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Silvan Dillier: Roubaix Hero

Paris-Roubaix 2018

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It is said that second place is the worst place to finish in a bike race, because a rider who is so close to winning still loses. But last Sunday, in an epic edition of Paris–Roubaix, Swiss road champion Silvan Dillier had one of the great second-place rides in recent classics history, finishing second to world champion Peter Sagan after more than 200 kilometers in breakaways. For the 27-year-old AG2R La Mondiale rider, this year’s Roubaix was nothing short of a breakout performance and one that promises even better things to come. PELOTON caught up with Dillier as he recovered from his own Sunday in Hell. We wanted to find out more about his memorable ride and, oh yeah, just what it is like riding on Sagan’s wheel through the Carrefour de l’Arbre!

Words: James Startt

PELOTON Magazine: You had an amazing ride at Paris–Roubaix to finish runner-up to Peter Sagan and you have to be happy with that!

Silvan Dillier: Yeah, that is for sure! And I’m still pretty sore. But I have to agree. I would prefer to say that I won second place rather than I lost the race. Plus, there was the whole backstory of my broken finger in Strade Bianche and the fact that I really didn’t even think that I would see the cobbles this spring. But I was selected on the team in the last moment, something that in itself was very satisfying. And then to have the ride that I had was, well, just amazing.

PELOTON: How many times have you raced Roubaix?

Dillier: Well I did it once as an under-23 rider. It was terrible. I crashed a couple of times and finished outside of the time limit. Then I did it once when I was racing for BMC in my first year as a pro [2014]. But that didn’t go much better. It was even worse. I crashed in the first sector of cobbles and then broke my derailleur. Unfortunately, the team car had already passed me up and so I did all of the rest of the cobbles in the broom wagon. At that point I thought my career in Roubaix was over. But after this year, well, I think I’d like to go back to Roubaix.

PELOTON: So tell us how your Paris–Roubaix played out. When you jumped into the early break, barely 40 kilometers into the race, were you just trying to be in a position to ride the cobbles with less stress on your finger or was it part of the AG2R game plan to get you into a position to help team leader Oliver Naesen later in the race?

Dillier: Well, that was part of the team plan. I was supposed to cover the breaks, and we certainly didn’t want to see a big early break get up the road. In the end, the break went a little earlier than we thought, but I saw that the peloton was having trouble chasing down the first attacks so I moved to the front and jumped two or three times and got clear with a good group that was working well together. That was good for me because in some ways it is easier to be in the breakaway in a race like Roubaix, because you can go into the cobbles more relaxed. When you are in the pack it is always a shit fight to hold your position. And then, yeah, it would put me in a good position to help Oliver and put me in a better position for the final.

PELOTON: Did you ever think when you went into that group that you might just possibly have a chance to lead the race into the Roubaix velodrome? 

Dillier: Oh no. I actually tried not to think about that because there were so many kilometers to cover and so many things that can happen in a race like Roubaix. At first I was just concentrated on what was coming up in the next 3, 5 or 10 kilometers and what I needed to do to survive. If you think too much in the future then you lose the focus in the moment. And Roubaix is just so crazy. All of sudden you can have a puncture or a mechanical. So many things can happen in Roubaix that you just have to take it step by step.

PELOTON: When did you first think that you might go all the way to the finish? 

Dillier: Well, at one point we almost had a 10-minute gap and I was like, “Okay, we’re going to go far!” But then, all of a sudden, the gap started shrinking so quickly and as we came out of the Arenberg Forest our lead seemed to be down to seconds. At that point I knew we had to speed up. The group split in the forest and there were just four of us left. We were really getting tired, but we all knew that we had to go as fast as possible. At that point, however, I think a lot of the big teams used up some team riders in getting to the Arenberg in good position. Guys started dropping off behind and the leaders suddenly had to control the race. There were some attacks behind us but nothing serious and for a while, it seems, the pack slowed a bit and gave us a little more room.

PELOTON: Alexander Kristoff once told me that Flanders was better for him than Roubaix, because each hill is like a sprint. He said that Roubaix was more like a 100-kilometer time trial. But you are a very good time trialer, so perhaps Roubaix is better for you?

Dillier: I was actually thinking of this in the breakaway on Sunday. Fabian Cancellara is more of a time trialist and Roubaix was a good race for him. You have to be able to maintain a high tempo throughout the day. So maybe it is better for time trialers.

PELOTON: Yeah, you guys maintained your lead for nearly another 50 kilometers after the Arenberg Forest. But then, all of a sudden, Peter Sagan bridges up to you. What was it like to all of a sudden find yourself riding with the three-time world champion in the break?

Dillier: Well, with Sagan, it is like riding with the Angel and the Devil. Of course I was happy that he bridged across. I knew that when Sagan is on the front, he is going to work to keep the break away. Immediately, he hit the front and started to pull through. And I can tell you that he took some long pulls. So at that point he was still an Angel. But then, you know that if you go to the finish he is going to beat you. And at that point he is the Devil. But you have to make the best of such a situation and that is why I worked with him. I knew that I had a chance to make it to Roubaix and finish on the podium. Okay, I knew that my chances to beat him in the sprint were slim, but I still had a little chance.

PELOTON: Well, you had only been in a breakaway for more than 200 kilometers so it is understandable that beating Sagan in a sprint was, well, complicated to say the least. Nevertheless, there were others in the break that day and you were the only one that could hang with Sagan over some of the worst cobbles in the world. What was that like? Were you hanging on for dear life?

Dillier: To be honest, I still felt good. When I went to bed the night before I reminded myself that Roubaix is a day where you just have to get into this flow, where you can ride this way all the way to the finish. Fortunately, I was able to get into this flow state and so even with all of the pain in my hands, wrists and body I could just hang on. The atmosphere with all of the people is just amazing as well and it just pushes you even more. And then you start thinking about how the whole team is behind you and how your family is watching you on TV back home and how they must be. It’s enough to get you teary-eyed even when you are racing.

PELOTON: What was it like riding behind Sagan on treacherous cobbles like the Carrefour de l’Arbre?

Dillier: First, it was amazing just how hard he hit the cobbles. I mean it was near sprinting speed. And then just how fast he took the corners. I mean, he barely touched the brakes. He would just stop pedaling a couple of meters before and that was it. He would just bomb around the corner without touching the brakes and then attack full gas out of the corner.

PELOTON: Was it scary?

Dillier: To be honest, I didn’t have time to be scared! I just thought to myself that Sagan is the best bike handler in the peloton today, so if he can make it through the corners then I can make it too. I just needed to follow him. What was even more scary was the spectators standing in the middle of the road when you are coming at them at 50 kilometers an hour. It was only in the last second where they would jump away. I had seen plenty of videos of Roubaix in the last years and saw plenty of crashes with spectators. That was my biggest fear. I was just hoping that I wouldn’t crash or have a mechanical and that I could make it to the velodrome.

PELOTON: Well, you did make it into the velodrome. What was it like leading the race into the Roubaix velodrome. I mean the intensity is so high, it’s almost like entering a Roman Coliseum!

Dillier: Ha-ha. Well, I have to say that I wasn’t really aware of the crowd. I was just focused on Peter. That said, I almost hit a flag. I took Peter up high on the turns, but then I was so close to the crowds. But again I was mostly focused on my sprint. In terms of the spectators, nothing surpassed the intensity of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. The crowd was so loud that at one point my ears were actually ringing. It was such an intense moment and what makes this race so special.

PELOTON: Wow! Okay, you have made it to the velodrome. You have a lot of experience on the track and went high with Sagan immediately. You are focused on your sprint. When did you think you should launch it?

Dillier: Well, I was hesitating. Originally I thought that I would jump at 200 meters but I held off a bit. In the end, we both jumped at nearly the same time, at 150 meters. And that was it. I knew it was going to be difficult to beat him. But I can’t have any regrets. And if anything it gives me a lot of confidence that I was able to stay with the best riders for more than 200 kilometers in one of the toughest races. That gives me confidence for other monuments.

PELOTON: You were on the verge of tears on the infield after the race. Were they tears of disappointment or satisfaction?

Dillier: Well, I think it was just sinking in that I had finished second in the most famous one-day race in the world. I mean, back in Switzerland, everybody knows the Tour de France and the Tour de Suisse. And after that it is Paris–Roubaix. It was just so intense. I had to go so hard on this day. I wasn’t totally crying but it was an emotional moment.

PELOTON: Was it the greatest ride of your life?

Dillier: For sure it was an amazing day. To be honest, I knew that I had the engine to be with the best guys in the one-day classics. But on Sunday I proved it. Now I hope that I can have an even better day in the future and win one of these classics.