Welcome back race fans, to this the 2020 Paris Roubaix. Or at least, what would have been the 2020 Paris Roubaix, had the organisers not taken the late decision to pull the race due to mounting fears around the coronavirus crisis. Despite plenty of angry race fans taking to Twitter to vent, it was the right call to make. What followed after the announcement late on Saturday however, no one could predict...
Possibly led by Sagan throwing the mother of all tantrums, the news from the UCI that the peloton would have to take to Zwift to compete in the race did not go down well. Sagan said on record that he "had never heard of Zwift" and that "no body puts Sagan on a turbo trainer". Unfounded rumours still circulate that Sagan also texted the Pro Rider Cool Guys 🚴🚴😎🤘 Whats App group to force other key riders to boycott the Zwift race too.
Such is the hold that Sagan has, only Philippe Gilbert was able to speak up and encourage the group to race. Apparently Sagan simply threatened to kick Gilbert out of the group, and there ended the mutiny of the mutiny. What we were left with, dear race fans, was mutiny!
Like dominoes the other riders fell in behind Sagan as he flexed his considerable calf muscle, attempting to thwart the UCI's eRacing plan. However, in a bold power play the UCI simply shrugged, stared Sagan down and said 'if you don't want to ride, then don't ride'. Many looked nervously at the ground, but Sagan was unmoved. As if he'd spent ages practising the role, he deployed his best Danny Zucko impression, running a comb through his hair and strutting out of the building with a sneer.
With around 95% of the pro peloton boycotting the new look Zwift race (someone immensely clever and funny would go on to christen the race 'Paris Zwiftbaix') the UCI had to find some stand in riders pretty fast. With the era defining edition of De Ronde still vivid in their minds (race report here) they knew they could look no further than the (somewhat surprising) stand out teams of Dirty Wknd and All Things Ride.
It was not easy to convince some of the riders to stage the race on Zwift, thoroughbred cyclists that they are. Did the UCI not know who they are? When reminded that no one did in fact know who they were, everyone fell into line. Well, almost everyone; Jonny 'The Whisper' Secrett was heard to demand an exorbitant appearance fee, and almost every other rider agreeing to race on the explicit premise that there would be no form of public weigh in. Terms agreed, it was game on!
This, dear race fan, was the backdrop to the 2020 edition of Paris Roubaix. As the 30 or so riders from Dirty Wknd, All Things Ride and a handful of wildcards lined up (virtually) in Compiègne on the morning of Sunday 9th April. The race start had to be delayed slightly so The Whisper could be presented with a bouquet of flowers and give a (long) speech in perfect French. Commentators took the time to remark that the ensuing race couldn't possibly be as exciting as the unprecedented build up. How wrong they were...
If last week's start was fast, then this morning's virtual 'roll' out of Compiègne was rocket fuelled! After a somewhat faulty start at the Tour of Flanders, the Dirty Wknd Race Team were clearly not mucking around this week, with no fewer than 5 black and white clad riders streaking away up the road with a handful of others.
New man Andy Robinson was tasked ('accused', if you're the other team) of dropping the hammer from the get go, and taking GC favourites Will Taylor and Fraser Duff with him up the road. Domestiques Stephen Byrne and David Bavin followed gamely, chipping in where they could on the early climbs and cobbled sectors. Other DWRT riders Mike Hazlewood and and Rich Trindall made it into the early move, but then decided that it didn't look like that much fun after all, so promptly retreated to the peloton to join team mates Paul New and Sheree Lim, popping wheelies and signing autographs.
If the game plan was to frustrate and surprise the All Things Ride team then it certainly worked, as a breakaway of favourites began to disappear, containing just a single ATR rider, in the form of Alastair Grant. You could hear the orders being barked from the ATR car, as team leader Muz, Tom Elliott, and Adam Jones tried to dent the huge gap opening up ahead of them.
Commentators, journos and race fans began to look around for the man of the hour - last week's RVV champion Jonny 'The Whisper' Secrett. Already being dubbed 'the new Sagan', The Whisper's game plan is well know; go completely unnoticed all race, only to pop up at the last minute, break his rival's heart, steal his girl, and ride off into the sunset. However, even for his own eerily silent self, The whisper was nowhere to be seen.
Back to the race, the breakaway set, it looked like things would play out from here. 'Le chasse pattaes' (look it up) battering themselves into the wind, with no real plan, just pleading for the end. Welcome to Paris Zwiftbaix, folks!
This being Zwiftbaix, however, things rarely 'play out' as you would expect. Tragedy would soon strike for an already depleted ATR team. Illness (no, not that one) and, you know, employment, had stretched team resources before the race, so when 'The Whisper' took a huge fall in the Trouée d'Arenberg, ATR fans around the world began to despair.
Losing the 2020 Ronde champion and Rouler Magazine's 'best dressed cyclist 2019' so early in the race was a huge blow, heaping extra pressure on the ever more outnumbered Grant up the road. If today was to be a repeat of ATR's demolition job last weekend, then there would need to be a seismic shift in fortune before the Zwiftbaix velodrome.
15km into the race, positively violent attacks flying off from all angles, the front of the group treating Paris Zwiftbaix like some sort of local Cat 3 criterium, onlookers began to wonder if this pace could hold. The front group began to thin out, with 'early stage' (i.e. not fit enough) domestique Bavin wishing "courage" to his team mates before waving them off. Stephen Byrne would be next, before ATR's sole rider Grant bowed to the crowd and began to retreat from the front group, looking behind for his mates. With Taylor, Duff and Robinson still in the front, things were looking good for the DWRT effort
Whilst the breakaway was taking it in turns to metaphorically punch each other in the face, the peloton had settled down to tuck into the meat of the day. The brutal cobble sections of Northern France hurt no matter if you're in the breakaway or the peloton (or on Zwift, in fact). The fact that Paul New was seen at the side of the road sipping cidre with a fan, however, suggested that maybe the peloton was enjoying the race a little more than the breakaway.
Zwiftbaix would carry on being Zwiftbiax, however, reminding us all that only a fool would take this race at face value and have the arrogance to think they've got this one figured out. Playing the fools perfectly, the DWRT guys started discussing velodrome celebrations and which order they would cross the line in, when Will Taylor reported over the radio that an unknown rider in the group was off the front doing 5 watts per kilo. Not only did the team not know what to do about the attack, there seemed to be little they could do! This would be the move of the race, and no one, except maybe Chris Pii Endurance Coach, saw it coming.
With Chris off the front, DWRT and last week's third place Tom Jagger made up a 4 man peloton, and a bunch of straggling chasers behind, was the scene now set for how the race was finished? Again, Zwiftbaix would do what it does, and upset the apple cart, in the shape of a few hard charging, very determined riders.
As with last week, those caught not paying attention at the beginning would pay big if they wanted to get anywhere near the front of the race. Pay, of course, in their own sweat and tears! The 'sleepy starters' this week would come in the form of Muz and Tom Eliiott from ATR, alongside new signing Ilya Gridneff and experienced DWRT hand Craig McColl.
The ATR chasers can be forgiven for their slow start - rumours from inside the team suggest that Muz and Elliiott were slow to get away due to a classic Jonny Secrett tantrum. Apparently the star rider had been given the wrong colour shoes, and was refusing to ride. DWRT new boy Ilya Gridneff, after one of the rides of the day, would claim in post interview that he misunderstood his new Directeur's instructions at the start, and took 'full gas' to mean take it easy at 200 watts for the first 10 minutes. McColl, who spent the first half of last week's race sipping espresso, again this week decided to wait until around half way through the race to get his considerable engine out of second gear.
Whatever the reasoning, this action from the rear diverted the attention away from the front group and focused all eyes on this hard charging foursome. Bystanders could only doff their collective caps at the hand the Dirty Wknd team had played here. With riders waiting at strategic points up the road (definitely not dropped), the duo of McColl and Gridneff could bridge over to their team mates, it on and save some valuable energy, before pushing on towards the front. Many commentators would go on to call it the single best display of team work in a one day race.
Conversely, the hard charging ATR riders of Muz and Elliott would find the opposite. Despite working their way through to the mid pack DWRT riders of Petkas, Hazlewood and Bavin in turns, they would find lazy, heavy riders who were just itching to sit on their wheels and slow their march down. As with every Paris Roubaix through history, life really sucks if you're on the wrong side of the break!
Muz and Elliott would put in brave shifts to bridge up to their solo team mate Alastair Grant; the trio finishing a strong 9th, 10th and 11th place. Muz would later regale the press gallery with tales of how he managed to 'do' Grant for 9th place in the sprint, as his team mate somehow managed to sprint for the velodrome finish line on the wrong lap. Chapeau to the ATR team for getting their heads down after a less than ideal start.
If the ATR ride was brave, then that of Gridneff and McColl was nothing short of heroic. Charging through the pack, these two titans put out huge watts to make it up to the front group, taking 3rd and 5th place respectively, finishing amongst friends, as the DWRT contingent took 6 of the top 8 positions at Paris Zwiftbaix! Mapei who?
Chris Pii Endurance Coach (not shown on the above results sheet because he's too cool to be on Strava) was unstoppable today, but you have to wonder what could have been had Gridneff and McColl been paying attention at the start!
Thankfully, we won't have too long to wait to find out, with the Amstel Zwift Race taking place this Sunday. To avoid yet more controversy, race organisers have already made the call to switch the rest of the Spring season to Zwift. Let's see if the rest of 2020 follows suit.
Can anyone do an MVDP and strangle the rest of the peloton with sheer power? Will Sagan* and the other 'favourites' bother to ride this weekend? Tune in at 9:15am BST on Sunday 19th April to find out!
*Sagan update: apparently Peter didn't watch the race, preferring to rewrite the script for his long awaited Grease remake, starring himself, obviously!