Raced under dry-but-windy skies, the 102nd edition of Paris-Roubaix took its usual toll on bodies and bikes, battering the pack with 51km of wicked cobblestones over a total odometer of 261km raced.
Early race moves -- notably a five-man break containing Saeco duo Giosue Bonomi and Salvatore Commesso -- proved inconsequential as the pack regrouped some 100km from the finish and just before the entry to the Arenberg Forest, the most feared section of cobbles in Paris-Roubaix since its first inclusion in the race route in 1968.
2.4km in length and claustrophobic with fans, the Arenberg lived up to its reputation, pulling down a domino-effect of riders and race motorbikes, slipped up in the forest sector's deep ruts and mud-crusted banks.
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No serious injuries resulted from the Arenberg -- or any of the race's other 25 cobbled sections -- but the forest nonetheless did its job, splintering the pack and sending a selection of some 20 riders into the race lead.
In the lead mix were all the race favourites, excluding Frank Vandenbroucke (Fassa Bortolo) and 1999 winner Andrea Tafi (Alessio), dumped out the back after suffering mechanicals through the Arenberg Forest.
Belgian veteran Johan Museeuw -- on a quest for a record-tying fourth Paris-Roubaix win -- rode a dream race from the get-go. Shouldered by a dedicated Quick Step squad, the Lion of Flanders made the essential break and animated late-race tactics only to flat some seven kilometres from the finish, his rear tire annihilated in the penultimate section of cobblestones.
Waiting for a wheel change at the worst possible moment, Museeuw watched the rest of his five-man break -- Tristan Hoffman (CSC), Magnus Backstedt (Alessio), Roger Hammond (Mr. Bookmaker) and Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) -- disappear for the race win.
Museeuw, 38 and in the midst of a farewell tour (the Quick Step rider has announced his retirement for next week's GP L'Escaut in his native Belgium), briefly contemplated a chase with last year's Paris-Roubaix laureate Peter Van Petegem -- also dropped due to a puncture -- but soon settled for the inevitable. With the lead four racing at warp-speed, there was no time to latch back on.
Four for the win
Riding an adrenaline surge at the entrance to the Roubaix velodrome -- vibrating in thunderous cheers from a packed house -- Backstedt, Hoffman, Hammond and Cancellara jostled for the lap-and-a-half sprint to the finish.
Cancellara led things out, with Backstedt taking a daring inside line through the last corner. In fourth position 100m from the finish, the Swede dove for the line in a stellar acceleration, crossing the line with enough time to savour the win with arms pumped high in the air.
One of the biggest riders in the pro peloton (at least by height -- he measures 1.93m), Backstedt capped his eight-year career with his first World Cup win, a worthy triumph to accompany his stage win at the 1998 Tour de France.
Lost in euphoria after the finish, Backstedt fell into the arms of family and teammates.
"Its been a dream my whole life to win this race and I just can't believe I have done it," he said.
"Coming out of the last [cobblestone] section I turned around and saw there was only five of us left and I thought hang on -- this is the chance of a lifetime to do something here."
"I do a lot of track riding in the winter and I just knew that I had to keep high on the last corner [on the velodrome] and then dive down on the inside as we hit the last straight. After that... Wow!"
Museeuw and Van Petegem followed the leaders in for fifth and sixth respectively, crossing the line arm-in-arm in a terrific image of sportsmanship from two of cycling's greatest talents.
After three (of 10) World Cup races on the 2004 calendar, Tour of Flanders winner Steffen Wesemann of Germany usurps the jersey of World Cup overall leader with 110 points.
Oscar Freire (ESP) is second at 103 points, and Paris-Roubaix magician Backstedt rounds out the current top three at 100 points.
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