PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM
When George Hincapie, Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha turned the corner onto the track of Roubaix's famous velodrome - in that order - to the roars of the crowd, a betting man would have put his money on super-sprinter, and Tour of Flanders winner the previous week, Boonen.
And as the young Belgian manoeuvred himself to the back of the line as the trio passed through the finish line with a lap to go, the spectators - many, even most, of them having come from Belgium, just over the border - upped the volume yet further, already in a frenzy after having been wound up by the commentary from 'le speaker' as they watched their man put the hammer down and drop first CSC's Lars Michaelsen and, soon after, defending champion Magnus Backstedt on the velodrome's giant screen 15 kilometres earlier.
Fassa Bortolo's Spanish star, Flecha - second to Nico Mattan at Wednesday's Ghent-Wevelgem - led into the final bend, high up on the track's banking, and it was then that Boonen swooped, dropping down the track with Discovery Channel rider Hincapie following suit, scrabbling to get onto the Belgian's wheel. Just for a moment, it looked like the American might have timed it just right, and could have got around Boonen right on the line to spoil the party. But it was too little, too late, and the Quick Step rider seemed to pull even further away as he rose both hands to the sky in salute of the trackside fans, both parties delirious with joy.
Hincapie's bowed head said it all, while Flecha grimaced as he came across the line for third place. Pandemonium reigned in the track centre as the media stampeded after the new king of the cobbles, testament to the Belgian's now superstar status. A smaller, less boisterous huddle surrounded Hincapie on the other side of the track, but it was difficult for the American to know whether to laugh or cry, with second being his best-ever performance in the race after fourth in 2001, and the first time in history that an American has taken a podium place at the race, set against the knowledge that he'd come so close.
"But I did what I could. I did my best - that's all," Hincapie reflected. "There was nothing left at the end. Both Boonen and myself were always near the front, all day, and in a break for 80 kilometres, so it was a very, very difficult day. "There's so much that can happen at Paris-Roubaix. I had one puncture, and that was about it, but there's so much more bad luck that I could have had," said Hincapie. "I'm happy with what I did - I tried, I was there until the end, but I couldn't beat Tom - I couldn't have done any more. But I'll be here again next year, for sure."