“And here’s Sir Brad in his beard, like Henry VIII. Is today the day of his coronation?”
Carlton Kirby’s astonished commentary perhaps summed up the surprise of most who watched the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, when what is arguably the most elite selection in the history of the race entered the final seven kilometres together.
The presence of four-time winner, Tom Boonen, three time and defending champion, Fabian Cancellara, and the winners of the preceding cobbled Classics, John Degenkolb (Gent-Wevelgem) and Peter Sagan (E3 Harelbeke), might have been expected. Wiggins' participation at such a crucial juncture was not.
Roger Hammond remains the highest-placed British finisher at Paris-Roubaix, claiming third spot in 2004. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“This could be an ultimate win for him. Coming here as a Grand Tour winner? That’s bragging rights for you.”
Wiggins finished ninth that day, but has vowed to return again this season, in what is likely to be his final race for Team Sky. His top 10 placing, impressive as it was, is not the finest by a British rider. That honour remains in the custody of Roger Hammond, who arrived at Roubaix in 2004 in a rich vein of form and finished third. He would finish fourth in 2010.
Now general manager of the UCI Continental squad, Madison Genesis, Hammond is able to offer some keen insights into the race and Wiggins' chances of winning it.
Beware the Tom and Fabian show
“In my generation there were two riders – Boonen and Cancellara – who could change fortune and bring the race back under control after bad luck,” Hammond remembers, “whereas everybody else in the race were contenders as long as everything went well for them and there were no issues.”
Sir Bradley Wiggins keeps a close eye on defending champion Fabian Cancellara at the 2014 Paris-Roubaix. Four-time winner Tom Boonen is two places ahead. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Boonen and Cancellara are likely to start as favourites in April, barring the sort of ill-luck that ruled out the Swiss in 2012 and his Belgian rival in 2013 (both crashed in the previous week’s Tour of Flanders). Both were key players last season, where opposing tactics – Boonen attacking constantly; Cancellara following the wheels of his chief rivals with deadly precision – left them side-by-side at the denouement. Wiggins spoke afterwards of his thrill at keeping such company on their turf. To claim it for himself, he will need to depose the kings of the cobbled Classics – no easy task.
Luck be a lady
“I needed to start Roubaix as many times as I could, just so that the stars would hopefully align on one of the 10 occasions that I rode,” says Hammond. “You do make your own luck, but in that race there are so many issues that I felt I needed to start it as many times as possible.”
Wiggins made it safely to the Roubaix Velodrome last year - an outcome that is far from guaranteed at the Queen of the Classics. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Good fortune – the one element that cannot be gained by preparation – is such a key ingredient of success at Roubaix that talk of a result there, even for a rider of Wiggins’ ability, will depend much on events beyond his control, if his declared hopes of improving on last season’s ninth-placed finish are to be realised.
Control has underpinned almost all of Wiggins’ achivements, from gold medals on the track to world and Olympic time trial titles, and even his Tour de France win (with the notable exception of Chris Froome’s rebellion on the slopes of La Touissure). Roubaix should be anathema to such an athlete, but Wiggins has been able to bend his talent in whichever direction he wills it. Roubaix would be the ultimate triumph, given his natural predilection.
It's not about the cobbles
“There are two secteurs – Carrefour and the Arenberg Forest – where you need to be able to ride cobbles. For all the other sections, the race is won and lost in the three and four kilometres before the cobblestones. The hardest bit of Paris-Roubaix for me were the sections before the cobbles. That’s where the fight really took place.”
Power on the tarmac is of greater importance than skill on the cobbles for all but the Carrefour de l'Arbre and Trouée d'Arenberg, Hammond believes. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Hammond characterises Paris-Roubaix as a 250km interval session, and says he adopted an approach that to the layman can seem counter-intuitive: placing emphasis on the smooth sections of the parcours.
“Lots of guys just race the cobbles, but the mindset for me was ‘cobbles, recover’ and make sure you’re ready for the acceleration on the other side of the cobbles, [approaching] the next secteur. There’s a bit of tactics involved, but Brad obviously understands them because he was so good last year.”
Wiggins proved adept at remaining upright on the pavé, even holding place while narrowly avoiding a spectator in the closing 20km, but perhaps his greatest gains came on the tarmac, where his unquestioned power could be deployed to its fullest extent.
"He’s a great athlete and a very powerful bike rider. The way the race is run, it suits a guy with an incredible turn of speed for a short period of time. Roubaix is all about making big efforts and recovery. I used to see it as a 250km interval session,” Hammond says.
Risk, reward and team-work
“The run up to the first secteur of cobbles is very long. They start accelerating 15km or 20km out,” Hammond says. “Without a team, you can make it to the front, but you use a lot of energy, unless you’re somebody very good like Cav [Mark Cavendish], who can duck and dive, disappear in the bunch and pop up on his own as he does. A person like Brad, I would have thought needs a team to help him save some energy.”
Wiggins is momentarily isolated at the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, but a typically Sky exhibition of control might serve him well this year. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Team Sky’s primary tactic has been to control a race from the front, but while the strategy has (until last season, at least) proved successful in stage races, it has yielded no success in the Classics (Ian Stannard’s victory at Het Nieuwsblad was largely of his own making). Perhaps in the past they spread the team’s influence too thinly, with Geraint Thomas the nominal leader, but Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernie Eisel all players. Line up all of them behind Wiggins – or, more pertinently, in front of – and Sky’s signature tactic may yet bear fruit on the cobbles.
For Hammond, Paris-Roubaix was – deliberately – a more a chaotic affair, one in which he relied on bike handling skills in lieu of a strong team to to position himself critically at the head of the pack before each cobbled secteur.
Wiggins is likely to rely on power and a strong team rather than the more risky tactics deployed by Hammond. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“It was a great race for me, because it was the sort of race I could take risks in. I could not participate at all in those 15 or 20km [approaching the first cobbled secteur], so I’d take the risk, come inside, bunny-hop onto a section of pavement that nobody else could bunny-hop on to, and find myself at the front without making any effort at all.”
Wiggins is unlikely to pursue the same tactics, Hammond believes, but Sky’s line ‘em up, burn ‘em off approach, one that served Wiggins so well at the 2012 Tour, and Froome the following year, might be just what the doctor ordered for Roubaix.
“The other way to ride it is to have a strong team that’s riding solely for you and to have them sitting on the front for that 15 or 20km,” Hammond concours. “Ok, you’ll lose two or three guys, but that’s one of the most critical parts of the race out of the way, and you can hit that all-important first section of cobbles in the first 10 [places]. The first secteur is really easy: most of it you freewheel.”
Wiggins pour Roubaix? Quelle surprise
Hammond admits to being not entirely surprised by Wiggins’ performance at Roubaix last year, and believes that Sky and its erstwhile leader would not have issued today’s statement if the rider was not confident in his abilities to do well at this year’s race. Hammond puts it simply: “He’s an extremely strong rider.”
Wiggins gave everything at the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, despite hoping for a place on Team Sky's Tour de France squad later the same season. This year, his contract will expire at the Hell of the North. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“Put any really strong bike rider into a race that they’ve really set their heart on, and they’ll undoubtedly perform because they know they can do it, otherwise they wouldn’t put their name on the line,” he continues. “I’d never have said, ‘Next year, I’ve really set my heart on winning the Alpe d’Huez mountain time trial.’ It wouldn’t have motivated me because I knew I’d never win it. Brad obviously knew he’d got the skills [for Roubaix].”
Roubaix and the committed
“The other thing is, do you want to commit to it? There’s no point going into Paris-Roubaix worried about the Giro d’Italia in a month’s time. It’s got to be the focus. The moment that you make it the main goal for someone with the talent that he has, he’s going to be good.”
There will be no Giro d’Italia for Wiggins to worry about. The statement issued today by Team Sky iterates that his contract is for a period “up to and including Paris-Roubaix.” In the same statement, Wiggins notes that after Roubaix, he can concentrate on Rio 2016. He will be free to give his all this season to the Queen of the Classics. That is, unless, the Hour Record, creeps again into his thoughts….