Van Summeren earns his big day in the sun at Paris-Roubaix

Johan Van Summeren of the Garmin-Cervélo team was the surprising – but deserving – winner of a brutal but spectacular 2011 edition of the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic, the third of cycling’s Five Monuments. The 30-year old Belgian rider attacked from the lead group with 16km remaining and soloed to victory in the Roubaix velodrome, 19 seconds ahead of Fabian Cancellara. The 2010 winner and pre-race favourite was left isolated and unable to overcome the massed tactics of his rivals, but a remarkable flourish in the final four kilometres nonetheless earned him second spot. Three-time winner Tom Boonen withdrew after a bike change and a crash as Quick Step suffered a miserable day.

Paris-Roubaix has not earned the nickname ‘Hell of the North’  without good reason. At 258km and featuring 27 separate sections of cobbled roads, it is arguably the toughest one-day race in professional cycling. On a wet day the cobbles are treacherously greasy; on a hot, dry one like this year it kicks up clouds of dust to blind and choke the riders. In any conditions it is hellishly difficult and features multiple crashes as riders are caught out by the juddering, shuddering cobbles, or as a result of the extreme fatigue caused by the physical pounding they have to endure.

Any winner of Paris-Roubaix certainly requires a degree good fortune to avoid both crashes and major mechanical incidents. But there is no such thing as an undeserving winner. Van Summeren had not won a race since the Tour of Poland in 2007, but is nonetheless a talented rider who has spent much of his career in the service of others. And he also had a previous track record at Paris-Roubaix, having finished eighth in 2008 and fifth in 2009. This year’s win was no fluke – he did it the hard way.

Boonen an early casualty

Boonen's race came to an early end (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

A ten-man breakaway led the race through the infamous Arenberg trench with 86km left. Boonen lost his chain in the middle of this 2.4km cobbled section, and waited for what must have felt like an eternity before receiving a new bike. He rejoined the chase, but then crashed about a dozen kilometres later when his water bottle came loose and got jammed in his wheel, ending his challenge.

The break swelled after Arenberg, as Rabobank‘s Lars Boom led a group containing Van Summeren, Grégor Rast (RadioShack) and Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) up to the original escapees.

As fatigue and pressure started to take their toll, there were at least five sizeable crashes in the 40km following Arenberg which accounted for, among others, Boonen’s Quick Step teammate Sylvain Chavanel and Katusha‘s Filippo Pozzato.

Cancellara shackled as Van Summeren flies free

With around 48km to go, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) put in a big acceleration on the Mons-en-Pévèle cobbles which splintered the peloton. This brought Cancellara to the front, and only Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) were able to live with his sustained burst of pace. Another acceleration by the Swiss a few kilometres later left just himself, Hushovd and Ballan in pursuit of the lead group. However, with both having teammates ahead in the lead group, the other two were content to sit on his wheel. After a brief argument, a visibly annoyed Cancellara sat up and refused to do all the work leading the chase, allowing Flecha and a group of other favourites to regain touch.

Van Summeren soloed to a famous victory

Up ahead, Van Summeren made his move just before the final five-star section of cobbles, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, a 2.1km segment which started at the 17km mark. He broke clear of the lead group with Rast, Bak and Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), then accelerated again on the cobbles to move clear on his own.

Behind them, Cancellara repeatedly tried to break free of the chase group to no avail, but his repeated attacks did gradually swallow up the remnants of the original breakaway as he and Hushovd led the way, carving through them like they were standing still. One final effort four kilometres from the finish finally dislodged both the big Norwegian and the remaining favourites, and Cancellara went into time trial mode. A magnificent sustained drive jumped him across the gap to the Tjallingii/Bak/Rast group.

Meanwhile Van Summeren ploughed on alone, his lead just substantial enough to keep him clear of the charging Cancellara in spite of a deflated rear tyre which slowed him in the last 5km. He even had time to savour the adulation of the crowd as he completed the lap-and-a-half of the velodrome to take victory by 19 seconds as Cancellara won the sprint ahead of Tjallingii and Rast to at least secure the consolation prize of second place. But even the mighty Swiss rider had to concede defeat to Van Summeren on a day when he could not overcome the combination of Garmin-Cervélo’s spot-on tactics and a complete absence of support from his Leopard-Trek teammates in the crucial final 50km.

An emotional Van Summeren celebrated his victory in both the traditional manner on the podium, and by getting engaged to his girifriend at the finish. Later he described his win:

I came here to get the best result possible and I was very motivated. Once I was in the front group I knew that I could win. This is the happiest day of my life – a dream day. It’s wonderful.

The greatest riders such as Van Petegem and Fabian Cancellara congratulated me, it meant a lot. I had really good legs, that’s all I can say.

The defeated Cancellara admitted that Garmin-Cervélo had been the best team on the day:

I don’t know if I was the strongest today, but I know I had good legs. Garmin rode a good race. They were the strongest team today. Sometimes you cannot win every time. I know I gave my maximum today.

He was, however, pleased for Van Summeren:

I think to have a winner like Johan is great for cycling, great for this day; it had a lot of drama, a lot of spectacle. He maybe woke up this morning and thought “I’m going to ride for the team, I’m going to help” but in the end he won this race and that’s just amazing, and I’m really happy for him.

So far this year the three ‘Monuments’ to have been completed have thrown up three surprise winners at the end of thrilling races: Matt Goss at Milan-San Remo, Nick Nuyens at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, and now Van Summeren. The fourth, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, takes place in two weeks’ time, but next Sunday we have the Amstel Gold race, where Philippe Gilbert will be looking to defend his 2010 title.


1. Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Cervélo) 6:07:28

2. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) +0:19

3. Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank) same time

4. Grégory Rast (RadioShack) s/t

5. Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) +0:21

6. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) +0:36

7. Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Highroad) +0:47

8. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

9. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) s/t

10. Matt Hayman (Sky) s/t

2011 ‘Five Monuments’ recaps:

Milan-San Remo

Tour of Flanders


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

13 Responses to Van Summeren earns his big day in the sun at Paris-Roubaix

  1. Great summary, Tim. Do you know if there are highlights online anywhere?

    • Tim says:

      Might be worth trying the Versus website. Other than that, places like and Eurosport will usually have highlights of the closing minutes. Failing that, there’s always YouTube. Worth seeking out – it was a terrific tactical race.

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  3. Kitty Fondue says:

    While I get the idea of not riding with someone (especially a strong man who was favourite) if you have a teammate in the breakaway, I really can’t figure out Thor’s reasons for not riding with Cancellara when he’d made it really clear that he wanted to win Paris-Roubaix in the rainbow jersey.

    At the time, there was no way of knowing that van Sum would win the race, so once Fabian decided not to carry him and Ballan, I don’t understand why Thor didn’t decide to ride with him. If they’d caught the breakaway group, Thor would have had a teammate to help him and, as long as they could keep Fab from getting away, he could have won with a sprint finish! I think Fab’s dismissal of all these riders who seem to be riding to make sure he lost as opposed to riding for themselves to win is valid …

    Or was this a very subtle payback for Cancellara getting that stage in the Tour neutralised when Thor could have won it and some important points for the green jersey … hmmmm….

    That said, what a spectacular late storming by Fab – if he’d been able to do that a little bit sooner, he might very well have caught van Sum. But, hey, Spartacus is now number one in the world rankings …

    • Tim says:

      When Cancellara sat up, both Hushovd and Ballan immediately consulted their team cars over the radio. Jonathan Vaughters in the Garmin-Cervelo car had previously instructed him to sit on Fabian’s wheel, and he repeated that order, so even if Thor had been thinking about working with Cancellara to further his own cause, he was not allowed to.

      As things turned out, it was the right call from the team’s perspective, although obviously not from Thor’s. Had he worked with Cancellara, JvS would not have survived, and I suppose there is a danger that Ballan (or one of the other leaders) would have just sucked wheels and outsprinted a tired Thor at the end.

      It was a shame we didn’t get to see the big showdown at the end, but it was nonetheless a great race.

  4. kittyfondue says:

    Yeah, it was a DS decision, but I actually think Garmin got incredibly lucky with those tactics – I don’t think it was a stroke of genius on Vaughters’ part. I reckon Fab and Thor could have burned Ballan off their wheels if they had decided to.

    But hey, do we know what happened to Fab’s teammates? What happened to Stuart O’Grady – Fab was alone for practically half the race!

    • Tim says:

      Vaughters’ decision worked, which I guess is all that really matters, but I agree that there was at least a 50:50 chance Hushovd would have won had he been allowed to ride anyway. I guess we’ll never know.

      Whatever, I just think it’s a shame the riders aren’t allowed to ride their own race without being told what their tactics should be.

  5. kittyfondue says:

    yes, i heartily agree with your last sentence.

  6. kittyfondue says:

    Hot off the presses – Ricco wants to come back… he maintains he had a ‘virus’ …

    • Tim says:

      Seriously, isn’t it a bit late for Ricco to be playing an April fools’ joke? *shakes head*

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