Stuart O’Grady, guest of the week at Cafe Roubaix
April 15th 2007. Dust is flying everywhere and the peloton is experiencing one of the hottest days in the history of Paris-Roubaix. A huge breakaway, of 32 riders, gets a gap in the 105th edition of the “Hell of the North”. It’s still early in the race, with around 240 kilometers to go, so the group doesn’t pose a real threat to the big favorites. After the Arenberg Forest, the escapees have a five-minute lead, which isn’t much, but somehow, the peloton misjudges the move and so, with around 25 kilometers left of the race, the riders at the front start realizing they have a real chance at winning the race.
That’s the moment when one of the cyclists decides to attack before the Bourghelles cobbled sector and powers away from his opponents, who don’t respond. He looks strong and the gap grows to more than a minute with just ten kilometers left until the finish, so he gives it all and keeps the chasers at bay. When he reaches the Roubaix velodrome, he’s up for the lap of honor, because nothing can change anymore. Under the eyes of the people gathered there, history is being written, as Stuart O’Grady becomes the first non-European cyclist to win the “Queen of the Classics”.
The Australian is already a Tour de France stage winner and world and Olympic gold medalist on the track, but this victory is one of the biggest of his career, after a great performance that leaves him speechless. Eight years after this moment and retired in the meantime, Stuart O’Grady anxiously awaits the start of the 113th edition of “Hell of the North” – this time in front of the TV.
It’s the race he loves and which gave his career a totally new dimension, so when contacted by Cafe Roubaix, he didn’t hesitate to preview it and have his say on the contenders.
– Mister O’Grady, what’s your take on the Tour of Flanders?
I thought Flanders was a great race to watch. Without Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, the race was as wide open as it has been in ten years. Every team director would’ve changed their tactics to be much more aggressive, and many more riders would’ve started the race believing they could win. Sky put 100% faith in Geraint Thomas to win, but they probably did too much work, and then when it became crucial, Thomas had no more teammates. Eventually, the strongest and smartest rider won.
– Were you expecting such a strong ride from Alexander Kristoff?
Yes, absolutely. After he won three stages and the GC in the Three Days of De Panne, he proved his form was incredible. He has the power. He has a great team, probably the strongest in the world at the moment, and he is full of confidence.
– Did something surprised you in the tactics of his rivals?
If anything, they were too aggressive and made too many silly small attacks. Big attacks win bike races. They needed to isolate Kristoff, and make much more solid attacks. Once a “sprinter” smells the finish , there is no way they will drop him.
– Is Alexander Kristoff the new Classics star of the peloton?
It’s hard to say. Without the main two riders, I cannot say that. He is the best at the moment, he’s certainly making the best of the situation.
– Many consider him the top favorite for Paris-Roubaix, although he said he prefers the climbs of Flanders to the cobbled stretches of Roubaix. What do you think?
Etixx, Sky and BMC have to be a lot smarter than they were last week. They cannot take him within 25 kilometers from the finish. I did not have him as my favorite, but after seeing his ride, I must say he is definitely sure of a podium if he keeps going like this.
– Who can be his biggest rivals for the win?
I have Zdenek Stybar as my favorite, Niki Terpstra second and Alexander Kristoff third. Why? Because I think Etixx will ride a lot smarter. They have more riders capable of going a long way from the finish: Vandenbergh, Terpstra, Stybar. But watch out for Luca Paolini. He is not the strongest, but he’s very cunning. Also Thomas should be up there again, and how good would it be if Wiggins won solo? That would be my dream for the race! But if Wiggins wants to win, he has to hang in there until 30-25 kilometers to go, wait for the other teams to panic and chase, then counter attack and go solo. Wouldn’t that be a great way to see off your road career?
– Do you see Sep Vanmarcke capable of redemption after a lackluster display last Sunday?
Vanmarcke races with his heart on his sleeve. This can be good and bad! I definitely think he is capable of winning, but his team isn’t the strongest and he has to remain calm and keep his cool, something he is yet to do. He needs some more experience. He will win Flanders and maybe Roubaix in the future.
– Another contender who disappointed was Peter Sagan, again in the finale, just like in E3 Harelbeke. What do you think is happening to him?
Sagan is obviously under the strain of a not very good team environment. When there is trouble in the water, the boat never sails smoothly. With Tinkov firing Bjarne Riis, there would be a lot of stress and tension around the team. This feeds down through the staff and onto the riders. There’s nothing you can do about it. He has just signed a very big contract for three years, so automatically he doesn’t have that same “killer” instinct that he had the last few years.
– There are 27 sectors of paves, three of which have 5 stars. The last of these is Carrefour de l’Arbre, of which the organizers said it’s going to be rougher than in the past. Can you please describe this sector?
Every sector is difficult, but the Carrefour is extremely difficult because it comes so late in the race, your body is wrecked already, your hands numb, every muscle in your body is aching. Now it’s up to your mind over your body. It’s a long sector with many sharp cobbled sections and very rough edges. It all hurts!
– The forecast for Sunday says it will be sunny and dusty. What kind of race do you expect?
I like sunny and dusty. Rain is a complete catastrophe. When it’s wet it is hardly a bike race anymore. It’s too much to chance and ridiculously dangerous. Dry and dusty makes for a better race.
– Many riders will come at the start with the win in their mind, but only one will get his hands on the trophy. What does it mean for a cyclist to stand in the center of the Roubaix velodrome and raise the cobblestone trophy?
To be honest, there are maybe ten guys who can actually win Paris-Roubaix. There are many that “dream”, but with the first stroke of bad luck will be looking at making that their excuse. Just to finish the race is a massive achievement. To lift the rock is the best moment a cyclist can ever wish for. Greater than a World Championships, it is the best feeling a cyclist can hope for. That and the Olympic Gold or winning a Tour de France, these are the moments everyone dreams for, but only a lucky few make it happen.