John Degenkolb wins the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome. As captions go “Degenkolb wins sprint” is predictable, he won Milan-Sanremo three weeks ago in this manner. But this time it was the art and the manner of Degenkolb’s win that was so different and impressive. He rode across to the breakaway of Yves Lampaert and Greg Van Avermaet, helped tow them to Roubaix and then saw off others who’d joined this group to win by a several bike lengths.
The early break took 34km to form, it’s often one of the early phase fights to get in the move and today it make even more sense. With a tailwind and without Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara plus Team Sky promising not to hit the front too early it was ideal for a group to try their luck. It worked with Aleksejs Saramotins finishing 13th and Ag2r’s neo-pro Alexis Gougeard making more of a name for himself.
Some races get going at an arbitrary point, maybe a team decides to pick up the reins and chase the breakaway but Paris-Roubaix’s first cobbled sector makes everyone nervous and you could see the bunch elongate. There was damage on the early sectors but nothing severe. This was to become a theme where relatively little happened on the cobbles, even the five star sections weren’t ruinous, no big names were stranded in the Arenberg Forest or excluded in the Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre sectors.
Several riders did risk being ejected by the commissaires through. The race met the closing gates on a level crossing and several riders scrambled under the barriers, risking disqualification:
As you can see the rules are strict and if the UCI could identify the riders they’d be in trouble. But the race was approaching the crossing at 50km/h and race director Thierry Gouvenou said the UCI commissaires were too far back to identify the riders. The President of the Jury decided not to disqualify the riders but neutralise the race briefly so that those who did wait were able to get back without being penalised for doing the right thing. It the cold light of day it’s a poor decision given the awful signal it sends to riders to try their luck even if a 320km/h TGV is approaching. But in reality the commissaires could not act instantly because they weren’t able to identify the riders. The UCI could still follow up with video evidence. Don’t hold your breath.
Trains are a big worry for race director Gouvenou and his team at ASO. They spend hours poring over rail timetables especially as the race crosses the same railway line five times within a short space. The best plans can go wrong and the tailwind sped the race way ahead of schedule exposing it to the risk of a level crossing closure. Even a ten minute delay to the start to compensate for the tailwind wasn’t enough.
With 70km to go Etixx-Quickstep sensed or maybe just got radioed about the crosswinds and they moved to the front and split the front group. A bold move from far out and initially it caught several riders by surprise, notably Alexander Kristoff, Greg Van Avermaet and Bradley Wiggins who wasn’t looking his usual smooth self on the bike. But it all came back together which just prompted more moves with André Greipel visible once again.
Just as they quit the tough Mons-en-Pévèle sector Stijn Vandenberg took a flyer. It looked like what Bradley Wiggins needed to do: go clear and turn the race into a time trial and leave the others looking at each other. Maybe Wiggins realised it too because he took off at the end of the Templeuve pavé. He bridged across to Vandenbergh and was joined by Jens Debusschere and then Zdeněk Štybar came across. With 30km it was the right time for Wiggins to try a a solo move but he had two Etixx-Quick Step riders on his wheel. The effort was showing while behind Wanty-Groupe Gobert were chasing and cutting the gap until Katusha took over and reeled in the move.
By now it was time for the big names to show themselves but a sizeable peloton was countering any attacks. With 22km to go Niki Terpstra was visible on the front for the first time and then Sep Vanmarcke had a go. But nobody was going anywhere. Jurgen Roelandts tried a move with Borut Božič which began to take time but again was reeled in.
With 12.5km to go Yves Lampaert took off. He’s a promising rider but this looked like a classic Etixx-Quick Step move: send a rider up the road and force others to respond, to exploit the asymmetry between attack and defence. Only Greg Van Avermaet chased in person and in no time the peloton was blown into pieces. Giant-Alpecin got to work with Bert de Backer pacing John Degenkolb until the team captain went solo in pursuit. Degenkolb had been looking fresh all day and with Kristoff clearly struggling, the German was the best bet for the sprint but preferred to shape the result himself. It was high risk, more so since Lampaert and GVA cut their efforts once Degenkolb joined them. With Lampaert sitting in Štybar bridged across, a crucial factor in Degenkolb’s success because it put Lampaert back to work in the group. Lampaert’s pace wasn’t enough to stop a small group joining them just before they entered the velodrome with Lars Boom, Martin Elmiger, and Jens Keukeleire adding to the nervous finish.
Come the sprint and the result was inevitable as Degenkolb was perfectly positioned seeing off a late surge by Lars Boom on the final bend to finish comfortably ahead of Štybar and Van Avermaet. Behind Alexander Kristoff was beaten by Jens Debusschere in the bunch sprint.
The Verdict: The five star cobbled sections didn’t wreak their usual damage and a sizeable peloton approached the finish but the action was saved for late with a thrilling final 10km. John Degenkolb won in style, this wasn’t the story of sprinter who sat tight, instead he, with the help of his team, bridged across to the lead breakaway, helped tow them to Roubaix and only then did he use his sprint to win by several lengths. As he told TV after the race “I was not afraid to fail and that was the key”. Kristoff did this last week too.
“Dege” gets his place in history as the second German winner of the race since Josef Fischer won the inaugural race in 1896 and he’s also the third rider to win Paris-Roubaix and Milan-Sanremo in the same year after Cyrille Van Hauwaert in 1909 and Sean Kelly in 1986. Anecdotal? Doch as they say in Germany because the sport is on the rise again in Europe’s largest consumer market, there are even secret plans to resurrect the Deutschland Tour and having a figurehead like this can only help bost things further. Marcel Kittel’s success – and apparently a long chat – has been enough to convince TV channel ARD to go back to the Tour de France, now Degenkolb’s success builds on this.
For the others yet another podium for Greg Van Avermaet and once again he too took risks to get this. What can he do to win? It’s hard to see the scenario where he wins because Degenkolb was always going to be faster. Štybar came close but again what could he do about Degenkolb? After second place in the E3 Harelbeke and a win in the Strade Bianche he’s been the equal of Niki Terpsta but it means many podium places and no big win. As good as they are, Etixx-Quick Step have been beaten fairly again and again.