race favourites might not even be present at the finish line to contest the win. We saw in "A Sunday in Hell" that Brooklyn rider Roger De Vlaeminck was furious with his third place when Marc de Meyer of Velda Flandria out sprinted him on the velodrome at Roubaix in 1976. Marc de Meyer had played his roll perfectly, riding as domestique for Freddy Maertens, then free of obligation once Maertens crashed out, De Meyer sat in and did not contribute to the break. De Vlaeminck's confidence was so high he performed the lions share of the work as he tried to ride the other three off his wheel. Once inside the velodrome De Vlaeminck led out the sprint, the perfect lead out for his opponent De Meyer who simply came round him in the closing metres to take the win. A young Francesco Moser also took advantage of De Vlaeminck's generosity to take second. In similar circumstances, right now I'll bet Simon Gerrans is still beaming after his win at Sanremo when Cancellara gave him a pain filled express ride to the finish line. Proof enough that brawn is not always best.
Cancellara's 'Joker card' comments reminded me of another Swiss rider, Thomas Wegmüller who finished second to Dirk de Mol at Roubaix in 1988. Recently a friend, who'd been a Euro rider at the time when Wegmüller was racing, told me that he'd avoided racing in Switzerland during the eighties because "the racing scene there was weak and of no consequence." He'd obviously not taken into account that riders like Tony Rominger, Urs Zimmermann, Erich Mächler, Beat Breu, Niki Ruttimann, Richard Trinkler, Urs Freuler and so many more were a product of the Swiss racing scene, and that if you were going to line up in a race in that country you'd better be prepared to meet pain head on, hell you might even get to like it if you stayed long enough. In 1988 when Thomas Wegmüller and Roy Knickman lined up in Compiègne someone forgot to remind them that the Swiss couldn't ride bikes and young Americans like Knickman ought to sit on and watch the real racers have a go. In the closing moments of the 1988 Paris Roubaix Sean Kelly and Laurent Fignon would begin to regret their decision to share the same thoughts aboutWegmüller and Knickman as my friend does today of the Swiss. From my own personal experience I raced against both Wegmüller and Knickman during that period, both were strong men, no question. I'll never forget a wet grey afternoon at Gossau in Switzerland in 1987, swapping off turns with Knickman as we chased a break away over some rolling hills, he was a powerhouse weapon and someone Kelly and Fignon should have rated higher alongside Wegmüller.
At the beginning of the 1988 Paris Roubiax an early break containing Knickman, Wegmüller and De Mol went away and they were never seen again. In 1976 at least De Meyer's captain Freddy Maertens was out of the race allowing De Meyer free reign to take the win. In 1988 Wegmüller was out front supposedly waiting for his Kas captain Sean Kelly to reach him, but it was never to be. For most of the race Knickman had sat on the front of the breakaway driving like a freight train bound for Roubaix, eventually he punctured on the pass through the forested d'Arenberg trench and never again made contact. Wegmüller scorched his way to Roubaix in the closing kilometres. The tortured look on Wegmüller's face suggested the devil had dropped in on the hell of the north for a look and Wegmüller was somehow imagining outrunning the red demon.
At the end Kelly and Fignon never made contact Knickman's work and Wegmüller's defiant dash for the line left himself and De Mol to fight for the finish and glory. No one could have seen this coming, Cancellara's take on luck came into play. In the closing kilometres a plastic bag became stuck in Wegmüller's derailleur, the team mechanic tried to rectify this from the team car but to no avail, stuck in one gear the advantage lost, De Mol took an easy sprint to the line. Who was De Mol, he'd not been registered in a race the week before, finished in the top five, his name not recorded on the result sheet. Now no one was going to forget him after his name was etched in the record books of the Paris Roubaix as 1988 winner.
Tomorrow when the Paris Roubaix rolls out spare a thought for the very nature of the Hell Of The North, the ancient cobbles, the dust, the distance, punctures, mechanical mishaps, broken men and bikes. Last not forgetting De Meyer, De Mol, Knickman, Wegmüller and the cycling joker card - luck may have it's way once again.
Last words may go to Green Edge though, they pulled one out of the bag when no one saw it coming at Sanremo. If you thought that was impressive, wait - it may have been just the sucker punch. Stuart O'Grady already has the 2007 Paris Roubaix to his name and I just received this via text - "Inside the peleton gossip says Green Edge rider Stuart O'grady is looking real good for this Sunday night." Keep your eyes on Green Edge, there's plenty of depth there. How things have changed in Europe since the foreign legion crept in like a trojan horse in the night.