“Paris-Roubaix is the last test of madness that the sport of cycling puts before its participants…. A hardship approaching the threshold of cruelty.” – Jacques Goddet, former Race Director.
The 115th Paris-Roubaix wrote its way into the history books in unforgettable style, with the fastest edition of the Monument yet, culminating in a five-man sprint won by Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) with an average speed of 45.2 kilometres per hour – the delayed start due to a three-quarter tail wind not slowing them down.
The majority of the fanfare before, during and after the 257.5km Queens of the Classics went in the direction of Tom Boonen (Quick-Step), who placed 13th in his final race before his retirement. The Belgian announced his plans to hang up his cycling shoes in July last year, but pencilled a new contract that would take him to the finish of the 2017 Roubaix. With his last race on his home soil of Belgium just 4 days’ prior with Scheldeprijs, Boonen had been receiving ample attention recently from fans, media and various professional cyclists acknowledging his large career. He was aiming for a 5th Roubaix win, but this dream was not to be. Hindered by a lack of support with injured teammates, Terpstra crashing and abandoning with 115km to go and Declercq later reported as abandoned, and missing an important split caused by Trek, Quick-Step then relied on the experience of Štybar, 2nd placed in the 2015 edition of Roubaix.
“It was only at the 5km to go mark that I began thinking, ‘these are the last kilometres of my career’”. – Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors).
The first break of the day took a while to construct, and by the first hour in the saddle many riders had tried and failed to go clear of the speeding peloton. Eventually Martinez (Delko Marseille) and Wallays (Lotto Soudal), found themselves clear alongside Belgian Delage (FDJ) before the first cobbled sector at Troisville. They could never establish enough of a distance to impact the race however, and were reeled in. Many of the ‘smaller’ teams found themselves fighting at the front for sponsor airtime. Speaking of which, despite Boonen being a prominent name in Roubaix, and the recent success of Gilbert at the Tour of Flanders, Quick-Step Floors sponsorship is still set to finish at the end of the year – with no sponsors signed on for 2018. However, their manager Patrick Lefevere is sure the team will be in the peloton next year.
“Nothing is certain… I have always planned for the worst case scenario. My deadline is June 30 and I will honour that. The talks are going in the right direction. The team will be in the peloton at the start of 2018.”
While the “Hell of the North” is frequently used to discuss Paris-Roubaix, with its iconic unsmooth road surfaces and cobblestones truly a hell for riders, it did not earn this name from the beginning of its induction in 1896 – when most roads were derived of cobblestone. L’enfer du Nord was derived from the impact of the First World War, with the majority of Northern France ravaged in 1919.
To describe it as “hell” was the only word. The little party had seen the hell of the north – in this particular case, the French administrative region of the North in which Roubaix stands. And that’s how they reported it in their papers next day. But hell was the post-war condition, not the state of the roads. Nobody thought the roads were hellish because that’s just how roads were. But come 1944 and liberation from the second world war, recovery brought better, smoother and straighter roads. And something curious happened. Just as in the Tour of Flanders, people began grew nostalgic for the bad old days. What was the point of Paris-Roubaix if all it had were fine, restored highways? – Taken from Autobus.CyclingNews.com, Tales of the Peloton, April 18, 2006. The Real Hell of the North.
With the year prior seeing crashes impact favourites like Cancellara (then Trek) as well as force 2 Team Sky riders to hit the ground, the 2017 edition was expected to be just as unforgiving. A high speed crash involving the likes of Naesen (AG2R) and Dougall (Dimension Data), as well as birthday boy Durbridge later (Orica) taken down. While Bewley (Orica) abandoned after giving Durbridge his bike in true teammate fashion, Naesen dusted himself off and ferociously fought back, being a looming figure at the front of the race and finishing 31st, despite a broken derailleur, a crash and four punctures. Even a 2016 3rd placed Stannard (Sky) now found himself caught out, and with a back wheel puncture he relented to stop during a cobbled section as the peloton drove forward, refusing to lose any precious time. Most significantly, Van Avermaet found himself in trouble just kilometres before the Arenberg. A replacement bike needed after a crash just before the Wallers section of cobbles, he was stranded with a minute behind him and Boonen, who was subsequently kicking up the pace at the front of the peloton. While he was shouting down the radio desperately, conveniently for BMC, Kristoff punctured. As the peloton hit the symbolic cobbled section of the Arenberg, legendary time trialist and TT World Champion Tony Martin (now Katusha from Quick-Step) took over the reins. While they reached the other end surprisingly unscathed, Kristoff and Van Avermaet were fiercely cutting the deficit, soon reattaching themselves to the main group.
Trek’s tenacity on the Hornaing cobbles saw them employ all the bodies they could to break the spirit of many riders struggling. The split they created managed to catch out Boonen, who had to utilise a lot of his energy to catch up. Acting on this, Sagan (BORA) attacked with just under 80km to go alongside teammate Bodnar, BMC’s Oss and Trek’s Stuyven. While Bora’s plans were short lived – a back wheel puncture for Sagan saw both him and Bodnar stop – Oss and Stuyven carried on. Catching them were Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) and Claeys (Cofidis) and Moscon (Sky) – the latter of this trio impressing once more at Paris Roubaix. Whilst in the 2016 edition, “Il Trattore” saw himself crash on a cobbled section in the front group, he stayed upright this year to clinch 5th in a determined show which saw many wondering just how exciting this Italian’s future will be.
Hayman’s fairy-tale story in the 2016 Roubaix was not to be repeated this year, yet Orica had found Keukeleire in contention when Hayman missed the move on Mons-en-Pévèle, but the 27 year old from Belgium found himself in trouble after crashing into nettles and puncturing on the Mérignies à Avelin section.
“I knew I needed to be at the front there and for whatever reason … Jens [Keukeleire] made it, I think there were 15 guys. For whatever reason I missed that, I had a bad patch. Jens had a bit of trouble and then we came back to Boonen’s group, but those guys [Van Avermate and Stybar] had already gone.” – Mathew Hayman, Orica Scott.
Meanwhile, Sagan was still not finished. Attacking once more, he attempted to bridge, yet another puncture saw the World Champion unfortunately silenced. Van Avermaet rode past him to join his teammate Oss, alongside Langeveld, Moscon, Roelandts, Stuyven and Štybar. Job more than done for the day, Oss started slowing as the leading group showed no sign of relenting.
With 15km until the famed Roubaix finish line inside the Vélodrome André-Pétrieux, Van Avermaet ignited on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, with Štybar (Quick-Step) and Langeveld (Cannondale) joining before breaking and staying away, with the duo Moscon (Sky) and Stuyven behind them. The favoured Belgian Boonen was once again caught at the wrong point as this split occurred, yet stayed to the fore in the group behind Moscon and Stuyven to make sure he finished his last Paris-Roubaix in 13th place. His teammate Štybar’s persistence in refusing to work on the front while Van Avermaet and Langeveld picked up the slack for him ultimately did not pay off for either teammate Boonen or himself, as despite conserving energy, the Czech finished 2nd on the velodrome once again. It was a fierce contest, with the trio playing a dangerous cat and mouse game which saw them slow so much the duo rejoined them once more. Looking for his chance and unable to allow Boonen the chance to catch up, Moscon launched his attack with Van Avermaet crucially staying in Štybar’s slipstream to launch himself over the finish line first.
“In the end I was a bit afraid of Štybar because he wasn’t working with us. I’m really happy to have finally won a Monument because I’ve had a long wait for this. I had a bit of bad luck before the Arenberg but the team did good work. Everybody was in the right place for me and Daniel Oss did really good work and everything came together for me.” – Greg Van Avermaet after winning the 2017 Paris-Roubaix.
As quickly as the riders seemed to finish the race, Paris-Roubaix came and went, another Monument in the cycling calendar gone. With Greg Van Avermaet having a sensational season so far – winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, E3 in March and Gent-Wevelgem just two days’ after, it is any surprise the Classics King for 2017 (so far) would snatch a Monument this year too?
- Where would Sagan have placed if he hadn’t punctured twice?
- If Boonen was on the right end of the split, would he have finished any higher?
- If Kristoff didn’t need service just before the Arenberg and Martin hadn’t controlled the peloton, what would’ve happened to Van Avermat’s Roubaix hopes?
- If Quick-Step had more riders in contention by the Hornaing cobbles, could they have challenged like Trek and split the race?
- Where will Greg Van Avermaet go from here?