Greg Van Avermaet wins the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome after a frantic race ridden at record speed that was defined by misfortune and mishaps. The result was uncertain right until the final metres as Zdeněk Štybar launched a powerful sprint and looked to have the jump on his rivals only for Van Avermaet to surge in the final straight and win.
The race started with wave after wave of attacks. Attacks rather than breakaways, nothing could stick. There was a tailwind but it was light, the wind turbines on the horizon were spinning slowly like giant clocks. The peloton was like an ants’ nest that had been poked with many riders and teams keen to send riders up the road in the early move; the live TV was another incentive for the lesser teams to get some airtime. Sometimes a move would get ten seconds and hold this for kilometres only to be reeled in by the relentless pursuit. Katusha and Cannondale-Drapac were among the World Tour teams firing men up the road in these early attempts.
With 172km to go Luke Durbridge crashed, the first of several mishaps for him and the first lesson of the day that a rider can be in form but out of luck and it proved to be a hard 26th birthday for the West Australian. Finally after over 90km a move went with Yannick Martinez (Delko-Provence-Marseille), Mickaël Delage (FDJ) and Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal). 40 years ago Martinez’s father Mariano was in the early breakaway too but Yannick didn’t last long as he washed out on the cobbles to leave two in the lead.
Oliver Naesen was the next contender to crash and if he fought back it cost him plenty of energy as he chased through the dust clouds with the scenes more like the Dakar rally than northern France. Soon after Niki Terpstra was involved in a different crash and if he was up and riding for a moment he had to stop because of his injuries. This would be a blow to Boonen’s chances but with hindsight Boonen had Štybar for cover later on so we don’t know what Terpstra could have done.
Greg Van Avermaet was the next victim of misfortune with 102km to go, a long way out but a crucial moment because the Arenberg Forest section was only minutes away. Tom Boonen knew it and accelerated to help bury his Belgian rival and for a moment Van Avermaet was isolated without his team mates. It was about this time though that Alexander Kristoff punctured and this was a quietly significant tactical event. As the main group of riders reached Arenberg Tony Martin hit the front and appeared to be riding tempo on the treacherous stones and for a while nobody could pass.
Behind Van Avermaet and Kristoff had got together with others while up ahead Katusha were slowing the pace as much as they could. For once the Arenberg wasn’t about who was eliminated but the Van Avermaet and Kristoff group being able to keep in touching distance.
The Hornaing cobbles saw Trek-Segafredo hit the front en masse and they shredded the group forcing a split that saw Tom Boonen on the wrong side. He’d chase but this was energy being used up and by now his Quick Step team was diminished with only Zdeněk Štybar and Matteo Trentin in proximity to Boonen.
Peter Sagan attacked with 77km to go, taking team mate Maciej Bodnar for company and Daniel Oss of BMC and Jasper Stuyven of Trek jumped on. A long way to go but the big names were on the move and Sagan was forcing his rivals to react, especially as Quick Step were looking light, Trek were catching their breath and BMC and Katusha were still preoccupied with getting Van Avermaet and Kristoff back to the front of the race. Only Sagan’s threat lasted minutes, his back wheel was fishtailing across the pavé thanks to a puncture. With Bodnar stopping to help his leader it left Oss and Stuyven up the road, two valuable lieutenants rather than captains, unable to ride away with the race on their own but they weren’t going to be given any room either in what was a theme of the day with nobody being allowed to take a significant, sustained advantage of a minute all day.
Gianni Moscon impressed last year as a neo-pro before crashing out late in the race and Il Trattore (“the tractor”) was back for more and looking even stronger. The accordion-playing Sky rider clipped away after the Orchies pavé with Jürgen Roelandts and Dimitri Claeys and soon formed a five man group with Oss and Stuyven. Soon after on the five star rated Mons-en-Pévèle cobbles Peter Sagan attacked again prompting a new selection with nine riders now in pursuit of the five ahead and they caught them with 40km to go. Oss surged away solo followed by Sebastian Langeveld and later Zdeněk Štybar gave chase over the Templeuve pavé. Peter Sagan saw the danger and chased. Could he get across? No as he suffered another puncture and went from contender in the lead to also-ran in seconds while Greg Van Avermaet quietly slid across.
Without Sagan the result was a lead group with Štybar, Roelandts, Stuyven, Moscon, Langeveld and the BMC pair of Oss and Van Avermaet. This group of seven held about 30 seconds on the chasing group with Boonen, largely thanks to the work of Oss who towed the group onwards while behind there were few teams or riders willing to chase because the only team with significant numbers in the Boonen group were Trek-Segafredo and Lotto-Soudal and they had Roelandts and Stuyven ahead. Oss soon cracked on the Camphin cobbles, the price to pay for his herculean exploits, just as Langeveld and Štybar accelerated with Van Avermaet in tow.
The Carrefour de l’Arbre, so often decisive because of its location in the race as well as severity saw Greg Van Avermaet launch the winning move. He accelerated and had Langeveld in his wheel while Štybar showed some of his cyclocross skills to rush Stuyven on a corner and latch on to the departing move just in time. Roelandts, Moscon and Stuyven were all blown away to leave a trio.
Behind Boonen wasn’t finished as he tried to give chase and we got to see him in full flow over the cobbles for one last time, back arched, elbows at right angles with those triceps flexing. But this was his last fight and by now he was too far back and had rivals marking him out even if Oliver Naeasen was a brief help, still somehow back in the action after all his troubles.
Up front Van Avermaet was doing the most work among the three. He had to. Štybar was in a Sedan chair knowing he didn’t need to work because Boonen was chasing behind. Langeveld could contribute because a podium place was at stake but knowing that he is intrinsically slower in a sprint it was up to him to help sap Van Avermaet rather than tow him into Roubaix.
The three entered the velodrome together but slowed up so much that Stuyven and Moscon caught them on the track. Moscon launched the sprint and Štybar and Van Avermaet chased. Crucially Van Avermaet paused in his chase which let Štybar go ahead. The Czech then surged and Van Avermaet could follow his slipstream and then come around in the finishing straight to take the win.
Behind Arnaud Démare won the bunch sprint ahead of a lively André Greipel in what proved to be a tightly packed finish with 23 riders within 30 seconds of the winner, there are often minutes between the first few riders and we have to go back to 1997 to find an edition with so many riders in such proximity to the winner.
It wasn’t a thriller with ever-changing scenarios and big drama. This was more the story of gradual changes and attrition. For example Greg Van Avermaet was among those to suffer from misfortune because of his puncture before the Arenberg forest but gradually rode himself back into the race while Peter Sagan was undone by an accumulation of setbacks rather than one spectacular moment like last week. Similarly there were no barnstorming attacks but we still got plenty of suspense in the finish given the uncertainty of the sprint in the velodrome, especially when Moscon and Stuyven gatecrashed the sprint to make it a five rider contest.
Greg Van Avermaet’s good fortune was to suffer his misfortune early so that he had time to ride back into the race. The Belgian collects his first Monument classic and continues a run of form that’s included victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the GP E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem as well as second place in the Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche. He’s not done yet as he says he’ll ride the Amstel Gold Race and who’d bet against him at the World Championships later this year in Norway too? “Golden Greg” can’t replace Tom Boonen, not because of results but because of personalities – not for him photoshoots in a bath of beans – but he’s proving equally reliable as Boonen, albeit aged 32, and so the Belgians will have plenty to cheer as they wave goodbye to Boonen and wait for the likes of Naesen and Stuyven to bloom. Zdeněk Štybar’s second place on the podium is overdue and perhaps a satisfying result too because first place might have had a touch of the lèse-majesté about it even if he demonstrably sat on the back of the trio for much of the ride into Roubaix. Sebastian Langeveld gets a surprise result after years in the wilderness, a Dutch national title in 2014 but a shadow of his 2011 season when he won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in foul conditions and placed fifth in Flanders and makes you wonder how good Sep Vanmarcke could have been.
The race finished with a record average speed of 45.204km/h, beating Peter Post’s 1965 effort from an era before they added the notorious farm tracks that define the race today. Today the tailwind helped but it also was the manner of the race that was different, they covered 51km in the first hour, 50.5km in the second hour and kept going. Wanty-Gobert’s Yoann Offredo told Eurosport he never had the chance to stop and urinate, normally a given during such a long race.
This evening the curtain comes down on the cobbled classics for another year. There were 102 official finishers but 18 others made it to Roubaix to prove that the crumbling concrete bowl in Roubaix is somehow an Elysian field. Everyone in the race today will have their own stories of misfortune and private battles and Peter Sagan’s account would be interesting, he was dominant during several phases of the race only to lose out because of mechanicals. Tom Boonen can now dine out knowing that he finished in Roubaix still a contender all those years after his third place in 2002.