Philippe Gilbert beats Nils Politt in the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome. He seemed the fresher for the sprint, but in a race packed with action and drama nothing could be taken for granted until the final metres when it was clear he was ahead and able to sit up for the victory salute.
The plat du jour was accompanied by a cold headwind starter and it took the best part of two hours for a breakaway to form, then suddenly we got two for the price of one. No sooner had a one promising move gone clear than a counter-move went in pursuit. They duly merged at the time of the first cobbled sectors to form a group of 23 riders which included several pre-race picks like Yves Lampaert, Matteo Trentin and Nils Politt, plus outsiders like Stefan Küng and Adrien Petit. This wasn’t the usual wildward invitees and if the race had been frantic from the start it came alive here with 150km to go. Team Sky and Lotto-Soudal chased as they’d missed the move – the story of their spring classics – and kept the group at one minute, a tight leash given how far there was to go to the finish and they were joined by Bahrain-Merida took over and closed the gap with about 120km still left. All throughout there were crashes, punctures and other incidents and some were already losing their grip on the race, notably Alexander Kristoff who had two punctures but plenty more.
On the long Quérénaing section of cobbles Florian Sénéchal accelerated and the front group split, this time Ag2r La Mondiale and Bora-Hansgrohe were on the wrong side of the move and chased for 10km to bring things back. It was hectic and still the race hadn’t reached the Arenberg forest, normally the point where things get serious.
Wout van Aert had the worst time in the Arenberg forest, TV reported derailleur problems and he could be seen labouring on the grass verge in a big gear. This would be the start of his woes as he’d get back to the group but need a bike change and crashed during the chase too, all while making a solo effort of 20km. He could surf the team cars but it was still a huge effort to get back and it would cost him but the persistence was impressive, especially as he had two team mates in the front group who didn’t come back to fetch him, the team later saying that because he was in the cars it wasn’t worth using riders to bring him back.
As Van Aert got back on, Wanty-Gobert’s Wesley Kreder was solo up the road then suddenly he became a target as Nils Politt attacked in the feedzone and the tall German with the seemingly permanent race rictus accompanied Philipe Gilbert, still cocooned in his long sleeve jersey, and Rudiger Selig they caught and then dropped Kreder. It was a brief tactical moment where Gilbert needed to work because he had team mates behind but Selig didn’t need to work because he had team mates behind; Gilbert needed to make rival teams work while Selig could sit tight knowing Sagan was behind, although easier said than done and the German was shaken off on the next cobbled sector.
Wout van Aert had only had 20km to eat, drink and compose himself before he accelerated on the long cobbled sector to Bersée, 55km to go and he was launching a move that would soon contain Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke, Yves Lampaert, Ivan Garcia Cortina, Marc Sarreau and Christophe Laporte. The last three named would fade and 10km later Sagan, van Aert, Lampaert had bridged across to Gilbert and Politt to form a lead group of six riders with 30 seconds lead, a still slender lead but behind the star names were running out of team mates to chase and the gap grew to a minute with 40km to go, the first time any more in the race had taken a gap this big, helped by Deceuninck-Quickstep having Sénéchal and Štybar to mark any moves. No sooner did someone try to jump out of the group or take a pull on the front would they look around to see a blue gendarme policing their move. Politt looked to be tiring on the cobbles, he’d been active early in the race and was letting gaps open up but just held things together each time.
With 23m to go Philippe Gilbert attacked. His move was an attempt to solve the tactical conundrum. Deceuninck-Quickstep had two riders in Gilbert and Lampaert but Peter Sagan’s sprint was a worry. Sep Vanmarcke was a menace who could surprise and Wout van Aert seemed to be floating on the cobbles and has a quick finish too. So Gilbert’s move helped split up the group and reduce the rivals. Only for a moment the rivalry seemed to include his team mate.
The acceleration ejected van Aert who suddenly paid for all his earlier efforts but Gilbert looked over his shoulder to see Lampaert relaying Vanmarcke and the two came back. At least the move had shaken off van Aert, six were down to five.
Gruson was the last tough cobbled sector of the day and the surprise was Politt’s attack, he got a gap and Peter Sagan waited, looking over his shoulder and inviting someone else to chase. Gilbert did and got across the German. Sagan looked like he was going hypoglycaemic and ready to raid a bakery en route while Sep Vanmarcke was having problems with his gearing too, he seemed stuck in the biggest gear on his bike. He could push on, literally, or stop for a bike change but lose time and concede the podium to Lampaert.
Gilbert and Politt approached the Roubaix velodrome with slender time gap and you wondered who was the more nervous about the return of Lampaert, Politt as he’d be outnumbered or Gilbert who risked ceding the win to another rider? Gilbert looked the fresher of the two but as they entered the velodrome Politt was alert and attentive, forcing Gilbert high on the banking but suddenly Gilbert dashed down the slope on the final bend and Politt could only watch.
Roubaix is about the story of those who tried but lost too. Sep Vanmarcke was an unlucky story of the day, fourth today for the third time, added to a second place too. But you make your own luck sometimes and he was one of several riders having trouble with Shimano’s electronic gears. Di2 is wonderful, an advantage over a mechanical set-up because it’s lighter to operate, and a rider can have extra buttons to shift gears from. But these gains are, to borrow a phrase, marginal and the downside is hugely asymmetric: a cable that unplugs, a battery fault or the rear mech going into crash mode and a major result is binned. Among the other pre-race picks Oliver Naesen never made the front group but finished 12th, his team mate Stijn Vandenbergh was like a metronome, chasing for ages but unable to close the gap. Greg Van Avermaet went one better, 11th but he missed the boat and each time he tried to chase it was too late. Evaldas Šiškevičius was the surprise top-10 of the day but he’s long been a strong rouleur who goes on long breakaways, if his Delko-Marseille team were invited to Paris-Roubaix then his past performances counted for plenty and we should note Joseph Areruya, whose name is a derivation of hallelujah, who finished outside the time limit, the first Rwandan to reach Roubaix.
A brilliant race, an exceptional edition of Paris-Roubaix with action for six hours, even the feedzones were ridden aggressively and it compares well with the 2016 edition, without the fairytale ending of Hayman but Gilbert’s still a story too. It took the best part of two hours for a breakaway to go and this contained some big names and from then on the scenario was packed with peripeteia, reversals of fortunes. The script kept changing and the result wasn’t obvious until the final 50 metres.
In cycling no sooner than a rider wins, then they’re invariably asked what they’ll win next, as if the win they’ve just taken is merely a path to something more. With Gilbert it’s whether he can win Milan-Sanremo, the one monument missing on his palmarès. The answer is that he won’t and it’s because he’s won today. Now he’s older, he’s got stamina for a long race but gone are the days when he could drown his rivals in lactic acid with an attack on a steep climb, the kind of effort essential to win in Sanremo, the 300km race that’s invariably decided in the final 7km. Gilbert’s win saved Belgian cycling this spring as they risked ending the cobbled classics season without a win from a Belgian rider.
Wout van Aert’s persistence was similar to Mathieu van der Poel’s resilience in last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, he chased for a long time to get back into contention and then launched a decisive move but he did pay for it. For effort we can see van Aert and raise with Politt. He went in the first big move, later attacked in the feedzone to draw out Gilbert and then pulled clear on the Gruson cobbles, he made every decisive move today and finished second for his efforts. He’s made Katusha-Alpecin’s spring campaign.