Mathieu van der Poel leaves the Carrefour de l’Arbre pavé sector solo while arch-rival Wout van Aert is forced to stop because of a puncture. This was the final, decisive moment that gave Van der Poel the win but came after a series of events that worked in his favour to the detriment of Van Aert.
A tailwind and so much for third time lucky, it seemed it took 27 attacks before a small group could open up a gap but that only lasted a few minutes. Even going by TV footage which didn’t show all the attacks given they also cut to video at the rear, the shots of cathedrals and landscapes, you lost count after the fiftieth visible attack. This was not a matter of arithmetic but anarchy. Amid the chaos though you could discern a plan or two. Alpecin-Deceuninck were provocative with the likes of Silvan Dillier; Jumbo-Visma were defensive, using Edoardo Affini to chase. The first 100km were covered in two hours because of all of this.
A move got clear as the first pavé sector loomed, seemingly many in the peloton needed to urinate before the crucial next phase. This couldn’t be done too too close to the cobbles because by then many would be pacing their leaders into position so a brief window opened up and Juri Hollmann (Movistar), Jonas Koch (Bora-Hansgrohe), Sjoerd Bax (UAE) and Derek Gee (Israel-PremierTech) jumped through it, with Nils Eekhoff of DSM trying to chase. It looked tentative rather than menacing and risked being swept up by the time the cobbles came.
Come the crashes. Even in the dry conditions the pavé are pernicious and the gutter perilous. Among the fallers was past winner Peter Sagan, one among many in trouble and from here the only sighting of the Soudal-Quickstep team was when they were having mechanicals or being dropped. Harsh? Yes but take your pick among many other teams who would also be out of the picture too.
Jumbo-Visma weren’t immune to misfortune. Wout van Aert had a puncture with 110km to go. Far from the finish and no hurry… only he and his team had other plans. He got back, rode up to the front and minutes later the race caught fire on the Haveluy to Wallers cobbled section when Jumbo-Visma attacked. Traditionally teams try to pace leaders into the Arenberg to get them ahead of any crashes but this was an attack and an attempt to distance rivals as well as risk. Suddenly Van Aert, Laporte, Van der Poel were clear with Stefan Küng, John Degenkolb and the surprise of neo-pro musketeer Madis Mihkels. With hindsight this move was perfect as the participants hauled themselves clear of the carnage.
The Arenberg section felled many riders including last year’s winner Van Baarle and the ensuing traffic jam delayed more. Mads Pedersen made it through and got across to the lead and soon after Max Walscheid, Laurenz Rex and Alpecin pair of Jasper Philipsen and Gianni Vermeersch made it too. With these additions, a subtraction as Christophe Laporte was undone a puncture in the Arenberg trench and out while Alpecin-Deceuninck and Intermarché-Circus-Wanty had numbers while Jumbo-Visma didn’t. Numerical superiority is the Dutch team’s prime plan whether it’s the Galibier last summer, Geraardsbergen last February and probably Gruson here. Only Van Aert was now by himself.
Laporte got a spare and tried to chase but was eventually swept up. Soon he and team mate Van Hooydonck jumped clear of the bunch and were joined by Lotto’s Florian Vermeersch. A two minute gap to close? Well they couldn’t just sit back in the peloton and chat, plus their potato-hunting forced Alpecin-Deceuninck to drive the front group, thus allowing Van Aert to hang back.
Each cobbled sector seemed to shake loose a rider and the unheralded ones too, soon Koch was cooked, Bax went backwards and Rex was deposed to leave an all-star group of seven: Van der Poel and Philipsen, Van Aert, Küng, Ganna, Pedersen and Degenkolb. Degenkolb was the surprise traveller in the front wagon but as former winner of the race, plus a Roubaix stage winner in the Tour, he was very much a first-class ticket holder.
Van der Poel was making several moves, including on the tarmac. Too much, too soon? It was a worry in the moment especially because a year ago he looked so strong then faded. If some of the others in the group wanted to win then it should have been them making these moves but the likes of Ganna and Küng were just holding on tight.
On the four and five star sectors Van der Poel and Van Aert looked like staff on a cruise ship during a storm, deftly navigating the bumps in the road while the likes of Ganna, Küng and Pedersen were stumbling around the course. This reached a culmination on the Carrefour de l’Arbre when Philipsen wobbled, forcing Van der Poel to move and this took down John Degenkolb but Van der Poel only lost a few pedal strokes.
In the wake of the chaos Van Aert accelerated but only Van der Poel was coming across. It was an attack by Van Aert but the move said plenty about Van der Poel’s day, he could have been floored seconds earlier by a crash but instead was chasing down his arch rival.
The two didn’t last long together. As the Carrefour section came to an end Van Aert was a few metres off Van der Poel’s wheel and his rear wheel flailing about: a rear wheel puncture and presumably his hopes and dreams were equally deflated. Van der Poel was solo and if there was still 18km to go, it felt like the result was a formality. He stayed clear for the win, able to celebrate a lap ahead in the velodrome with team mate Philipsen taking second place and Van Aert third.
An energetic race but one with few surprises. Paris-Roubaix often features riders with intriguing cameo roles and stories of partial resurrection where characters that haven’t quite been written out of the script can still flourish. This year’s edition was more Hollywood than art house, the final hour was an all-star billing that was reduced to a duel. The early breakaway barely existed, the day was all about the celebrities and the moves they made from Haveluy onwards.
More than any other classic Roubaix throws up shock results and you apply hindsight to explore how the winner triumphed. This year Van der Poel’s win requires little analysis, he was the strongest rider supported by a solid team, and boosted by the misfortunes of his rivals.
Was Van Aert’s Carrefour crevaison the decisive moment or the final straw? Some of the pre-race chat was about the adjustable inflation system being used by some Jumbo and DSM riders during the race which allows a rider a softer ride across the pavé and then a firmer tire for the tarmac. Yet for all the marginal gains Jumbo were repeatedly undone by that plague of pneumatics the plain puncture. Notionally the two Vans used the same tires but there’s plenty of difference in terms of set-up, with rims, pressure, foam, sealant and other choices contributing. And luck too. In the “Hell of the North” Van der Poel enjoyed a heavenly day.