Seconds after the finish, as the crowd in the back straight of the Vélodrome André-Pétrieux roared their appreciation, Silvan Dillier sat upright. His expression did not suggest a rank outsider surveying the scene and savouring a sensational second place, but rather a man wondering what could have been.
Few people look at the Paris-Roubaix runner-up after the finish, especially when a galáctico like Peter Sagan wins. The 27-year-old cut a lonely figure when he dismounted onto the grass infield of the track’s far curve.
Only he and Ag2r La Mondiale directeur sportif Julien Jurdie stood in the section. They hugged, and the delighted older man looked to be telling his charge to stop apologising. After all, Dillier was a 750-1 pre-race outsider whose prior Roubaix record had been one start, one DNF. As far as second places go, this was hard to top.
Dillier was not even supposed to be here. He broke his left little finger at Strade Bianche on March 3, five weeks before the cobbled Monument. He was back on the road rapidly, spending 41 hours on the bike during a week of training in Gran Canaria.
However, he only returned to racing the weekend before Roubaix at the one-day Route Adélie.
“I am sure the form will quickly return,” Dillier said in his team’s pre-race press release. It certainly did; he won Route Adélie in a manner that suggested fine condition. He attacked his five companions with five kilometres to go, got caught under the flamme rouge and still outsprinted them.
When team-mate Rudy Barbier failed to recover adequately from a knee injury sustained at the Tour of Flanders, the Swiss champion strapped-up that one finger and was drafted into the Ag2r La Mondiale line-up for Roubaix, three days before the race.
That was a stroke of good fortune, but there was nothing lucky about his Paris-Roubaix ride. Dillier suggested one of the hardest parts of the day was making the early breakaway. Given the success he made of it, it’ll be even harder next time he tries.
Even into the latter stages of his five hours in front, he had the physical strength and the mental grit to match Sagan all the way to the velodrome. The sprint that was no mere formality.
By the metal crowd control barrier that separates media from the riders, he hugged friend and former rider Martin Elmiger, who took a selfie with him. Then, the journalists and microphones moved in, and Dillier started answering questions in French. “It’s mad,” he said. “Five weeks ago, I broke my finger. I never imagined I’d be able to do that on the pavé. To be on the podium on Paris-Roubaix is crazy.” Then, he added: “He’s a tank, that Sagan.”
Wraparound shades taken off, his blue-green eyes shone. Midway through talking, his white nasal strip fluttered to the floor and team leader Oliver Naesen barged through the crowd, shouting: “Unbelievable, good job.” After a couple of minutes, Ag2r communications officer Fred Machabert pulled him away for the podium ceremony.
Silvan Dillier is not your typical Paris-Roubaix challenger. He is a rouleur who is versatile enough to take a 2017 Giro stage (pictured below) in a break over rolling terrain and win last year’s Route du Sud, holding his own over the Tourmalet and two other Pyrenean climbs on the final day.
And as a former European U23 individual pursuit and Madison champion, his track nous was apparent in how he watched Sagan like a hawk during the final lap of the velodrome, albeit to no avail.
Recently-retired Martin Elmiger, working on the race as a VIP driver, knew all this. His former room-mate at BMC was one of the few unsurprised by Dillier’sperformance.
“I said to him ‘today, you can really make a nice race if you’re in the breakaway,’” he says. “And when he was there, I told my VIP guests in the car: this guy maybe today is going on the podium. Because he’s strong, he has a big engine and can go for a long time very fast. They went ‘podium? Not possible. Too hard, too long.’
“Even when he was young, he always told me he can go the whole day super strong. And he showed it today … it was time to show internationally that he’s one of the bigger machines. At BMC, he didn’t have the possibility to show it, but he always had this in his legs.”
Why didn’t he have the possibility at BMC?
“You’d have to ask the BMC management. Sometimes, you can help, you can learn, you can get better mentally, you can be a competent rider. Once you have the chance, you show it.”
Because Elmiger broke his wrist several times in his career, Dillier also sought his advice after Strade Bianche on how to get back on the bike quickly. “I know a woman who also works with horses, she healed their bones well,” he says. “I don’t know if he went to her, I advised him to because she’s incredible.”
After our conversation, Dillier emerged again, 40 minutes after finishing. He started walking out of the velodrome with a mechanic and directeur sportif Vincent Lavenu behind him, clutching his second-placed cobbled trophy. The Ag2r La Mondiale team head was beaming, as well he might: this was his first Roubaix podium in over 25 years of management. Press officer Machabert wheeled the runner-up’s Factor bike and clutched his podium flowers.
Dillier’s legs were not so strong now. He walked slowly with the gait of John Wayne. The punters outside the VC Roubaix bar started clapping as he approached. “Bravo! Bravo!” the cry went up. They beckoned for him to come over. He kept walking: not ungrateful, just dazed and tired. Near the famous showers, Trek-Segafredo riders John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven both congratulated him in passing.
At the post-race press conference, Dillier admitted a little disappointment, but conceded he couldn’t be too down about sprinting against the rider of their generation for victory.
“Peter Sagan was the angel and the devil,” was his killer line. But the question is, who was Silvan Dillier making deals with for his own Hell of the North miracle?