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At the Classics - Servais Knaven
Image courtesy of L'Equipe
The 2001 winner of Paris-Roubaix, Servais Knaven is in his third season as Sports Director for Team Sky. The Dutchman, a former one-day specialist, is presiding over the Classics group consisting of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernhard Eisel, Mat Hayman, Salvatore Puccio, Gabriel Rasch, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Chris Sutton, Ben Swift and Geraint Thomas. Ahead of the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix, we caught up with Servais to talk about the Classics.
When you pinned on your race number that day in 2001, did you think you could win?
I didn't start with the ambition to win the race, I was to be a helper for Johan [Museeuw]. Fortunately, we had a teammate at the front [Wilfred Peters, now DS at Quickstep], which meant I didn't have to work in the group behind and I could conserve energy and work on tactics with Museeuw.
That year was the last truly wet edition of the race. Do you think the awful conditions helped?
Maybe, maybe not. It was my first time riding the race in those conditions. I did a lot of winter training on the cross bike and had a lot of experience riding the track, so maybe that helped. In those conditions you mustn't get too excited, be secure and steady. If you're a Classics rider, it doesn't matter about the weather.
How can you prepare for bad weather?
It's important to have the right clothing but it's always difficult trying to get it right at the start. If you sweat too much at the beginning you can get dehydrated. So everyone has to find the right layers. At Omloop, some riders rode without gloves, others were using two or three pairs.
Presumably success in the Classics is about resilience?
It's a big plus to have your team around you rather than work on your own. Then you can make your tactics work. But you have to be good enough to get to the right part of the race. There are many riders in the one-day races who have the legs to be at the front, so it's tough. You have to ensure the team leader, the captain, gets all the protection, give him the spare wheel or whatever. In the end, in the final part of the race, it's about who is the strongest.
In 2001, what was the moment when you thought you could win?
After Museeuw got a flat, I got the information on the radio from the director [Lefevre] to start attacking. I attacked once, then Museeuw did the same. I could see the guys getting tired, so I attacked again, as did Museeuw. The others looked at each other and I went for a third time. All of a sudden I was by myself. I kept going and it was then I got nervous. You start thinking…
And so you just went as hard as you could?
It was the hardest 10km of my life. Someone recorded the speed at an average 44kph but it didn't feel like I was going fast.
Can any one of the Team Sky Classics group win Roubaix?
Yes, many of our riders have a great chance to be on the podium. The spirit in the group is really good, they have a lot of fun together and they know what they can expect from each other and what they need to do for one another. The communication is very good, too. We've done races without radios, where they can’t come back to the car for advice. We're teaching them that, in the Classics, you ride on instinct. We've been talking about different race situations; there might be thousands of scenarios and on race day it turns out to be number 1001. Whatever happens, we're going to try to win the race.
So what does it take to win a Classic?
The Classics is a lot about tactics. So much is happening over the one day. If something goes wrong you can't make up for it the next day. In those six hours everything has to be perfect. You can win a stage race without winning a stage and there are maybe a few other riders to contend with, but a race like Roubaix you have ten riders or more who could win. Boonen, Cancellara, Sagan, it's not about just going the fastest, though. It's really important to have a good look around to see the other riders, read the race.
That's why Roubaix is such an exciting race, it's hard to predict, always entertaining. Like last year, Tom Boonen riding away with 50km left and everyone said: “What's he doing?” But those kind of things happen. You can never predict what's going to happen. There are so many cobbled sections, 25 sections where anything can happen. And things can also happen in between. You never know, and that makes it difficult. But that's why it's such a great race.
Presumably it's a tough day out for you too as Sports Director?
It's the first year I'll drive the car at Roubaix. Two years ago there was so much dust that you couldn't see the cars in front, so if there was a crash, you had to be very careful. That's why we have two in the car, myself and Kurt-Asle Arvesen. It's a hard day's work for us and we will be as tired as the riders, just in a different way.
Is there a particular technique to riding cobbles?
It's hard racing on cobbles, it wears down your whole body. But I didn't think about it, it just came naturally. You must be really steady, hold your ass really tight on the saddle and be one with the bike so it goes where you want it to go. It's not something you can teach really, if you ask our riders the same thing they have to think hard about it.
How do you decide on the tactics before the race?
We'll decide a few days ahead of the race on what we're going to do. We have Flanders the weekend before so we will see how everybody's going and decide then. You can't predict a month before how the riders will be feeling but we have a plan or two so we'll work around those.
And so you talk with the performance team about preparation?
I'll talk with Rod Ellingworth, Team Sky's Performance Manager, and discuss our preparation and ambitions. We don't have a rider in the team who has won a classic, so it is difficult to target each race with one clear goal. But there are many young guys with the potential to win a race like Roubaix, so it is much more open. It's good for our riders because they are really motivated, all looking to win. When you have ambition you always have a better chance, you get the opportunities. The most important thing for Team Sky is that someone will win a Classic.