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Paris-Roubaix has never been a particularly predictable race. Yes, there are key sectors where you can rely on at least something happening, but you’re more likely to hear the words “you can’t win the race here, but you can lose it” than “this is the launchpad for victory” (think Alaphilippe or Anna van der Breggen at La Flèche Wallonne).
This year’s Sunday in Hell had action from the start, and we’re not talking breakaway action, not exclusively. Perhaps the first sign of trouble was the lengthy battle for the day’s escape, the moderate wind playing its part, and not for the first time.
There was brief hope for respite when Owain Doull (EF Education-EasyPost), Laurent Pichon (Arkéa Samsic) and Alexandr Riabushenko (Astana-Qazaqstan) found around 30 seconds of daylight. Still, there was at least one team with different ideas. We’ll look at the moments and tactics that made the race, starting within an hour of Christian Prudhomme’s flag drop.
Round 1: The Grenadiers put the hammer down in the crosswinds
It was all calm on the rolling open (tarmac) roads, and the gap was beginning to grow to the only-just-established three-man breakaway. The riders had been on their bikes more than an hour, taking the neutral zone into account, and with 50 km before the first cobbled sector, it should have been safe for the favourites chatting at the back of the peloton, despite a touch of wind.
The ticker showed more than 210 km to go when all Hell broke loose. Michał Kwiatkowski looked to be the instigator, leading his team into splitting the race in two. The trio out front was eaten up in no time, and it took just a few kilometres for the small gap between the two main groups to become a chasm.
The whole Ineos Grenadiers lineup made the cut, and though they had the help of a few others, the British outfit put every man up at the front of the group.
For several kilometres, that’s where most of the team stayed, pulling the elastic to what they hoped might be a breaking point. The gap stretched to around 1:30 with the help of TotalEnergies, Bora-Hansgrohe and others before anyone took real control of the situation on the approach to the first cobbled sectors.
Round 2: Bottleneck
The Ineos Grenadiers rider with the number one bib was Filippo Ganna, a man many tipped for some sort of glory between Paris (Compiègne) and Roubaix. He’d handed over pulling duties to veteran Cameron Wurf on the run-in to the first cobbles before getting back into the fray, but a front-wheel puncture soon put him out the back.
A furious chase ensued. When Ganna punctured, his group had been stretched into one long and fracturing line on the dusty pavé, the second big group chasing hard 1:13 behind. But with their Italian stallion stuck between the two groups, the Grenadiers up front seemed to ease off the pace. As the race entered the last 150 km, Ganna grabbed hold of the front group’s tail after a three-kilometre time trial effort.
He was back, but as he made his way up to the front, the chase containing Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and the rest of the favourites was just 35 seconds in arrears.
Then something happened that could be considered bad luck, but it kept the chasing group at bay for a little longer. The pointy end of the first group, containing most of the Ineos Grenadiers, managed to find a sludgy patch of mud on the Saint Python sector, which sent them sliding out across the cobbles, blocking the road and launching a lone rider into the lead.
The British outfit still had three key men in contention, and the silver lining of the crash was that the resultant bottleneck added a minute to the gap the favourites had to close.
Round 3: Mohorič makes his inevitable move
Niki Terpstra (TotalEnergies), winner of Paris-Roubaix in 2014 after a late solo attack, led the race through the dust for about 10 km before there was a regrouping. After another solo acceleration from Jens Reynders (Sport Vlaanderen-TopSport) and more punctures, the next big move waited until 111 from the finish.
It was only a matter of time before the winner of Milan-Sanremo Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) put his nose into the wind. After staying tucked up safe and sound amid the front split for 100 km, the Slovenian national champion chose the right move to follow 15 km from the Arenberg Trench.
This wasn’t the winning move, but it was decisive, and with the iron-strong Mohorič in there, it put all those behind on the back foot while the five in front had the pick of the lines over the dusty cobbles.
Less than 10 km after the quintet jumped clear, the favourites finally made it back into the main peloton behind, and as the attackers entered the Trouée d’Arenberg, the gap was less than two minutes, with two chasers stuck in between.
Round 4: Van Baarle takes the reins
With 50 km to go, you might fairly judge that Dylan van Baarle was doing too much work. But it was his attacks and the weight of his team’s combined efforts from the start that made the race in the last 60 km.
The Arenberg Forest and the following sectors had their typical impact on the race, forcing a selection and exposing any weakness. Van Aert still had Nathan van Hooydonck, and Van der Poel had Merlier, but with numbers on his side – and no outright leader – Van Baarle gave his rivals their first sign of trouble with about 55 km to go.
With Mohorič, Devriendt and a tiring Pichon still holding almost a minute’s advantage, Van Baarle began his flurry of attacks. He ate halfway into the lead’s advantage on his own before finding himself back in the company of Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Küng. He was soon also joined by Lampaert, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Adrien Petit (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), his British teammate Ben Turner, and Mohorič, who’d dropped back after a puncture.
The riders without teammates tried a few accelerations, but Turner’s presence gave Van Baarle a card up his sleeve. Only Lampaert and Mohorič made any ground – the pair would join Devriendt in the lead – but no one else was allowed any daylight.
With just 20 seconds to the front of the race and two riders wedged in between, Turner attacked the elite chase group with 30 km to go. Van Aert was quick to catch the 20-year-old neo-pro, and as the group took a collective breath, Van Baarle launched himself from the back, and they watched him disappear up the road.
Van Baarle had joined the front of the race by 25 km to go, the gap now over 35 seconds. He dealt his final crushing blow just five kilometres later, almost by accident it seemed, as he rolled off the front on the four-star Camphin-en-Pévèle sector.
From then on, Van Baarle’s gap went from a handful of seconds to a devastating 1:47 by the finish line in the Roubaix Velodrome, where he celebrated a famous and long-awaited Paris-Roubaix victory for the Dutchman and his team.
As the dust settled, it became more apparent how dominant he and his team had been. The Ineos Grenadiers didn’t turn up with a clear leader, but all seven riders went all-out all day long, and the result was everything they’d hoped and planned for.