Re-Cycle: When Magnus Backstedt denied Johan Museeuw the cobbled swansong at Paris-Roubaix
Swedish powerhouse Bäckstedt felt so strong going toe-to-toe with Museeuw in 2004’s Hell of the North, he even questioned whether there was a chain on his bike. Felix Lowe recalls the Lion of Flanders’ last major race, when a flat tyre stopped him sprinting for a record-equalling victory
Re-Cycle: When Backstedt denied Museeuw the cobbled swansong at Paris-Roubaix
Published 07/04/2021 at 12:02 GMT | Updated 12/04/2021 at 08:21 GMT
When Mat Hayman tore up the script and denied Tom Boonen the outright record of five Paris-Roubaix titles in 2016, there was a sense that the veteran Australian had not only played an absolute blinder, but he had also altered the course of cycling history. Twelve years earlier, and before Boonen had even lifted his first Cobblestone, another Belgian was knocking on history’s door before hanging up his cycling shoes. Trailing Roger De Vlaeminck’s record of four Paris-Roubaix wins, Johan Museeuw – whose career had almost come to a premature end after shattering his kneecap in the Arenberg Forest in 1998 – hoped to draw level with his compatriot in his last major race.
Museeuw was just 7km from the finish and riding in the decisive five-man move when his chances blew up, along with his rear tyre – handing the initiative to Magnus Bäckstedt. The Swedish outsider duly delivered on a day that he felt so strong, he even questioned whether there was a chain on his bike.
Winning the Queen of the Classics was by no means the only victory of Bäckstedt’s long career. But it was indisputably his crowning glory. As a lead-out man, Bäckstedt had helped Australia’s Stuart O’Grady to glory on several occasions; he was also a national time trial champion, a victor in Le Samyn, and a Tour de France stage winner by the time his stars aligned and he came home first in the Roubaix velodrome ahead of Tristan Hoffman, Roger Hammond and a relative newcomer named Fabian Cancellara in 2004.
It was a victory that no one except the rider himself and his Alessio-Bianchi team saw coming – especially when all the signs pointed towards Museeuw going out with a bang in what was a tense 102nd edition of the race. But a puncture for Museeuw as he followed Bäckstedt in the final cobbled section ended the chances of a fairytale retirement for the Quick-Step star, before Bäckstedt’s belief and homework paid off in the velodrome.
It’s a topic Bäckstedt, who has made himself a home in Wales, could talk about until the cows come home. Less so, the man who was denied the opportunity to contest the finale after fate dealt him a duff hand.
“For two reasons,” Museeuw explains. “It was the last Monument that I was riding, my last race, and I also had bad luck at the end. So, it wasn’t on my side, but anyway, I did a great Roubaix, I was in the breakaway with the winners – some great riders, big riders, and young riders. I had a chance to win, but the puncture decided different.”
Magnus Backstedt of Alessio-Bianchi fame celebrates
Image credit: Getty Images
Bäckstedt driven by a dream
Standing 194cm tall and weighing 90kg, Bäckstedt was not your average cyclist. But he was like a runaway freight train once he hit the cobbles at speed. Off the back of seventh place in his debut Paris-Roubaix in 1998, the year of the Mapei clean-sweep of the podium that came despite Museeuw’s heavy fall on the Arenberg, Bäckstedt felt reassured that this was a race he could win one year.
“It was always a dream of mine to win Paris-Roubaix since I was 15 or 16 when I watched the race in Sweden for the first time and I saw Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle riding across the cobbles with RockShox on the front,” Bäckstedt says, recalling the Frenchman’s back-to-back victories with state-of-the-art suspension forks in 1992 and 1993.
“It became that one thing that, to start off, I definitely wanted to be on the start line for. Then, once I got there… after my first one, when I finished seventh, I remember saying to Roger Legeay, who was the general manager for Crédit Agricole-Gan, that I will win this one day before I hang up my bike. And that sort of stuck with me. I always ate, breathed, slept and dreamt about winning Paris-Roubaix.”
But after his encouraging debut, things did not go as Bäckstedt had planned. He failed to finish two editions either side of a 19th-place finish in 2000 that came after he punctured at a critical part of the race. Injuries and illness meant his contract with Crédit Agricole was then not renewed, forcing the then-27-year-old to drop down from cycling’s top tier.
At Fakta, the Danish pro-continental equivalent team where Kim Andersen was directeur sportif, Bäckstedt spent two seasons that he describes as “probably the most memorable years in terms of racing and enjoying my time on the bike”. The only problem was that the team were not invited to the one race that Bäckstedt still dreamed of winning.
Every second Sunday in April in those two years, I didn’t want to watch Paris-Roubaix because I just wanted to be there on the start line.
“But I think that spurred me on even more when I got the opportunity to get back, which was in 2004 with Alessio. I was so much more driven to make amends for the past two years, that it turned out the way it did.”
The two editions of the Hell of the North that Bäckstedt missed saw victories go to the Belgians Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, the former soloing to glory in 2002 to notch his third win in the Roubaix velodrome, and the latter winning a three-up sprint in 2003 against the Italian Dario Pieri and Russia’s Viatcheslav Ekimov.
Setting the scene: Bäckstedt back to his best
The pre-race focus for the 2004 race inevitably fell upon the impending retirement of the 38-year-old Museeuw, the so-called Lion of Flanders hoping to draw level with compatriot Roger De Vlaeminck’s record of four wins before riding off into the Flemish sunset.
Compatriot Van Petegem, the 34-year-old defending champion, was heavily touted for a second win. But there was also much anticipation surrounding the new generation of Belgian riders, led by Museeuw’s Quick-Step teammate Tom Boonen, who had joined the Belgian team after an impressive third place in his Roubaix debut for US Postal in 2002, behind Museeuw and the reliable Swiss rider Steffen Wesemann.
Still only 24, Boonen was in fine form that spring after victories at Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke. T-Mobile’s Wesemann, meanwhile, had won the Tour of Flanders the week earlier, making him one of the riders to watch. Despite coming in second behind Boonen in Gent-Wevelgem, Bäckstedt was relishing his underdog status as he prepared to return to the cobbled roads so dear to his heart.
“Outsider? I wasn’t even on the wide borderline on the books,” he recalls. “I’d gone well the whole spring. I’d done some really good rides down at Tirreno and I’d always been competitive at the start of that season.”
An illness put Bäckstedt on the back foot, however, with many people believing that had spelled the end for his Classics season. “Actually, it probably gave me that little bit of rest I needed before we went into that busy period,” he says.
Rolf Sorensen, his manager at Alessio-Bianchi, was one of those who did not have high hopes for the Swede as Sunday 11th April approached.
“It wasn’t until the morning of the race when he came up and spoke to me and said: ‘Who are we betting on today?’,” Bäckstedt revels in recalling. “And I said: ‘Me.’ He said: ‘What, to win?’ And I said: ‘Yeah.’ The sensations that I had on the cobblestones for the two days prior to the race were just phenomenal.”
Team leadership boosts Bäckstedt
While the Swede, by then 29, had confidence in his legs, he also knew that his Alessio team boasted the formidable Italian duo of Andrea Tafi and Fabio Baldato. Two years after winning the Giro di Lombardia, Tafi had finished runner-up the year Bäckstedt made his Roubaix debut before going one better in 1999. Baldato, meanwhile, had twice finished runner-up in the Ronde van Vlaanderen after finishing second in his Roubaix debut in 1994. In the days that led up to the race, the vibe was good for both Bäckstedt and his team.
“I was really confident,” he says. “You know, we had some really good cobble riders on the team with Tafi and Baldato, and I was just floating around the cobbles with those guys when they went full gas across a couple of sections in training. I was barely touching the pedals. I knew I was really, really good.”
But was he good enough to be given the nod as team leader? At first, he felt that the team would get behind the veteran Italians, while he was given a free role as a kind of ‘disruptor’.
“But in the morning when we were on the bus having the chat, the sports directors said: ‘Right, today, it’s everything on Maggi,’” says Bäckstedt. “And I just sort of sat up and got a bit: ‘Oh, okay’. A bit of added pressure to carry the whole team – especially with those two guys there as well. But at the same time, I think that nudged me another per cent or two in the right direction for really wanting to prove that they had made the right decision to back me.”
Bäckstedt had been in the day’s break at the Ronde one week earlier when he says he “felt superb the whole day” while testing himself over terrain he admitted was too harsh for someone with his body and build. He’d then finished second midweek in Gent-Wevelgem, where he had raced, in his words “to do a result”.
“It came to a sprint from a reduced group and I opened up really early because I was coming from behind. There was only Boonen who outclassed me. When guys like Jaan Kirsipuu can’t come out of my back wheel and around me, that obviously brought me a fair amount of confidence. Both races ticked a box. I knew I could ride hard all day in a long Classic. All of these things fell into place and gave me that confidence that I was going to be one of the guys to be reckoned with at Roubaix.”
Tafi the guardian angel
One hundred and seventy-six riders rolled out of Compiègne for the 261km-long road to Roubaix, which featured 26 sections of cobblestones for a total of 51.1km of pavé. It was a cold and dry Sunday, wind battering the peloton mercilessly and helping to whittle down the numbers on the 100km flat run towards the first cobble section at Troisvilles.
After a few false starts, a group of five formed off the front. The quintet established a five-minute gap on the pack before losing two riders as Museeuw’s super-strong Quick-Step team wrested control of the bunch. And as the peloton rattled towards the crucial Arenberg Forest section and the final 95km of the race, the last of the remaining escapees were brought to heel. So far, so good. That was what was going through Bäckstedt’s head after the Swede – bar a couple of heart-in-mouth moments – managed to stay on his bike and out of trouble thanks to a solid shift from Tafi, his guardian angel.
“I had Tafi sitting next to me – more or less babysitting me – telling me what to do, when not to go, when not to waste any energy: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when,’ and that whole scenario,” he says. “We went across the first cobblestone sections together. We missed the entry to the first one a little bit and he told me not to stress, that we’d get back up when we’re on the road. Hopefully we had enough firepower to move up when we needed to. The whole way through until the Forest was pretty much like that, then unfortunately we lost Andrea to a crash.”
Race favourite Johan Museeuw, who finished 5th, in the centre of the pack
Image credit: Getty Images
The Arenberg claims its victims
As the mythical cobbled section of the Arenberg approached, it was the Quick-Step and Lotto-Domo teams of the two Belgian favourites who gathered on the front of the pack to assert their authority. The lanky German veteran Rolf Aldag, however, managed to steal a march going onto ‘the trench’ – with Lotto in pursuit, the Dutchman Léon van Bon and his leader Van Petegem sandwiching the American George Hincapie at the head of affairs.
Hincapie, the US Postal stalwart, was riding his 10th Paris-Roubaix and had finished in the top 10 in his previous four appearances, twice finishing just short of the podium. Winner of the Three Days of De Panne earlier in the month, the 31-year-old had finished fourth at Gent-Wevelgem and clearly had good legs. Losing Tafi in the Arenberg was a setback for Bäckstedt, but it was far from a deal-breaker. After all, Museeuw had also lost his Dutch teammate Servais Knaven, the 2001 winner, to a crash. Still, the Swede now needed to refocus – and found himself on the wrong side of a split when other riders, and a race motorcycle, hit the deck in the slippery conditions.
No Paris-Roubaix is complete without the ubiquitous fallen riders, including, in this case, a TV motorcycle outrider
Image credit: Getty Images
“After we lost Andrea, I then got caught behind Dario Pieri [of Saeco] – and because it was quite wet and slick in the forest, I was in that position where, if I moved out of the designated riding line, I knew that that was going to be a really big risk moment,” he recalls. “So I was trying to wait for as long as I possibly could before I made the move. A gap had opened up in front of us, but thankfully I had the legs to close it down, and by the time we were on the next section I was in the mix again with [Fabio] Baldato.”
Twenty-one riders formed the lead group after Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss tyro riding his second Roubaix for Fassa Bortolo, had shown Aldag who was boss in the Arenberg. Cancellara’s ubiquity in the cobbled Classics – in cycling, in general – had yet to take off, and to emphasise his relative unknown status at the time, commentator Phil Liggett did not recognise the man who left a trail of devastation in his wake.
“I’m not too sure who this Fassa Bortolo rider is, but I think it’s possibly Alberto Ongarato who’s setting the pace through the Forest,” Liggett said, calling the international feed that was broadcast in the US.
Eighteen seconds – and many riders – passed before a tall figure in baby blue, navy, white and red went by in the wheel of a Quick-Step rider. Taking the mic from Liggett, the late Paul Sherwen knew only too well who these athletes are: “There’s Tom Boonen going through – and big Magnus Bäckstedt, a man who could be a big surprise here.”
Also in the mix were CSC duo Lars Michaelsen and Tristan Hoffman, and the Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu of Ag2R. Belgium’s Leif Hoste, runner-up behind Wesemann at Flanders, was also there for Lotto, while Museeuw had two Quick-Step teammates in Stefano Zanini and rising Belgian star Boonen. Bäckstedt didn’t let the stellar company get to him. He might have lost Tafi, but he still had the superb Baldato to rely on – and he felt like he was on a flyer.
“Fabio came back and asked me how I was feeling,” he recalls. “At that point, I hadn’t touched the pedals yet properly. I somewhat cockily said: ‘You better have a look because I don’t think the mechanic put a chain on the bike!’ That was just the sensation I had.
“He was like: ‘You look after Museeuw, Van Petegem and Wesemann,’ who were the three super-favourites for it, and he said: ‘I’ll make sure the rest is covered.’ He was just a machine that day. I think if the roles had been reversed, he’d have been able to win it as well. He was that good.”
In his mind’s eye, Museeuw and Van Petegem were very much the men to beat if Bäckstedt wanted to realise his childhood dream.
“Together they’d won Roubaix three of the previous four years, and Wesemann had just won Flanders. They were the big Classics specialists of that time, really. I knew that if any of those three decided to open up some gaps on me, I had to be there or I’d end up losing out. That’s why, if you watch the footage, there were a couple of times when Museeuw really had a go at it, and I was the first to follow him. When I realised that I would follow Museeuw without it killing me, I knew that I was on a very, very good day.”
Museeuw tests the water
After an initial post-Arenberg lull, Gent-Wevelgem winner Boonen put pedal to pavé with a series of accelerations through sectors 12 and 13 as Quick-Step looked to repeat its midweek dominance. Museeuw’s young teammate had compatriot Van Bon in attendance, with Bäckstedt in third wheel.
The sight of the Swede on the front of the race was cause for celebration for Phil Liggett in the commentary box. “I’m absolutely amazed at Magnus Bäckstedt’s great turnaround this season,” he said. “He’s really settled down and he’s really full of confidence. He had a great ride in Gent-Wevelgem and a lot of people had his name on their lips as a man who could win this race this year.”
After Boonen’s leg-stretching it was the turn of the Estonian Kirsipuu, who slipped into an enormous gear as he soloed clear of the field through the feed zone. It was left to Boonen and his former US Postal teammate Hincapie to lead the chase as they entered the Orchies pavé with ominous grey rain clouds gathering overhead. At the exit of the following section at Auchy-Lez-Orchies, Museeuw, easily noticeable by his yellow helmet, decided it was time to test the waters. The three-time champ ratchetted up the pace to open up a small gap over a Scandinavian alliance of Bäckstedt and Norway’s Thor Hushovd in pursuit.
Museeuw’s move was not going to be enough to win the race, but it did for Kirsipuu’s chances. Once the plucky Estonian was reeled in, Museeuw sat up and let the other favourites regroup – the Lion having made it loud and clear just who was the king of the cobblestone jungle. But far from fazed, this prompted a little dig from Bäckstedt, which was countered by Van Bon.
Looking back at this busy moment in the race, Bäckstedt admits to feeling a boost by being able to follow Museeuw’s lead.
“That attack for me was the defining moment of the race,” he says. “That’s when I knew that if he couldn’t put me in the box by doing that kind of manoeuvre – and he even had a good draft from a motorbike which couldn’t get out his way – I knew that if I could follow him at that level, then I was definitely in with a shout.”
Hammond channels his inner Hoban
With Van Bon and the Dane Frank Høj the latest attackers to go clear on the Mons-en-Pevèle section, Museeuw was dealt a minor blow when his Quick-Step teammate Zanini hit the deck at the back of the main group, forcing Bäckstedt’s lieutenant Baldato to take evasive action. Twice a top 10 finisher in the velodrome, Van Bon had finished fourth at Flanders one week before, three places ahead of CSC’s Høj, making the duo something of a threat to the swelling group of 30-odd pursuers around 15 seconds behind.
It was here that Roger Hammond started to believe that he could possibly outdo Barry Hoban’s 32-year-old record of best finish for a British rider in Roubaix – third place, in 1972. Riding only his second Roubaix for the second-tier Belgian team Mrbookmaker.com, Hammond came to the front of the main group to tap out tempo along with the likes of Museeuw, Hincapie and Van Petegem.
“I realised after one of the tough pavé sections that I wasn’t yet at 100 per cent [effort], so I attacked over the top of Museeuw,” the then-30-year-old Hammond later told Cyclingnews. “I looked in his eyes and saw that he knew I was here. So I attacked again!”
And it wasn’t just the Lion of Flanders with whom Hammond enjoyed rubbing shoulders; the pint-sized British jack-in-the-box also finding himself in an unlikely scenario of chatting race tactics with the defending champion and the rider ranked number 1 in the WorldTour.
“It’s strange when I look back; I almost imagine it in the third person,” Hammond told Cyclist magazine. “For years afterwards I just remembered the pain of not winning [Roubaix in 2004]. I felt it was a missed opportunity. But over time I recall only snapshots of the race.
“I can remember Peter Van Petegem coming up to me and saying: ‘You’re going really well. On the next sector I’m going to attack. Come with me.’ This was a guy who had won it the year before and was leading the World Cup, so I felt like a million dollars.”
Van Bon and Høj’s stock, meanwhile, was plunging. Despite keeping up the pressure ahead of the cavalry, their lead never crept above the 28-second mark, and Hammond’s surge would spell the end. Quick-Step then took back control when the road widened ahead of the split fifth section of cobbles with less than 30km remaining.
Leif a hostage to misfortune
When Frenchman Christophe Mengin made use of the luxuriously flat tarmac to dart clear, Bäckstedt could rely on his trusty Alessio teammate Baldato to cover the move, as a new five-man break formed with Boonen, the Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha and Leif Hoste. Lotto-Domo’s Hoste didn’t know it at the time, but when he was pipped by Wesemann a week earlier in Meerbeke, he’d just begun his unenviable record run of runner-up spots in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The Belgian would finish second on two more occasions in the next three years to join Sean Kelly with the most bridesmaid finishes – three – without ever winning the Tour of Flanders.
With this in mind, it was perhaps with a little precursive irony that Hoste, driving the pace of the five-man leading group on the fifth sector at Cysoing, suddenly found his vision impaired by a rogue Flemish flag. The golden leeuwenvlag is a mainstay of any cobbled or Ardennes classic, but one fan had clearly let go of theirs at the wrong time.
The flag dropped to the ground but got stuck in Hoste’s derailleur, prompting some quite brilliant bike-handling skills from the Belgian to avoid hitting the deck with an acrobatic skid. Either side of Hoste, Boonen and Flecha were forced to take drastic evasive action – the duo going on to open a small gap on the second part of the sector at Bourghelles.
With Hoste needing to rip the flag from his rear wheel, Hincapie had managed to ride clear of the pursuers and close the gap on Flecha and Boonen, as Baldato and Mengin dropped back. In the commentary box, Liggett and Sherwen noted how history was repeating itself as Hincapie and Boonen approached the Camphin-en-Pevèle fourth sector, just as they had two years previously as teammates when Hincapie famously crashed into the ditch and Boonen pushed on for a podium finish on his debut.
After digging deeper than a miner from the nearby pits in the Arenberg woods, Hoste had managed to rejoin the leaders as the sun started to break through the clouds ahead of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Who knows what might have happened had Hoste not become a hostage of fate while being laid low by the flag associated with the race he’d never quite win?
Decisive move on the Carrefour de l’Arbre
And so the riders hit the third and final five-star section of cobbles with 16km remaining. With the return of his teammate Boonen, Museeuw decided that the time was ripe to force a definitive selection, the Lion of Flanders starting to shake his mane.
“Museeuw has gone around that corner like a man completely and utterly possessed,” Sherwen said on the commentary. Only four riders – Bäckstedt, Hammond, Cancellara and the Dutchman Tristan Hoffman of CSC – were able to follow the Belgian’s lead, with Hincapie the last man to be distanced and Van Petegem being hit by the realisation that he was not going to compete for the spoils.
“Getting up towards the Carrefour, I knew that I had to be up there in the top two or three going onto the section,” Bäckstedt recalls. “Baldato got pulled back just before and he came and got me and pulled me onto the Carrefour, dropped me on Museeuw’s wheel, and that was it, really. Across the Carrefour I could feel it stinging. I was really on the limit. As soon as we got out, I knew that I was starting to feel it. But I looked back and there was just five of us left. That was it. It was just a question of making sure us five riders got to the velodrome.”
With the outskirts of Roubaix drawing nearer, the five leaders held a 30-second advantage that would be impossible to close. One of them would soon be raising his arms in celebration – although it was still a battle for survival for the uninitiated. As Hammond, the British rider who’d never found himself in such a favourable position in a Monument before, would tell Cyclist: “I remember coming through the Carrefour de l’Arbre, taking every risk I could, riding at 60kmh on one of the worst roads in Europe, with the crowd inches away. I thought: ‘I’m dicing with death here, not trying to win a bike race.’”
The lion slayed by cruel misfortune
So came the last proper section of cobbles and the moment that ended one man’s career. With 7km remaining, Bäckstedt led the front quintet through the zig-zagging section of cobbles at Hem, characterised by two successive tight 90-degree turns. As was so often the case on these cobbled farm tracks, a thin strip of mud or concrete acts as an apron on either side, offering the riders a momentary balm from the bone-jangling angles in between. But riding on such strips has its own inherent risks – especially if your view of what’s ahead is impaired by riding directly behind someone else.
“It’s always difficult to ride on the path,” Museeuw confirms. “You avoid the cobbles but it’s also very rough and tough for cyclists. You have more chances to have a puncture than on the cobbles, but it’s better than riding on the cobblestones. Riders will always try to find the best way, but sometimes you are unlucky.”
Exiting the second bend, Bäckstedt swung across the cobbles from left to right, joining the path on the side before narrowly avoiding what he recalls being “a really big stone”. Here there’s a bone of contention, for Museeuw remembers the tool of his downfall as being “a hole”.
Let’s hand the reins back to Paul Sherwen, who was anticipating the tactical tussle ahead: “When they come out of this section, they will be facing around 6km to the finish. Now there’s a very good position where you can attack on the run in to the finish line, and that’s with around 5km to go. It’s a slight incline on the outskirts of Hem and I wonder if that’s in the back of Johan Museeuw’s mind. I thought when I looked at him last week at the Tour of Flanders…”
What Paul thought, we’d never know. Because up came the Belgian’s hand, and the race was turned on its head. “Oh, he’s got a problem,” Sherwen said. “A problem for Museeuw – a back wheel puncture!”
Liggett soon chipped in as the mechanic from the Mavic support car struggled to change Museeuw’s wheel: “These are dramatic pictures! What a way to end your career! The man never shows an expression on his face, but what does he think?”
Well, Phil, we’d better ask him…
You know, 6km from the finish, it’s very short. I was one of the favourites. If I had a puncture, they weren’t going to wait for me. They were young riders and they did full-gas to the finish. So it wasn’t possible to get back. Sometimes you have bad luck and that was a bad moment in the race for me.
Museeuw was right: this was not the Tour de France; there was no chance the others were going to wait for the man in the yellow helmet. As Bäckstedt recalls: “I heard that puncture noise, looked back, and it was Museeuw, which obviously didn’t hurt my chances, let’s put it that way.”
Back on his bike but still grappling with a mechanical issue with his derailleur, Museeuw soon found himself being passed by his old rival Van Petegem. He latched onto his compatriot’s wheel and the two formed an impromptu alliance. In the words of Liggett, “the two great rivals have suddenly got to become friends”. But there was no doubt in Museeuw’s mind that the race was over – at least, for him. Even with the defending champion’s support, there was no way back for the Lion of Flanders now.
“No. Everybody knows that the race was over,” he says. “If you lose 10 seconds and you’re one guy in the big ring – maybe you can close the gap. But with riders like Cancellara, Bäckstedt and Hammond going full gas to the finish, it was impossible for me and Van Petegem to reach them."
‘No surprise that Magnus won’
Would Museeuw have won a record-equalling fourth Paris-Roubaix had his back tyre not gone pop? It’s a question he’s cautious in answering.
"It’s always difficult to say afterwards whether you would have won,” he says. “Before I punctured, I was still in the race and I had a good feeling, and I was still in the good breakaway. The race was still happening like I wanted it to happen. I knew Bäckstedt and Cancellara, but I wasn’t afraid of them.
“So I think I had a chance to win. But, okay, it would be easy now to say that I will win. I’m not a rider who looks backwards after his career. I won three times. I had a chance to win more than three times. Okay, I was a couple of times second, and a couple of times bad luck. But that’s Roubaix. It’s too easy to say – and disrespectful to the victory of Magnus – that I will win that edition. I had a chance to win. It would have been close. But it can’t be me and him. I don’t say now that I [should have] won that edition.”
Back in the race and approaching Roubaix, there was no doubt who Museeuw now expected to see celebrating once he crossed the finish line.
“Magnus was a good rider and he was also very good on the cobbles,” he says. “Cancellara wasn’t so famous as he’d become. In that moment, nobody knew that Cancellara would win Roubaix three times – and also three times Flanders and all the other Olympic and gold medals. He was still a young rider, and Bäckstedt was a Classics rider.
“Bäckstedt had the – how do you say it? – the figure to ride good on the cobbles. He was made to ride good on the cobblestones. He was big, he had a big potential. He was a good rider who was also fast after a hard race, so it wasn’t a surprise that he won Roubaix.”
Banking on the right tactics in the velodrome
Twice fourth in Paris-Roubaix, Hoffman led the quartet under the flamme rouge and onto the final short section of cobbles outside the velodrome. But it was Cancellara, the unheralded 23-year-old riding his second Roubaix, who led the leaders onto the track. The Swiss rider hadn’t made it this far into the race on his debut in 2003, which he failed to complete.
Perhaps it was Cancellara’s inexperience that saw the Fassa Bortolo rider lead from the front as they came to the bell. While both Hammond and Bäckstedt shared the same idea of rising high on the banking so they could dart down ahead of the back straight, Cancellara stuck to the inside, regularly looking over his shoulder as he hugged the blue inside strip. Bäckstedt had marked Hammond as the man he needed to beat, so he stuck assiduously to the Briton’s back wheel.
The frontrunners spring for the line at the finish of the race. Tristan Hoffmann (The Netherlands-2nd), Magnus Backstedt (Sweden, first), Roger Hammond (GB-3rd) and Fabian Cancellera (Switzerland-4th)
Image credit: Getty Images
“I knew that Roger Hammond was fast in a sprint – we’d shared a house over in Belgium for a couple of years and trained a lot together – so I knew how fast he was,” he says, adding that Hoffman was “also known for being very quick”.
Bäckstedt admits that he knew very little about Cancellara – but stresses that, at that point in a long Classic, speed counted less for staying power and savoir faire, which was why, with Museeuw out of the picture, he fancied his chances.
“At the end of a 250km cobbled classic, how fast you are in the sprint doesn’t actually come into play, it’s what you’ve got left in the tank. On any given day I was equally fast as the other two at least. But with Museeuw, if we’d got him in the velodrome, that would have been a different battle altogether.”
Bäckstedt’s tactic was to use the banking’s slope to launch a long sprint exiting the penultimate bend. It would have been a good idea, were Hammond not to have the exact same thought. Both riders dived at the same time – and Bäckstedt ended up getting boxed in on the final bend behind Cancellara, with Hammond on his right and Hoffman coming through on the wheel of the British national cyclocross champion. It was time for Plan B. And this was where Bäckstedt’s homework paid off.
“I’d pretty much watched every sprint from any footage I could find from the velodrome,” he explains. “For some reason every rider that’s leading the sprint out from the front tends to drift up out of turn four coming onto the finishing straight. I think that must have stuck in the back of my mind: stay cool, stay where you are, as soon as Roger opens up his sprint, Cancellara’s going to start drifting up the track to try and take Roger that little bit further around, and that’s going to leave a gap on the inside.”
The drift would leave a window of opportunity for Bäckstedt on the inside – a move that would have earned him disqualification had this been a track, not a road race.
“I ended up using the Côte d’Azur,” he says with a grin. “In track terms it’s not allowed to be used for overtaking, but this was a road race so I knew I had that opportunity to fill the gap when the others drifted.”
Bäckstedt recalls that he was around 30cm up the track as he exited the final bend – enough for the downward slope to give him “a little kick” when he darted down and past Cancellara on the inside. He had timed it to perfection.
“It felt like it was two pedal strokes for me to get past Cancellara,” he says. “I was in the clear and at that point I knew I had it. It panned out perfectly for me. I put it down to the fact that I was able to use the banking and go the shorter way. Roger was definitely going the long way around Cancellara, and Tristan was behind me.”
A man on a mission
Hoffman took second place and Hammond matched Barry Hoban’s 1972 record for third. How did it feel when Bäckstedt, who Sherwen quite rightly described as having ridden “all day like a man on a mission”, powered clear to become the first Swede to win the Queen of the Classics?
“It was more of a process of: ‘S***, is this happening? Is there anyone in front of us?’” he says. “Then the thought that I was actually getting this – the realisation that I was about to win my childhood dream race. It was a bit surreal to be honest – it didn’t quite sink in that I had won Paris-Roubaix.”
That much is evident from watching Bäckstedt’s reaction in the post-race melee in the centre of the track, as scores of journalists swarmed around the victor. “What can you say, Magnus?” one reporter asks. In a trance and with his helmet off to reveal a crew cut and a hooped earring in his left ear, Bäckstedt simply replies: “I don’t know, mate, it’s f***ing unbelievable.”
Later, a more composed Bäckstedt, in his post-race interview, would say: “It’s been a dream my whole life to win this race and I can’t believe I’ve done it. The whole day just passed so nicely for me – no punctures, no crashes, the team has done good work for me as well.”
Fabio Baldato and Magnus Backstedt celebrate
Image credit: Getty Images
Hammond was stuck in two minds – the pride of having recorded his best-ever Monument result tinged with slight regret that he hadn’t won the thing. Interviewed by Sherwen after the finish, he confirmed that he couldn’t really have any complaints, having lost to a rider like Bäckstedt.
“Yeah, I saw that he was sprinting really quickly on Wednesday so, yeah, I was really afraid of him. What can I do? There was no chance of riding away from him because he was also so strong on the road, so… I have to admit that the strongest guy won the race.”
As for Museeuw, Hammond only had sympathy. “I just feel really sorry for Johan,” he said. “He’s a super champion, but it’s such a pity that he’s had that bad luck on the last section of cobbles. But what do we do? We don’t wait for him, eh?”
Riding his 50th Monument and 15th edition of Paris-Roubaix, Johan Museeuw came home hand-in-hand with compatriot Peter Van Petegem 17 seconds in arrears to take fifth place. While the duo received a standing ovation from the crowd, it was the first time since 1994 that no Belgian rider made it onto the podium. In his last major race as a pro, a born winner like Museeuw would have found scant consolation in the fact that he remained competitive to the last, even if his gutsy ride proved he was the Classics rider of his generation.
Peter Van Petegem comiserates with race favourite Johan Museeuw
Image credit: Getty Images
“He did come up and say congratulations afterwards,” Bäckstedt confirms, before expanding on the moment that suddenly stacked the deck in his favour. “It’s the nature of Paris-Roubaix – some days the luck is on your side, some days it is not. A couple of years before, I came out of the last section where Johan punctured, 100m further down the road, and I punctured out of the group that was riding for third place. So, swings and roundabouts.
“I was there racing for a podium and ended up 19th because there were no wheels behind me and I had to wait until the first car could get to me. It is what it is with that race. That’s why, for me, the added charm of Roubaix is that you have to have everything going for you on race day. Obviously, the better you are physically, the better you are with your equipment and everything else, the higher percentage of luck you end up having. But there’s still a certain element of luck you need to have.”
What happened next: fourth place in title defence
A year later, Bäckstedt fractured his wrist in a crash at Gent-Wevelgem, four days before he was due to defend his Roubaix crown.
“I could only ride on the turbo trainer until the Saturday, when the team told me I had to go out and ride on the road to see if I could at least ride on the tarmac,” he says. “I think I held my hands on the handlebars while the team car was behind us, then once they disappeared, I rode one-handed for a while. It was far from ideal, I’ll put it that way. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was one of the more painful races I’ve ridden.”
Clearly handicapped, Bäckstedt took a brave fourth place, coming home one minute behind a leading trio that saw Tom Boonen beat George Hincapie and Juan Antonio Flecha for his first Roubaix trophy. Belgian fans did not have to wait long for a new lion, after all. Johan Museeuw, funnily enough, was not the only rider in the 2004 top five riding his final Paris-Roubaix that year – although Tristan Hoffman couldn’t have known that a crash in the 2005 Het Volk would draw his career to a close. Roger Hammond’s podium finish won him a contract with Discovery Channel in 2005, although he would finish the next year’s Roubaix over the time limit. He made five more appearances, coming fourth in 2010, the year before taking retirement.
“I never shied away from the fact that winning Roubaix was my ultimate goal,” he later told Cycling Weekly. “Of course, it’s a goal that I didn’t achieve, but I can look back and say that I had a good crack at it. I’d love to be able to ride until I was 60 – until I finally won it!"
Magnus Backstedt of Alessio-Bianchi fame celebrates
Image credit: Getty Images
Fabian Cancellara finished in the top 10 again in 2005 before winning his first Paris-Roubaix in 2006 ahead of Boonen, the defending champion. The duo shared a thrilling rivalry over the cobbles, with the Swiss victorious three times and the Belgian four – making him very much the heir to Museeuw’s throne.
At 55, Museeuw remains stoic about how his final Monument panned out.
“Winning your last race is beautiful; it’s like a dream,” he says. “But it’s not easy – especially in a Monument. I’m sure even Philippe Gilbert would consider stopping if he won Milan-San Remo this year. I was happy that I was in the final breakaway and that I showed the level that I had before. But I didn’t win. There’s only one place to count in cycling, and that’s the first place. Second and third doesn’t exist.”
The 102nd edition of Paris-Roubaix wasn’t technically the last race in Museeuw’s pro career: three days later he took to the start at Scheldeprijs so he could bid the Flemish fans farewell. “That was my final race in Belgium,” he says. “Roubaix was my last internationally. Scheldeprijs was more – how do you say it? – of an honour to celebrate the rider Johan Museeuw in his last race.”
Victory in 2004 would have put Museeuw alongside Roger De Vlaeminck and – in time – Boonen in the race’s hall of fame. But it was not to be. “I’m happy with my three victories,” he says. “If I had four, I could say: ‘Okay, I am the same level as Boonen and De Vlaeminck’. But to win one Roubaix, it’s already difficult. To win two, it’s more difficult. And to win three, it’s very difficult.”
Here, the Lion of Flanders draws parallels with the 2016 edition of the race when all eyes were on Boonen in his bid to become the most successful Roubaix rider in history – only to be denied a fairytale fifth win by Mat Hayman.
“Everyone was thinking that Tom would win the sprint and Hayman won – it was very disappointing,” he says, like a true Belgian. “But it was very different. He didn’t have bad luck. He encountered a boy that normally wasn’t so fast. Hayman was very strong that day. It’s always very difficult after a hard race to go to the velodrome. You don’t know before who will win. Normally it’s the fastest, but not always. And on that day, Hayman was the smartest and the fastest. That’s racing, that’s cycling, and that is what also makes cycling history.”
His solitary Paris-Roubaix victory nestled between the eras dominated by Museeuw and the new generation of Boonen and Cancellara, Bäckstedt certainly timed his surge down the velodrome banking and across the Côte d’Azur with aplomb – even if, 17 years down the line, he still feels he could well have put Boonen’s celebrations on ice for another season.
“Boonen was beginning to emerge by then and there were plenty of riders who had the capabilities of winning,” he says. “Luckily, I managed to time everything to perfection and get it done on the day. But even afterwards, the following year, I was up there and got fourth with a broken arm. God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t crashed in Gent-Wevelgem three days before. There was definitely a good couple of years when I was very competitive in this race – so it wasn’t exactly a meteor that landed on earth! But it was definitely becoming more difficult with Boonen and the likes getting so much better.”
Winning the race he always dreamed of winning had no parallels in Bäckstedt’s career, and the Swedish Steamroller says he would not swap the cobblestone on his mantlepiece even for a Rainbow Jersey hanging on his wall.
“Definitely not,” he stresses. “For me, Roubaix is the biggest one-day race in the world. Purely for the reason that you could do 100 one-day races in the season but there isn’t another race that looks like Roubaix. There are lots of cobbled races that help you get used to the geography of Belgium. But with Paris-Roubaix you get one chance every year – and that is it.
“For me, to win it is just so difficult – to get all the equipment right, to get all the luck on your side, to make sure you’re having that one-in-a-thousand day where your legs are spectacular, and then to have a team around you that are able to help you and back you up for it, and making the right decisions at the right times… There are so many variables that need to be perfect on the day for you to pull it off. That, for me, makes it that bit more spectacular to even try to win.”
It’s a stance even Museuuw – especially Museeuw – would surely agree with.