Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North.
The race was first run in 1896, missed a few years in the World Wars, and was won this year in the centennial edition by the legendary Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw. Covering 261 kilometers over bone rattling, centuries old cobblestone paved roads, zigzagging through the farmlands of Northern France from Paris to Roubaix stadium’s velodrome, the riders must contend with choking dust in dry years, and slippery, splattering mud when its wet. Struggling to the finish in Roubaix stadium, they arrive covered in whatever the road has had to offer them on the day in a state of complete physical extremity; exhausted, filthy and physically wrecked.
An epic day in the saddle, Paris-Roubaix is a thrilling race where brave men ride their machines hard against the elements, each other and themselves. Not for the weak of heart, it takes the perfect coincidence of good legs, a well-oiled team, solid equipment, the smiles of lady luck, experience, and true grit to win on the cobbles.
US Postal’s George Hincapie has ridden Paris-Roubaix nine times, taking the start every year since 1994, his first as a pro at 20 years old. In 1998, he finished outside the time limit, but he has ridden every last kilometer at each start. For the past four years he has been a regular protagonist, finishing in the top six. Last year, his downright heroic ride against an army of Domo showed the doggedness, courage and steady strength of a future vanquisher of The Queen of the Classics. He loves the race and sets his heart on winning it one day.
Going into this year’s running, hopes and hype for him were high, as US Postal took steps to strengthen the team for a strong showing this Spring. Lance Armstrong even changed his habitual training schedule to ride Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders out of a desire to help his esteemed teammate to a landmark World Cup win and inspire the others to a level of riding that would give Hincapie the support he needs to take on the race of his dreams.
Hincapie took the start at Paris with an impressively strong early season behind him. Podium finishes in the Classic Haribo and Volta ao Algarve, a strong 4th place finish in the Tour of Flanders and a Podium finish at Ghent-Wevelgem indicated that he was in form and ready to take on the pave, but unfortunately, it was not to be. George made all the right moves on Sunday, and made it into a break with US Postal’s bright young star Tom Boonen by his side. When Johan Museeuw made his decisive attack with 41km to go, Hincapie was in position with a teammate to chase him down, but his hopes fell apart in those last kilometers, and the Lion of Flanders flew over the cobbles to a third win in Roubaix.
I checked in with George after the race, and he generously agreed to give us an inside look at his day on the cobbles.
Tell us about your P-R. What happened? I was watching live here in the states, and it was such a roller-coaster; first it was all your old pals from Domo with you in the break, which didn’t look good; then it looked so good with you and Boonen alone and chasing Museeuw, and then so bad with your crash into the roadside ditch. Tell us about your race:
GH: I was really disappointed at the outcome of Roubaix. I felt like I was riding so well, and the team rode a great race. I just could not finish the job.
My big mistake of the day was not to put a jacket on when it started raining. I was freezing cold for about 40 km, But my team was on the front and I did not want to disrupt that by telling them to stop and get me a jacket. I was feeling so great that I thought I would just warm up when the attacks started. I think that is where I lost a lot of my energy. I was completely empty when Tom (Boonen) and I were chasing Museeuw.
Did Museeuw surprise you and upset USPS strategy by going with 41 km to go?
GH: Johan was flying. It was his day, and no one was going to stop him. When he attacked, I tried to follow but I could not. It had nothing to do with catching me off guard. In a rainy Roubaix, your guard is up from the first section. I was just starting to feel an empty feeling coming on, and I could not respond.
What happened with the two cars? How did you crash?
GH: The two cars were in the way, but at the point when I crashed I just slipped in the mud. At that point, my reaction time was delayed. I could not keep it up. The more tired you are the less reaction you have.
Getting up out of that ditch took everything I had. I was not myself at that point, I was just without fuel and there was nothing I could do.
How difficult is it to pick yourself up and keep on in such a tough race after something like that happens? Tell us a little about how you were doing - not just on the bike, but mentally and emotionally.
GH: It was, and is very hard for me to get over that.
I was in the best position to chase down Museeuw, but I just did not have it. Johan (Brunyeel) and Dirk (Demol) were very supportive, But they could tell that I was not all there. I knew it and they knew it; but I was not going to stop trying. I finished that race with heart, not legs. It took everything I had just to make it to the line. If I would not have crashed I would have maybe gotten 3rd or 4th, but I was there for only one reason.
I love, fear, and respect that race, and it will continue to be one of my major goals.
What is it about Paris-Roubaix for you? I can see where the respect and fear come from, but what makes you love it so much?
GH: In my mind there is no other one day race, where your body is so wrecked afterwards… I love it because I think it is the hardest one day race out there. it has so much history, so many of the legends of the sport have won that race. It just has a special place in my heart.
This season has really been the strongest and most consistent of your career- you've been right on top in almost every race! Are you feeling good about that, or is it harder in a way to always be so close, with all the pressure and expectation?
GH:I am definitely stronger this year than last, and it has been frustrating that I have not won yet, but I have to keep believing in myself. My day has to come.
Are the Classics a long term goal for USPS? Do you think we're seeing the beginnings of a USPS to rival the likes of Mapei and Domo in the spring campaigns?
GH: The team has really concentrated on having a good spring. Johan and Dirk have made a great effort this year to have a good team there to support me. The guys did a super job this year, I don't think we need many changes for next year.
What do you and the team look to now? You're riding Liege-Bastogne-Liege, right? Are you leading the team there?
I will be riding Liege this year, as well as Amstel. I have to see how I recover this week, since Roubaix was so hard. I would like to ride well there, but I have never ridden it, so I am not sure what to expect. Amstel is a good race for me, and Lance should be going good there as well, so we will have a super team there.
And even with all the disappointment, he still musters a big “Ciao!!!”
So with that, George Hincapie heads into the rest of his season. Let's all wish him the best as he recovers from his hard day on the cobbles and carries on to fight another day!
Thanks again, George!