Baden Cooke is getting to the right age to win Paris-Roubaix. and he’s got a good Roubaix profile. A fast sprinter when he was younger, he’s got plenty of Belgian racing experience, and he has the look, the physical robustness, of a Roubaix winner. More than that, though, he’s got the taste for the race.
Roubaix is a one-off, and it suits a certain type.
Yes the best riders of any generation often win it, because they can win anything. But there have been specialists with unique skills and abilities that only really fit Paris-Roubaix. I think Cooke has them, and he does too.
Cooke went into last year’s race as the Saxo Bank team leader, even after Nick Nuyens won the Tour of Flanders the week before. So Saxo-Bank’s manager, Bjarne Riis also thinks Cooke has what it takes to win.
They called the cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix the Hell of the North, and Cooke went into them last year full of belief. The cobbles are divided into sections, and he was right at the front of the race coming to the fourth-final section, the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Then David Tanner crashed in front of him and Cooke fell.
He got up and chased on his damaged bike with its handlebars knocked almost sideways, catching the front as they hit the cobbles. Then Manuel Quinziato fell in front of him. Cooke snapped a brake lever, snapped the cleat on his shoe, but he got up and carried on, pedalling with one foot because his other shoe couldn’t engage the pedal.
He almost made it back when his team car caught up. They replaced his bike but they didn’t have a spare shoe ready, and Cooke had removed his broken one. He did another two kilometres with one shoe and one sock before they sorted it out. Yet Cooke still finished 22nd.
That’s what Roubaix is like, fighting through the fires of misfortune is where winners are forged. Cooke proved he has the dogged determination for this race, he’s got the battle hardened body, and as he’s grown older he’s developed the desire to win it.
Roubaix has tripped some sort of switch inside him. It did the same with Stuart O’Grady. Magnus Backstedt was a one-off winner. Franco Ballerini was another Roubaix specialist, and there have been many, many more.
All were talented and strong bike racers but Roubaix was their place. They got a taste for the race and studied its route, learned its moods and developed a special feel for its pulse. They began to prepare specifically for it too.
Seven to eight-hour training rides are where it’s at for Paris-Roubaix. The race is long, six to seven hours, but the long training rides aren’t only for that. To be successful a rider has to have the spare physical and mental capacity to cope with its final hectic hour.
That’s when mistakes are made, when the crashes happen, when situations are miss-read.
Roubaix tactics are simple. The team do lead-outs to get their best men to the front for the early cobbled sections. Later it’s every man for himself. They hammer each cobbled section, and with each one another few riders fall behind.
Power output over the stones are up at track pursuit levels, each section is four to six minutes long and there are between 25 and 30 sections every year. All of them are in the last half of the race, with a machine-gun crescendo in the final hour.
The ultra-long training sessions are for that hour, and Cooke has been doing them all winter. He’s been quiet in the races so far, only a second place in a stage of the Tour of Oman to his name. But it was to Peter Sagan, a 22 year-old Slovakian who is a Classic star of the future.
Cooke was playing down his chances before last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, saying that his preparation was set back because of flu he had in mid-march. He didn’t finish the race, but Roubaix is different.
It’s unique, and I think Cooke has the unique skills and the desire to win it.