The third highlight of the year is a vintage edition of Paris-Roubaix. Philippe Gilbert, a pre-race pick, won but it was the manner of his victory and the action for hours on end that made it memorable.
A frantic start had riders on the nose of their saddle, and viewers on the edge of their sofa. Wave after wave of attacks into a headwind couldn’t stick, it took two hours before 23 riders got away, with pre-race picks like Yves Lampaert, Matteo Trentin and Nils Politt on manoeuvres. This wasn’t the usual early break cannon fodder. Team Sky (remember them?) 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, then Bahrain-Merida took over and closed the gap with about 120km still left. All throughout there were crashes, punctures and other incidents that saw several riders lose their grip on the race.
On the long Quérénaing section of cobbles Deceuninck-Quickstep’s local 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 trench yet, normally the point where things start to get serious. Wout van Aert fared worst in the Arenberg forest, labouring a big gear after his derailleur broke. This would be the start of his woes with a long chase, a second bike change and a crash.
As Van Aert got back on, Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) attacked in the feedzone and the tall German with the seemingly permanent race rictus was accompanied by Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quickstep) and Rudiger Selig (Bora-Hansrgohe). 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.
With 55km to go Van Aert has recovered and launched a move that would soon contain Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke, Yves Lampaert, Ivan Garcia Cortina, Marc Sarreau and Christophe Laporte. The last three would fade and 10km later Sagan, van Aert, Lampaert bridged across to Gilbert and Politt to form a lead group of six riders with 30 seconds lead, slender but behind the other star names were running out of team mates to chase and the gap started to tick up, a minute with 40km to go: the first time any move in the race had got a gap this big.
With 23km 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 potent threat and van Aert still seemed to be floating on the cobbles and packs a sprint too. So Gilbert’s move helped eliminate rivals. Only for a second the rivalry seemed to include his team mate. Gilbert looked over his shoulder to see Lampaert relaying Vanmarcke and the pair came back. But the move had shaken off van Aert, six were down to five with numerical advantage for the two Quicksteppers.
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 more ready to raid a boulangerie than chase 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’d have to accommodate his team mate as well? 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.
Why the highlight?
This was a vintage edition of the race, up there with 2016 and Mat Hayman’s fairytale ending. There were waves of attacks and once the moves went they contained big moves and forced whole teams to respond. The advent of TV from start to finish isn’t perfect but on days like this it’s glorious. Sometimes the suspense can go out of Paris-Roubaix as a rider pulls away, think Sagan last year or the likes of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara but here no move ever ever established itself and there were constant tactical tests right up until Gilbert dived down the banking to win his first cobble.
This one’s harder to spot trends and details when a wisened old rider from a strong team wins, it’s was simply enjoyable to watch and rewarding to rewatch. It’s a case study of Quickstep’s tactics, or rather the tactics of their riders. To win Gilbert needed to attack as late as possible, but before his team mates. The moment Lampaert or Štybar went up the road would be when Gilbert had to sit tight and see his chances of victory dwindle as he’s reduced to playing policeman. It’s a form of optionality where a rider is often best served by attacking early because while they’re in the lead they’re in control of more events than if they were behind, even at the risk of fading in the headwind. So far this seems to set up a healthy competition but 2020 should be a bit different as the team won’t have as many obvious leaders. Gilbert took this huge win plus two Vuelta stages but didn’t end the season with any of the Belgian prizes, Wout van Aert won the Flandrien prize and Remco Evenepoel the Kristallen Fiets. Still he’s won them before and saved Belgium’s classics season – Belgium’s most cherished part of the year – as the only Belgium winner of a spring classic this year.
Pollit’s second place was a rare cheer for the Katusha team which saw Marcel Kittel retire mid-season and the squad folded into the Israel Cycling “Academy” outfit, here the German had been up front since going in the early breakaway and kept up the attacks when this move was caught. Sep Vanmarcke had bad luck again with his gears jamming. Mike Teunissen’s seventh place was solid, his moment of glory came later when he won the opening stage of the Tour de France but Jumbo-Visma had a frustrating day with van Aert’s mechanical and all the energy spent in the chase.
More than ever Paris-Roubaix stands out as a wild race with its savage cobbles, there’s nothing else like it. If it was invented today there’d be howls of complaints.