Stuart O'Grady took another step towards erasing the memory of the Tour de France crash which nearly ended his career with a stunning ride at the Paris-Roubaix classic on Sunday.
O'Grady, the first Australian to claim cycling's biggest one-day prize in 2007, went into the cobblestone-riddled epic lacking full form and knowing that only "a miracle" would give him the chance of a repeat. But he produced a stunner to finish fifth shortly after his CSC team leader Fabian Cancellara had been humbled only by an explosive winning sprint from Belgian Tom Boonen.
"I don't think we can be disappointed. Boonen was the strongest on the day, and that's just racing," O'Grady told AFP. "When it's man against man like that then Boonen's always going to have the edge on Fabian in the sprint. We did everything we could to set up the race, attacked, made it hard and had all the boys up the front. "We've got to be happy with that."
Swiss ace Cancellara, the winner of Milan-SanRemo classic in March, had been hoping to hand the Danish outfit a hat-trick of wins after his victory in 2006 ahead of Boonen, and O'Grady's own special moment of triumph in 2007.
His bad luck was to find himself, like Lampre's Alessandro Ballan, in a fight for the finish with the man whose sprint legs won him the Tour de France's coveted green jersey last year.
Despite Boonen's joy at claiming his second Roubaix crown, which ended a two year wait for a big classics win, CSC were buoyant after showing they have the mettle to mix it with the best on the race. O'Grady's performance was a further filip. A late charge by Boonen's teammate Stijn Devolder saw the Aussie promptly rein the Belgian in, thus slashing his victory chances while heaping pressure on the teams sitting just behind them alongside Cancellara.
His ride suggested he may be more on form than he previously thought "There was no point in me just riding behind and doing tempo - it would have just killed me anyway," added O'Grady. "I thought at least if I jumped ahead then it would have put the pressure on (Silence) Lotto and Lampre to chase me down and set up Fabian for a launch.
"That worked a charm. We certainly blew Lotto apart, and took out a few of the opponents."
O'Grady and Devolder were soon reeled in, and then a surge of pace by Ballan left the Italian, Boonen and Cancellara forging ahead unchallenged to the velodrome. Ballan and Cancellara's chances of launching late attacks were hampered by cramps, and in the end Boonen's sprint experience made the difference.
CSC team director Scott Sunderland was philosophical in defeat, highlighting Cancellara's impressive season - following wins at SanRemo and the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race - and Kurt Arvesen's win at GP E3 at Harelbeke. And he is confident there is plenty more to come from O'Grady.
"From February to Paris-Roubaix, who can do what Fabian Cancellara's just done?" said Sunderland, who after last week's Tour of Flanders was left feeling dejected after crashes and punctures decimated his team. "I'm so bloody proud of these guys. They just did everything right. We had some more bad luck today with punctures and crashes, but that's just Paris-Roubaix.
"In the finale, I tried to get Fabian to attack but he told me he couldn't because of the cramps. The race was five kilometres too long for him."
He added: "This is probably two weeks too early for Stuart! He wasn't 100 percent today, but the ride he did today was fantastic. He knew he had to be there to support Fabian and he was, and then some. I think he was very happy with how he was today. I think Stuart the rest of this year is going to be getting better and better."
© AFP 2008