Alberto Contador might have been dishing out pain on his climbing competition in Spain last week, but it passed with barely any notice, because the real attention was in France.
Leading up to the 107th edition of the world's most demanding and most famous one-day race, Paris-Roubaix, Tom Boonen (of Team QuickStep) had a lot riding on his shoulders. Having won this historic race twice in the past, he had the opportunity to join an elite group of three-time winners of the "Hell of the North."
Why do they call it the "Hell of the North?" As hard and demanding as last week's Tour of Flanders may have been, with its 20 cobbled climbs that resembled walls, the history of toughness of Paris-Roubaix goes unmatched in the world of cycling.
Although the race's 260 kilometers are completely flat, it is made the sport's most challenging race with 27 distinct sections of cobblestones which comprise a total of 52 kilometers of bone-shattering, crash-inducing hell.
Add to that the fact that the cobbles are constantly covered with dirt and dust that quickly turns into mud if it rains, and you have a race that requires tremendous experience, skill, and luck to win.
Being the strongest cyclist of the day is only part of the equation. Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) said last week in an interview about the Tour of Flanders that "The strongest guy always wins here, because this race is that hard."
That does not always apply to Paris-Roubaix. This year was a perfect example of how wrecks on the treacherous surface lead to wrecks that lay waste to riders. Crashes and mechanical problems are a fact of life here, and this year, virtually every single contender with a realistic shot for the win suffered at least one crash and one mechanical problem during the day.
Boonen, for example, crashed partway through the race on the slippery cobbles, plus had to change bikes twice. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) crashed twice on the cobbles, as did other favourites such as Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo), George Hincapie (Columbia), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), and Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto); and that's just naming a few. Barely half of the 200 racers to start the day actually finished the race.
The pack stayed together for roughly half the total distance today, as this contest is much too hard to go off the front alone very far from the finish line.
But that does not mean that the peloton physically held fast, though, as in a normal race. The brutal and relentless attrition that the cobbles inevitably induce sent riders flying off the back, sometimes literally, and riders went down on the paved stones, ran off the roads, and sent their bikes catapulting into ditches.
One of the biggest initial favourites, George Hincapie (Columbia), suffered a crash and mechanical problem and could not rejoin the leading group.
Hincapie's story with Paris-Roubaix can be described almost like a war tale. Although he has more experience and knowledge of how to win this race than anyone in the peloton, his incessant bad luck over the past decade has prevented him from attaining the top spot on the podium, and this year simply continued the trend.
The race started to break up when Boonen launched an attack roughly 50 kilometers from the finish, dragging with him Pozzato, Flecha, Hushovd, Hoste, and Johann Van Summeren (also of Silence-Lotto).
This elite group left the rest of the riders for dead as they scorched the rest of the cobbled sectors of the race.
Even this bunch, though, could not escape all the perils of the course. Boonen had a quick bike change to prepare for the rest of the race, and Hoste, Flecha, Hushovd all had untimely crashes.
Hushovd's crash came at a critical point of the race: He and Boonen escaped from the group with roughly 20 kilometers to go, but as the duo rounded one of the cobbled 90-degree corners, Hushovd overshot and ran into a barrier, leaving Boonen to charge on by himself.
At this point in the race, the Belgian-born Boonen had a slim 10-second lead over Pozzato, but with barely 10 kilometers to go, he dug in deep and hoped for no crashes as he blazed to the finish.
Boonen entered the historical finish at the Roubaix Velodrome alone and soloed to his third victory in the race, becoming part of a select fraternity of only seven past riders who have accomplished the feat.
Pozzato came in alone as well 47 seconds behind and finished second, while Hushovd outsprinted Hoste for the third podium spot.
Boonen's superior skill in navigating the cobblestones and reading the race situation allowed him to capture his third win in what is arguably the hardest one-day race of the year. At only 28 years old, he still has time to win even more in the future.