13 April 2009

Tom Boonen wins Paris-Roubaix

Congratulations to Belgian cyclist Tom Boonen on winning the Paris-Roubaix classic for his third (and second consecutive) time. This race, aptly named “L’Enfer du Nord” (the Hell of the North), is one of the toughest races in the modern cycling calendar. It is a one-day race, over courses which vary a bit from year to year, from Paris to Roubaix, which sits between Lille and the Belgian border in the Lille conurbation. Apart from the distance (259 km this year) the punishing bit is the ride on cobbled back roads – 52.9 km of them this year, usually in stretches of 1.0 – 1.5 km – which are hard on man and bike.

Crashes are frequent. The roads are narrow, the cobblestones are often highly polished, and in that part of France drizzling rain is not altogether unknown. This year’s race was blessed by good weather, but there were some major spills amongst the leader group in the closing stages of the race – most notably a major spill involving Thor Hushovd (Norway), Leif Hoste (Belgium) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Spain) on a cobbled section at Carrefour de l’Arbre. Boonen himself finished the race with a lot less skin on his forearm than he started with, and also had to have a bike change in the later stages as a result of a puncture.

By contrast with last year’s win, which was the outcome of sprint finish against Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara, this year Boonen finished 47 seconds ahead of second place getter Filippo Pozzato of Italy, with third place going to Thor Hushovd, 1:17 behind Boonen.

This will have been a popular win locally. The Nord-Pas-de-Calais Region in which the final stages of the race take place is often referred to as “Flandre maritime” (maritime Flanders), and about 20% of the people of the region have Flemish as their mother tongue – which helps to explain the forest of Flemish banners being waved by spectators along the side of the route.

Congratulations also to SBS Television for its wonderful live coverage of yet another world-class cycling event. Apart from superb visuals (including nice overhead shots of the French countryside and the towns and villages through which the race passes) there is the delightful low key and informative commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin. With these two it is always about the event, never about the commentators themselves. Their commentary about what is really going on in long events that unfold gradually and involve a lot of tactics add a great deal to the viewer’s understanding and enjoyment of what is going on.

For those of you who missed it, you will just have to wait for the Tour de France (Saturday 4 July – Sunday 26 July). Don’t miss that one.

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