Portrait: Aleksejs Saramotins
Latvian Aleksejs Saramotins led through the Arenberg Forest, spent 200 kilometres in the breakaway and still finished in thirteenth position. We talk to the unsung star of the 2015 Paris-Roubaix
Aleksejs Saramotins laughs as he reflects on finishing Paris-Roubaix. “I felt like a man. You’re done, you’ve given your best and it’s a special feeling.”
Rightly so, as perhaps nobody at the 2015 edition of Paris-Roubaix gave a more heroic showing than the IAM Cycling rider. He was in the breakaway for 200 kilometres, leading alone through the Arenberg Forest, then one of the last men standing as the group was reeled in at Bourghelles à Wannehain, just 23km from the finish.
Even then, he stuck with the leaders until the very end, taking a career-best 13th place finish after almost six hours of racing – most of them spent out front.
It wasn’t the first time that the Latvian found himself in such a position, making the break before finishing 18th back in 2012.
The formation of an escape at the beginning of the race is something that most of us don’t see. It’s fast and chaotic, with small groups clipping off the front of the peloton, dragged back if the make-up of the group isn’t right. There’s a mix of tactics as teams look to place riders up the road for a variety of reasons, ranging from airtime for the sponsors to going for the win, or using riders to help a leader later on.
So what does it take to make the break in Paris-Roubaix?
“It’s different to the other races, it’s one hour of fighting before we get to escape,” he says. “You just keep trying. You only see who you are with when the selection has been made. It’s hard but when you are there, you have a chance to fight to the end.”
Pre-race, teams can plan who to send up the road but the process of actually getting in the escape is more random. “I had some ideas but didn't really have a plan. It’s a lottery, anything can happen.”
This applies to the finale too. “I felt good at the end of the race but again it’s a lottery. We got fifth [with Martin Elmiger] and 13th, so it’s like a small victory.”
Breakaway specialist Saramotins on another escape mission at the 2014 Paris-Nice. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Good luck also played a part at the start of Saramotins’s career, 20 years ago on the streets of the Latvian capital, Riga.
“It was like a kind of fortune,” he says, laughing. “I never thought about it, it just happened on the street. I was 13 or 14, riding my bike with my friend for fun and I met my first coach. He said ‘I see you like riding the bike, maybe you would like to try racing cycling.’ I said why not, he showed me the sports school and it started from there.”
Saramotins went on to race mountain bikes, becoming national champion and winning the national SEB MTN Marathon series three times. The skills acquired in that discipline would go on to help him, not just at Paris-Roubaix, but also Tro-Bro Léon, run over the farm roads of Brittany where he finished seventh in 2012 during a two-year spell with Cofidis. The following year he finished fifth at Strade Bianche, having been in the breakaway all day.
“I believe mountain biking helps,” he says. “The memory in my body and in my head never goes. That’s why I am good at these types of races – hard and tough ones.”
They don’t come much harder and tougher than the brutal cobbles of the Trouée d’Arenberg. Saramotins led the race through the sector. “The feeling when you’re on the front is special. It’s like you’re touching a part of history, that you are a part of it,” he says. “I went to the front because it’s a special sector. It’s also easier to see the cobbles because they’re really bad ones. The whole race is special: it’s my favourite, I really love it.”
Riding in the break has a number of advantages over staying with the peloton, but it’s a trade-off. “It’s easier to find space, for sure. You can see the road, go left or right,” he says. “When there’s less people involved there’s less stress. In the peloton you fight for position and it’s important not to be too far back.
“You don’t need to fight in the breakaway, but it’s very hard to continue in front all day. In the end, you feel tired all over. And with every sector you feel it more and more. Each sector costs a lot.”
A closed train barrier couldn't stop Saramotins's team captain Elmiger from a career-best fifth finish in Roubaix. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Once Saramotins and his breakaway companions Frederik Backaert, Alexis Gougeard and Grégory Rast were brought back, he found himself in a lead group with team-mate Swiss champion Martin Elmiger.
Despite his long day in front, Saramotins persevered. “I tried to keep up and I was surprised. Martin escaped with Boom and Stybar and I stayed with the rest. It was the perfect position: with Martin up there, I didn’t need to pull.”
Some 30 seconds behind the winning move, his group entered the velodrome in Roubaix. Riding into the historic venue, packed with a crowd who had waited all day to witness the denouement of the race, gave Saramotins special sensations. “Of course it’s not the first time I’ve been in Roubaix velodrome but I feel the same feelings.”
So what does the future hold for the 33-year-old? Saramotins dreams of winning his favourite race. “I don’t want to say I am going to win Roubaix, but I am still improving and I just hope to try and do my best, then we will see if it comes. What more can I do? It’s life – I believe one thing: that everything is possible.”
The immediate future calls for rest. “It will take time, three or four days for recovery, but still, Roubaix was not really bad. There’s just a little bit of pain – everywhere,” he laughs. “I’ll just keep going, have a rest after the Amstel Gold Race – maybe a week – and then go, go, go.”