Juan Antonio-Flecha is a rider who has made a specialism of the hardest one-day races on the professional cycling calendar.
The Argentinian-born Spaniard has ridden to seven top 10 finishes at Paris-Roubaix in the last eight years.
Three of those seven finishes have resulted in visits to the podium in the Roubaix velodrome; rarified terrain.
“I define myself as a Roubaix specialist or a cobbled Classics specialist, let’s say,” he smiles.
Flecha’s palmares also boasts a victory and three podium finishes at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the last four seasons.
He compares the commitment required for success at l’enfer du Nord to that of a time trial specialist seeking an advantage in his race against the clock.
“You need to want to be good there,” he says of Roubaix. “If you feel you don’t like it, or a bit scared, you’ve lost a lot.”
“Once you really know that you want it, you’ve got to turn yourself into a specialist. You’ve got to look at every detail. You’ve got to look at how to ride well on the cobbles, to be as efficient as possible, to end the race with more energy. You spoil energy riding on the cobbles if you don’t know how to ride it. At the end, you blow up.
“It’s important to find out what makes you more efficient: what’s the best bike, what’s the best position you can have on the bike on the cobbles. People who like to ride time trials, they look at details. To be a Roubaix specialist, you have to do the same. It’s another race, but it’s different to all the rest. You have to work hard on every single aspect if you want to be good.”
Flecha’s fourth place at this year’s Paris-Roubaix is testament to his determination. A broken hand five weeks earlier meant he missed Tirreno-Adriatico and only returned to racing seven days previously at the Tour of Flanders, another of his favourite races. A gutsy performance on the Ronde’s new finish showed his character, where he sprinted to 20th in a group of 43 riders one minute behind the victorious breakaway trio of Boonen, Pozzato, and Ballan.
“For me it was hard,” he smiles when asked how the new finish compared to its time-honoured predecessor. “You could see guys like Gilbert and Hushovd going up the Paterberg really slowly, like barely going up. That gives you an idea how hard it was.”
But just one week later, Flecha rode to fourth place at Paris-Roubaix, conducting a relentless pursuit of eventual winner, Tom Boonen, when the brilliant Belgian began his solo ride to victory 50km from Roubaix.
“I didn’t race to get a nice spot on the podium,” he says. “I just gave it all to try to bring him [Boonen] back and to try and win the race.”
“I think it was my best Roubaix, in terms of how I raced, how the team performed. We really aimed for the victory, and yet we had to fight against Tom Boonen who was super strong and probably the best rider in Roubaix ever. That shows it probably wasn’t that easy to get the victory, but we have to be proud of the way we raced, and me personally how I fought to give the best of myself and get Boonen back.”
He reflects on his first Roubaix, noting the presence of Andrea Taffi and Peter Van Pettegem, and the various sections of the famously brutal parcours. Now, he says, he is far more focussed: a word he uses repeatedly to describe his preparation for a race that clearly holds great significance for him.
With the spring Classics finished for another season, Flecha will prepare to resume a role in Team Sky’s ‘engine room’ where he hopes to ride in support Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France.
He rejects criticism of the team’s twin-track approach to cycling’s biggest race, in which he and his colleagues will attempt to protect Wiggins’ GC ambitions while supporting Cavendish’s bid for stage victories.
“Some teams would love to have a GC contender and the best sprinter, but they’ve just got a bunch of nine riders and they don’t know what they’re going to do,” he says.
“It doesn’t add any help to stress about it. Last year, was something quite similar with Edvald [Boasson Hagen]. We were trying to support Edvald in the sprints and Bradley on GC, and it went pretty well except for Bradley’s crash.
“We are pretty confident in how strong we are. We don’t need to focus on is it going to work or not. It doesn’t help you to worry about that,” he says.
But it is at the Queen of the Classics that Flecha has enjoyed consistent success. He was third in 2005, second in 2007, third again in 2010, and fourth this year. While a win has eluded him, he refuses to allow the pursuit of victory at Roubaix to dominate his racing.
“I would love to win it, but I’m not obsessed about it. It’s just a race. It’s the one I would like to win the most. I’m determined to make good there and to do my best and to train hard. That’s the most important thing,” he says.