The first three of the day’s 29 sectors pass for Greg Van Avermaet with no great drama. And then the first of two events that threaten to ruin his big day strikes.
“There is so much impact going hard over the cobbles,” he recalls. “My stem went out of line. I was thinking I would have to change bikes. You test it in the recon and yet, in the race, it still comes loose. I stopped and tried to straighten it – lost a few seconds, and not at the best point. It was not nice to have a mechanical so early.”
Back in the action and there are places to be regained, ground to be made up. Van Avermaet is paced into position by his BMC team-mates, where he’s parked back near the head of affairs with trusty lieutenant Daniel Oss by his side.
Haveluy to Wallers, 103km remaining
The amuse-bouche to the main course of the Arenberg Forest; two-and-a-half kilometres of bone-jarring jostling and jousting with lungs full of dust. Again, as is so often the way with Roubaix, the perfect plan goes awry.
“The corner before, you are fighting for position, and somebody went into my derailleur. Now, because it is electronic, you have to reset it, and it went up and down, then when it went up again, it broke off. Luckily, we were first team car, so it was a fast change.”
A fast change, but still far from ideal when the action is intensifying up front and four Quick Step men are pressing hard.
“It is a mess! Just before the Arenberg, everybody is already in position and I have lost my place. In the meeting the day before, you are ideally first five, and I am not even in the first one hundred…”
You might expect to see the red and black jerseys of BMC surrounding their stricken leader at this point, but “I told them to keep riding,” Van Avermaet says. “In my opinion, it is not good to have two or three guys waiting there while you change a bike. They are not helping. It is better they keep riding and you catch up with them later.
“So I changed bike, met [Manuel] Quinziato and [Francisco] Ventoso, then did Wallers with Kristoff, came back onto the road and saw more team-mates. It was really a team effort to get me back into the race.”
Catching a good-sized group approaching the Arenberg provides a useful springboard, especially in the shape of the mighty Norwegian powerhouse Alexander Kristoff.
“I went straight to the front for the first part, then Alexander took over for the second part. But we were still almost a minute behind the peloton.”
Hornaing to Wandignies, 82km remaining
Again, BMC team-mates come to their leader’s rescue, Jempy Drucker burying himself to put Van Avermaet back in contention. “He almost closed that gap on his own,” he says of the Herculean efforts of the former Luxembourgish cyclo-cross champion as they sped past rows of camper vans and fans, clouds of dust filling the air.
In Van Avermaet’s earpiece, meanwhile, DS Fabio Baldato stays calm and keeps the information flowing. “They are telling me how close we are to the lead group, who is still there from the team: Stefan, Daniel and Jempy. They try to motivate you. I felt that my race was not over yet. I still had a lot of energy in the tank. It was a big effort to come back, though, so I had to be careful. It’s a long race.
“Maybe the mechanical actually helped. Once I got back, I thought I should save myself as much as possible, because it is not possible to do the whole final going hard. Maybe I would have been pushing it too much…”
At the exit to every sector, helpers clad in BMC gilets are stationed. All and sundry are roped in for the busiest one-day race of the year logistically.
“If you have the slightest connection with BMC, you are there with bottles or wheels. It is really common to lose your bottle on the cobbles. If the guy didn’t make it to the sector, you can lose Roubaix, just like that.”
The full version of this feature appears in Rouleur 18.2