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Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal) finished second in his first Paris-Roubaix after spending nearly all day at the front of the race. It was a remarkable feat for the 22-year-old debutant who’s yet to take his first pro win, but the young Belgian was struggling to hold back tears of disappointment after finishing.
“In the coming days, my disappointment will certainly give way to pride.”
Vermeersch, who races for the team of defending champion Philippe Gilbert, was one of three Lotto Soudal riders to make it into the day’s 31-strong breakaway.
“It was our goal to be well represented in the early break with Lotto Soudal,” Vermeersch explained in the post-race press conference. “At least, if the group was big enough. We succeeded with three of us. But in the run-up to the first cobblestone sections, it was a battle for positioning. I held up well, which resulted in a first selection on the fourth cobblestone section, when four of us went away.”
The former cyclocross rider led the ‘Hell of the North’ over the early cobble sectors with Nils Eekhoff (DSM), Max Walscheid (Qhubeka-NextHash) and Luke Rowe (Ineos Grenadiers). But before long the quartet was halved by the kind of misfortune that is inevitable at Paris-Roubaix.
“Suddenly I was left alone with Nils Eekhoff. To my surprise, the other two had disappeared,” Vermeersch said. “From that moment on I thought: keep going. Don’t burn ourselves out completely, but keep pushing.”
Vermeersch and Eekhoff stayed clear for almost 50 km, leading the race through the iconic Trouée d’Arenberg before being caught by some of the chasers.
“It was disappointing when Moscon joined us,” Vermeersch reflected. “I had a really difficult moment there and was dropped. Fortunately, I was able to recover quickly and pick it up when [Mathieu] van der Poel, [Sonny] Colbrelli and [Guillaume] Boivin arrived.”
Despite having been at the pointy end since the first hour of racing, Vermeersch was still one of the strongest in the chasing group, matching pre-race favourites Van der Poel and Colbrelli. All three tried probing attacks, but the trio stayed together all the way to the finish.
“My legs felt better again,” Vermeersch said. “Then when we caught Moscon and survived Carrefour de l’Arbre, I knew I was riding for the win. But in the final phase I was out with two guys who have already won bunch sprints, so I thought I had to opt for the attack. I tried it twice, without success. Then sprint on the Velodrome. I timed it well, but in the last fifty meters I struggled with cramps.”
The young Belgian never featured in any of the pre-race hype, but his presence on the podium was no fluke. Paris-Roubaix is a race that he’s dreamed of.
“Admittedly, with my physique, this is the race that best suits my abilities,” he said. “I had already said that I wanted to be on stage here one day. I could never have dreamed that I would finish second on my debut. But this course was made for me, yes. I will never become a climber.”
The likes of Van der Poel and Wout van Aert would still have been talked up had the race been dry, but once the forecast made muddy conditions inevitable, their cyclocross background came to centre stage. Anyone with CX experience could not avoid the question, ‘was cyclocross experience an advantage?’, including Vermeersch.
“Cyclocross was a while ago, but as a youth rider I was used to these conditions, those slippery conditions, where you barely have any grip,” he said. “But I want to ride a dry Paris-Roubaix just as much. I will always be motivated at the start here. The rain that fell from the sky yesterday and this morning was just an extra motivation.”
The weather was at least as bad as expected in the first half of the race. The peloton rolled out of Compiègne under torrential rain, and the downpour turned already treacherous conditions into a brutally tough edition – the first wet Paris-Roubaix in almost two decades.
“[It was] physically very hard,” Vermeersch said. “My back hurts immensely and will take a few weeks to recover from this, I’m afraid. But I don’t get cold easily. That was no big deal. The rain? Ah, that’s mindset, isn’t it. You have to embrace it. Then you can deal with it a lot easier.”
Vermeersch shares a team bus with two former Paris-Roubaix winners in Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb, and the young Belgian was able to call on their experience before making his debut.
“Especially during the recon I got a lot of tips,” Vermeersch said, “a lot was said about the previous editions, where I had to be alert, for example. Although there was one big tip that I took in: keep riding! Because you never know what will happen. They were right.”
The 22-year-old is coming to the end of his first full year in Lotto Soudal colours, during which he’s continued to appear at U23 events (he came third in the U23 ITT World Championships) while also racing some of the biggest races on the WorldTour calendar. Until Sunday, his best results of the season came in ITTs, with fifth in the Belgian national champs and eighth in the very wet Tour de Suisse prologue. He also got stuck into the action in the Belgian Classics this spring, and finished his first Grand Tour last month.
This weekend he added second at Paris-Roubaix to his burgeoning results, and he’s already being compared to a very famous fellow Belgian; Tom Boonen finished third in his debut appearance of Paris-Roubaix, aged 21, and went on to win four out of the 14 editions he raced. Reporters asked Vermeersch if that was a scary comparison to confront.
“No no. And just to be clear, I don’t want and will not compare myself to Tom Boonen,” he asserted. “Have you ever looked at his palmarès? No, I focus on my own path. I am very happy with this and we will see what the future brings.”