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Johan Vansummeren: The man who won Paris-Roubaix with a flat tyre

In-depth
4 Feb 2019
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Words: Joe Robinson

Next weekend, when you go out for your club run, here's a little challenge for you: ride ahead of the group with a couple of others and hold them at bay for most of the ride. Next, attack those with you 15km away from the cafe stop.

Then, ride as hard as you can, chew the stem and intentionally smash your precious carbon wheels over every pothole en route. Then when you're finally just 5km away from that cup of tea and slab of cake, pinch your rear tyre. Let it go flat but don't stop, just keep riding. 

Drag yourself through that final 10 minutes or so of riding with a rear flat without getting caught by those behind. Bounce up and down on the rim, looking back over your shoulder, watching your mates getting closer and closer but don't let them catch you.

Swap your club mates for the hardest pros in cycling and you'll have gone some way to emulating what Johan Vansummeren did at Paris-Roubaix in 2011.

On that fateful day nearly eight years ago now, the gangly Flemish domestique entered the famous velodrome alone and made history. He went from humble domestique to cobblestone owner. From just another Flemish bike racer to never having to buy himself a pint in his Flemish local again.

What makes it even more impressive is that it was never in the script for Johan to win that day. He wasn't even leading his own team.

He was playing second-fiddle to a rainbow-clad Norse God by the name Thor Hushovd. He was the Garmin-Transitions leader that day, not Johan. The Flandrian was there to work, to burn his matches for his 'superior' teammate. 

Johan was allowed a bit of a free role but when it boiled down to it, he was working for Thor who was racing Fabian Cancellara, the defending champion.

I'm not privy to what team manager Jonathan Vaughters said to Johan in the team bus before the race but if I was to hazard a guess it would be something like 'Get yourself up the road but don't take Fabian with you. Make sure you give Thor a gel when he catches you. Try and make the finish'

That's probably what would have happened but the thing is, he never got caught. Not by Thor, not by Fabian, by no one. 

Instead, he made the day's breakaway and systematically whittled down a group of 17, cobble sector after cobble sector, until eventually, he had only three for company. 

That's where he rolled the dice. On the Carrefour de l'Arbre – the day's final big hurdle, the last five-star pavé. Where teammate Thor had lost it two years previous.

Full gas into a right-hand bend, Johan was alone. You ever ridden Carrefour? I have, twice. It's horrible. You've ridden the best part of 50km on Napoleonic cobbles already and then you are forced onto that. Us amateurs can barely ride it let alone attack as Johan did.

That, in itself, would have been an iconic move but the best was yet to come.

Fast forward 10km of riding alone, suffering ahead of the three riders he'd squeezed off his wheel and keeping a stalking Fabian at bay, he realises there's a problem, a really big one. His rear tyre is going flat. 

What do you do? Stop to change wheels and get caught and probably lose a sprint in the velodrome or just ride on and hope you don't roll the tyre. 

You do the latter, obviously. You put your head down, lean over the front of the bike, turn the pedals and pray to the Roubaix Gods that Fabian doesn't find out about your little problem. 

Look at the concentration on Johan's face. I doubt he even realised what was happening let alone allowed the reality of just a third professional win at the toughest single day of bike racing to sink in. 

That final 5km would have likely felt longer than the previous 253km but he got through. Rode across the line and raised his arms in tears.

Rear puncture yet still wins Paris-Roubaix. Still holds of Fabian Cancellara. Still wins by 19 seconds.

  

I recently saw Johan when attending the Deceuninck-QuickStep team launch in Calpe, Spain. He works for Flemish television now and was wearing a tartan jacket and very tight jeans that looked to be fashionably short. His shoes had metal studs on them.

We shared a lift on the way to some rider interviews. I said thanks for pressing the button but I wanted to say thanks for not changing his wheel on the outskirts of Roubaix or for not getting caught by Fabian Cancellara. 

For backing yourself that you could win and proving to the likes of Mathew Hayman that you are good enough to win Roubaix if you just keep trying. 

I should have said 'Cor, Roubaix 2011. Some race, mate.' He'd have probably liked it but I didn't. 

So instead, I'm saying it here. Johan Vansummeren, Paris-Roubaix 2011, smashed it mate.