Roubaix’17: Greg The Cobble Conquerer!
Race Report: Greg Van Avermaet emerged the winner of Paris-Roubaix after taking a five-man sprint in the iconic velodrome, to deny Belgium’s Tom Boonen the fairy tale farewell to cycling he had hoped for and prolong host nation France’s wait for a successor to 1997 winner Frédéric Guesdon.
Boonen’s last race
All eyes were on Tom Boonen at the start of the 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix. The famous Fleming had promised to hang up his bicycle after one final participation in ‘the Queen of Classics’ and many were those in Belgium and beyond hoping “Tommeke”—as he is affectionately known—would finish on a high and lift the cobblestone trophy for a record-breaking fifth time. Naturally, fellow favorites Peter Sagan, the World champion; Greg Van Avermaet, the hero of Rio; and Arnaud Démare, ‘the Bull from Beauvais’, had other ideas.
The peloton departed from Compiègne’s Place Charles de Gaulle just after 11 o’clock, passing under a gantry adorned, ominously, with two huge ‘pavés’, and streaming out of the city to head north towards Roubaix. The winner was to be declared after a total of 257 kilometers of racing and no less than 55 kilometers of cobbles divided into 29 sectors, to include the nightmarish Trench of Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. They call this race “Hell” and that, to many, does not do it full justice.
The pleasant weather ensured there would be no repeat of the wet Inferno of 2001, when Dutchman Servais Knaven crossed the finish line so covered in mud that frightened spectators inside Roubaix’s velodrome mistook him for a Yeti, but this time thick clouds of dust promised to envelop the riders instead.
The early part of the race, on the road to Saint-Quentin, saw a number of hopefuls strive to escape from the peloton before the going got tough, aspiring to imitate last year’s winner Mathew Hayman, who had slipped into an ‘échappée matinale’ and gone on to win the race against all odds. For Hayman, of course, any hope of being granted an exit ticket this time round felt out of the question: his jersey bearing the defending champion’s ‘dossard numéro un’, the rangy Australian rode in the middle of the peloton with all the inconspicuousness of a howling hyena on a quiet Picard village square. But others had no such problem.
Pierre-Luc Perrichon (Fortuneo-Vital Concept), Mark McNally (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Paddy Bevin (Cannondale-Drapac), Cyril Lemoine (Cofidis) and Jasha Sütterlin (Movistar) featured in the early flurry of attacks, but all struggled to lose a peloton propelled by a tailwind and progressing at an awesome speed of 50 kilometers per hour.
In such conditions, the proverbial ‘échappée matinale’ took an eternity to develop, as the lead group underwent several changes of personnel before crystallizing after 90 kilometers.
A quintet composed of Hugo Hofstetter (Cofidis), Benjamin Giraud, (Delko Marseille Provence KTM), Maxime Daniel (Fortuneo-Vital Concept), Michael Mørkøv (Katusha-Alpecin) and Mads Würtz Schmidt (Katusha-Alpecin) soon formed ahead of the race, preceding the chasing pack by 25 seconds at the entrance of Saint-Quentin, but the gap shrank rapidly and a regroupment took place shortly afterwards.
Marco Haller (Katusha-Alpecin) and Meiyin Wang (Bahrain-Merida) then took the baton but the two men could not agree on a fair division of labor and their escape proved ephemeral.
A trio featuring Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal), Mickaël Delage (FDJ) and Yannick Martinez (Delko Marseille Provence KTM) inherited the mantel and this time they succeeded in pulling clear, building an advantage of nearly a minute. Martinez, however, would soon lose contact with his two peers and be replaced by the gigantic Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R-La Mondiale).
The sight of the first terrils in the distance signaled the race’s entrance into the ‘Enfer du Nord’, that region of northern France known for its bleak weather, defunct mining industry and notorious cobblestones.
At the approach of the first cobbled sector, situated at Troisvilles, 97 kilometers into the race, the atmosphere became nervous. Favorites rubbed shoulders, jockeying for position. The peloton elongated and prepared to hit the ‘pavés’ at full speed.
Paris-Roubaix may present a course as flat as a pan, a characteristic that distinguishes it from cycling’s other four Monuments, but after being afflicted with bad luck it was all downhill for Luke Durbridge. The Australian, celebrating his 26th birthday, received dubious presents from the great race, becoming the first big name to fall on the day, hitting the deck with several others even before entering the inaugural sector, and subsequently having to change bike following mechanical problems, before collapsing again a few kilometers farther.
Sector after sector, the battered, jutting, indigent cobbles took their toll, as the Camusian absurdity of Paris-Roubaix descended on the peloton. Bidons popped out of their cages like corks out of champagne bottles and bodies hit the floor faster than in an action-heavy Rambo sequel. In sector 28, leading to Viesly, pre-race favorite Oliver Naesen of Belgium found himself implicated in a pile-up and a puncture then delayed his return into the peloton. The interminable sector 27—3.7 kilometers from Quiévy to Saint-Python—saw France’s Tony Gallopin take a tumble, and sector 22 to Quérénaing left former winner Niki Terpstra of the Netherlands with a bloody nose.
Van Avermaet delayed
In sector 20 to Haveluy, Greg Van Avermaet, already delayed by a problem with his bike stem, fell and had to change bike. Eager to eliminate the Olympic champion from contention, Tom Boonen accelerated in person, soon assisted by the team-mates of Slovakia’s Peter Sagan and Norway’s Alexander Kristoff. Van Avermaet pedaled away frantically in an effort to bridge over to the other favorites but in no time found himself nearly a minute behind.
Vandenbergh, Wallays and Delage led the way over the cobbles of the fabled Trench of Arenberg, lined by throngs of formerly sane spectators and soon the two Belgians showed their French companion a clear pair of heels. Wallays then rid himself of his compatriot to find himself alone in the lead.
Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) attacked on the way out of the Forest of Arenberg and caught a fading Wallays to form a new duo, but the real action was taking place farther behind, as Sagan began to set the race on fire. Taking off like a firework on Bastille Day just after the cobbles of Hornaing, the man in the rainbow jersey caught Boonen off guard and moved into the lead with his team-mate Maciej Bodnar, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and the long-haired Italian Daniel Oss (BMC) for company. All of Sagan’s hard work was ruined, however, when the Slovakian punctured and was reeled in by Boonen’s boys.
On the cobbles of Tilloy, Germany’s André Greipel, ‘the Gorilla of Rostock’, surged forward, triggering a counter-attack from Boonen, but the Belgian’s barrage fell flat, as Sagan and the 2015 champion John Degenkolb held his wheel. France’s Arnaud Démare also tried to escape but to no avail. The ensuing respite allowed some of the delayed riders to return into the fold, including Van Avermaet.
A peloton of no less than thirty units rolled onto sector 13 at Orchies, chasing after Oss and Stuyven, the survivors of Sagan’s earlier move, still in the lead by half a minute. Boonen pushed repeatedly to whittle the group down but without significant success, as the other favorites held their fire ahead of the much-feared Mons-en-Pévèle sector. Meanwhile, Dimitri Claes (Cofidis), Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) and the Arctic Race winner Gianni Moscon (Sky) set off in pursuit of the two leaders, painstakingly clawing their way back to form a new breakaway of five, but the members of the quintet could not get along and soon surrendered their advantage.
As the acrobats on wheels rattled over the cobbles of Mons-en-Pévèle, with just over 40 kilometers to go to the finish in Roubaix, Sagan again accelerated, but the Czech rider Zdeněk Štybar, a team-mate of Boonen’s within the Quick-Step Floors formation, nullified the World champion’s attack, effectively postponing hostilities to the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the last of the notorious five star cobblestone sectors of the day. But the Slovakian’s antics did spell the end for important contenders such as Hayman, Kristoff and Démare, all dropped as a result of the burst of speed.
An atmosphere of stalemate within the group of favorites inspired further initiatives, as Daniel Oss once more shot forward. An elite faction formed behind the Italian, comprising Van Avermaet, Štybar, Stuyven, Moscon, Roelandts and Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale-Drapac), while a second ensemble, including an increasingly tired-looking Boonen, found itself farther back. Sagan, trapped in no man’s land between the two groups, attempted to integrate the first but a rear wheel puncture delayed him and the Boonen gang zipped past the World champion as his mechanic changed his wheel, though Sagan, visibly in sparkling form, succeeded in catching up with them a few minutes later.
Van Avermaet’s group swallowed Oss with just over 20 kilometers remaining and began to envisage victory as the time gap separating them from their chasers slowly but surely increased. Sector number 4, otherwise known as ‘le Carrefour de l’Arbre’, became the theatre of a fierce duel between Van Avermaet and Štybar, the two hard men exchanging terrible blows over the granite blocks, while the soon-to-be-retired Boonen chased them desperately, half a minute back, the dream of a fifth triumph in ‘the Queen of Classics’ slipping tantalizingly between his fingers.
The Olympic champion, in the red and black of BMC, made for Roubaix, ‘the Town of a Thousand Chimneys’, and its iconic velodrome, accompanied by Štybar, in the blue of Quick Step, and Langeveld, in the lime green of Cannondale, who had somehow clung on, fully aware that the three would take place on the steps of this year’s podium, though in what order remained to be decided.
After the formality of the final, one-star sector of cobblestones within Roubaix, named after Charles Crupelandt, the only native of the northern town to have won the great Classic, Štybar bolted half-heartedly out of the trio but only to see the burly figure of Van Avermaet immediately respond.
All was set for a high-stakes sprint between the three inside the Roubaix velodrome. What had not been expected, however, was the in extremis return of Moscon and Stuyven, who joined the final push for the line. But there was no denying Van Avermaet, the strongest of the five, who cut the line ahead of Štybar and Langeveld to claim his first Monument, on a day that saw another bow out, though without the parting victory many had prayed for.
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC in 5:41:07
2. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Quick-Step Floors
3. Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Cannondale-Drapac
4. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
5. Gianni Moscon (Ita) Sky
6. Arnaud Démare (Fra) FDJ at 0:12
7. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal
8. Edward Theuns (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
9. Adrien Petit (Fra) Direct Energie
10. John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo
11. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Orica-Scott
12. Florian Senechal (Fra) Cofidis
13. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
14. Yoann Offredo (Fra) Wanty-Groupe Gobert
15. Laurens De Vreese Laurens (Bel) Astana
16. Marcus Burghardt (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe
17. Piet Allegaert (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise
18. Nikolas Maes (Bel) Lotto Soudal
19. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Direct Energie
20. Dylan Van Baarle (Ned) Cannondale-Drapac
21. Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC
22. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 0:20
23. Jelle Wallays (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 0:26
24. Marcel Sieberg (Ger) Lotto Soudal at 0:36
25. Ramon Sinkeldam (Ned) Sunweb at 2:24.