You won the Paris-Roubaix in 2004, how does that rate compared to your other career achievements?
It’s probably a good light year or two ahead of anything else I’ve managed to do as an athlete. For me that was literally what I dreamt about as a kid, the first cycling magazines I picked up were all about Paris-Roubaix. It became an obsession and I was lucky enough to manage to pull it off one day.
You won stage 19 of the 1998 Tour de France, is that a close second?
It is definitely a close second. The Tour de France is big, it is for anyone, any cyclist any sports fan. But within the cycling fraternity I think pulling off the Queen of the Classics is one of the greatest things you can do on a bike.
What were you thinking when you were sprinting to the finish line?
There was me and three other guys as we came into the Velodrome, Tristan Hoffman, Roger Hammond and Fabian Cancellara. It was one of those weird experiences when I knew there were loads of people around, the whole stadium was just packed with people but I couldn’t hear a single thing I was completely numb to anything, as I was so focused on the task. I don’t remember an awful lot about the sprint itself, I know Roger Hammond boxed me in as we came into the back straight of the Velodrome and I just thought that’s fine because he’ll end up drifting wide at the exit of the corner, so I just waited. That’s pretty much all I thought. Crossing the line was just a massive relief. It’s hard to explain. It will be 2020 by the time I can get the exact feeling across to you in words, it’s virtually impossible when you’ve dreamt about doing something and you’ve worked hard for so many years. Especially when I had injuries and illnesses thrown at me in the meantime, so to finally get there and pull it off is just awesome.
How did it change your career?
I think the most career changing moment was when I won the stage in the Tour de France. Paris-Roubaix was more of a confirmation I was still capable of performing at that level after a number of injuries in the previous three or four years. So it was reiterated the fact I was one of the guys still capable of pulling off a ride like that.
The cobblestone sections are an iconic part of the race, what are they like to ride?
It is incredibly harsh on your body, the vibrations you go through and that you get hit with, are just phenomenal, borderline bone-breaking. After finishing the Paris-Roubaix you’ve got tendinitis in your arms, fingers, shoulder and neck. The part which actually hurts the least is your legs, that’s how it was for me anyway, but I know other guys who have had it different. One thing’s for sure you are properly beaten up by the finish. The funny thing is there’s a cut-off point in terms of speed, when if you ride above that speed you kind of skim across the surface of the stones more, which obviously hurts a lot less and doesn’t shake you about as much, but the moment you drop below that critical speed all of a sudden everything bounces a lot more it hurts a lot more and gradually you get slower and slower and there’s only so long you can hold for when that starts happening. It’s an interesting experience to say the least.
Some people say it’s too dangerous, do you agree with that?
I don’t agree with that at all. If you can’t stand the heat get out the kitchen. That’s always been my view of that race. If you’re not aware of the risks when you stand on the start line I think you’re in the wrong place. It is a dangerous race there’s no question about it, it’s probably one of the most dangerous races, but at the end of the day when a race has got the nickname the “Hell of the North” you expect it to be dangerous. There’s probably two sections that are more dangerous anything else, that’s the entrance to the very first section the final 5/6km before that are absolutely nuts. The risks that are being taken there are far greater than any Tour de France sprint. The same things goes for the entry to the Forest of Arenberg, you have to be one of the first 10 riders to hit that and you have to take significant risks to get yourself there.
Is it fair to say the Forest of Arenberg is the defining moment of the race?
I’d say the forest is the place where you can lose the race, rather than where you win it. Usually the peloton splits into two maybe three groups and you need to be in the front if not then definitely in the second to have an outside chance, but really you need to be in the first group to sit comfortably. However the first year I rode it, I was in the second group, 35secs of the front and managed to get back in there and finished seventh. So you can ride it from that position, but you hit that forest in the wrong position or you crash, your race is over.
What are some of the bike modifications made to help with the terrain?
The biggest difference is the size of the tyres. You normally ride a 23mm tyre on a standard day of racing. However I got told off something crazy by my mechanic and by all my teammates for riding 27mm tyres back in 2004 when I won it. Nowadays I don’t think anyone rides smaller than a 25mm, most are riding between 27/28mm tyres. There’s also a lot of double wrapping of handlebar tape or putting some sort of foam underneath the handlebar tape to make the grip bigger and softer, which makes it slightly easier on your fingers and hands. If you close your fingers and hands too tightly then you struggle to open your hand and work the break and gears, so the bigger grip will allow you to be that little bit more relaxed. That’s about it, I know I raced on an identical bike to my Roubaix bike the rest of the season in 2004. I found the less changes I made to the bike the better it was.
Do you adopt any special riding techniques?
I know there’s this debate about should you go on a really really big gear, sit far back on the saddle and just push across the stones or should you go on a small gear and just try and pedal as much as possible. I think it’s like climbing it depends on the rider, some like to push a big gear, some like to really spin up the mountain. Cobblestones are exactly the same, they’re very similar in how you ride them, you can rev it like mad or push a bigger gear, I think it’s just a case of finding what works for you.
Who do you think are the contenders for this year’s race, Thor Hushovd has targeted this race what do you make of his chances?
I think he will probably be competitive I certainly hope so. He’s been up there on a number of occasions. The danger men for sure are going to be Fabian Cancellara Peter Sagan and Juan Antonio Flecha. I’d even stick an outside chance on Taylor Phinney, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard. But for me the outright number one favourite for that particular race in Cancellara.