The spring classics are upon us and it is without question, a magical time of year in cycling—only to be matched by the three weeks in May, the three weeks in July, and a single day in the Fall. (Okay, so we have a wealth of riches.)
One of the reasons why I love cycling so much is that there is plenty of drama. And drama makes for a good story. It’s difficult for me to watch Paris-Roubaix—the “Queen of the Classics” without thinking about the late, great Franco Ballerini. His story is rich with dramatic swings between bitter defeat and good fortune.
In 1993 the barrel-chested, Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle was defending his title as champion of Paris-Roubaix and he entered the velodrome in Roubaix with the Italian strongman, Ballerini. Duclos, as the French called him, was in the catbird seat sitting in second position. Ballerini was in front and looking nervous when Lassalle unexpectedly started the sprint with half a lap to go. Ballerini matched his effort and raised an arm at the line thinking he had won. The judges kept everyone waiting. Minutes later, while Ballerini was riding around the track with both arms raised in victory, Duclos was announced as the winner.
Ballerini was crushed. While standing on the second step of the podium he wept, while the crowd, mostly French, cheered for their repeat champion. Ballerini swore that he would never race Paris-Roubaix again. Two years later though he won in grand fashion entering the velodrome alone, 20 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor. And in 1998, in perhaps his finest hour, when his team leader, Johan Museeuw sat dazed in the Arenberg Trench looking down at his shattered left knee cap, Ballerini picked up the pieces for the Mapei team and won in convincing fashion.
Ballerini wasn’t finished with Roubaix though. He announced that he would retire after the 2001 edition of the race. Many fans were hoping for a Cinderella story that day, but it wasn’t to be. Museeuw and his clan had jumped teams and the Domo squad swept the podium, in the process relegating the day’s strongest rider, the American, George Hincapie, to 4th. Ballerini finished in the pack.
Not to be outdone by those that finished in front of him, Ballerini unzipped his jersey to reveal his undershirt on which he had printed “Merci Roubaix”. He rode his final lap in the velodrome blowing kisses to the crowd. The stands went wild with enthusiasm. They applauded Ballerini for his love of their race—heartbreak and all.
Tragically in 2010 after retiring and leading the Italian National squad back to success in four World Championships and the 2004 Olympic Road Race, Franco Ballerini died from injuries he sustained while participating in a rally car race. No doubt there were more than a few tears shed in northern France that day.