It was no surprise that one team might dominate the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, delivering its team leader to a commanding solo victory at the velodrome in Roubaix. The surprise was which team: not the powerhouse Jumbo-Visma squad of Wout van Aert, but the Alpecin-Deceuninck team of his rival, Mathieu van der Poel.
It was Van Aert who forced the big split just over 100 kilometers from the finish, on the Haveluy à Wallers sector. But as the dust settled after the chaos of the always-consequential Trouée d’Arenberg sector that shortly follows, it was Van der Poel who had the numbers, with Jasper Philipsen and Gianni Vermeersch joining up with an elite selection of riders even as Van Aert’s teammate, Christophe Laporte, suffered an untimely flat and fell behind.
No one knew at the time how important that would be. And with riders like Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) and 2015 Roubaix winner John Degenkolb (Team DSM) joining the Big Two in the mix, the race was wide open. But as the kilometers and sectors counted down, and the leading group slowly whittled down in ones and twos, the tension steadily grew.
Van der Poel tried several times to force a split, unsuccessfully. But on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the wicked, five-star sector that comes just over 25 km from the finish line, the pressure finally expoded the group. Philipsen set a fierce pace, but seemed oblivious to his teammate’s own plans, as two accelerations by Van der Poel ended when Philipsen shifted his line into Van der Poel’s path.
On the second, Van der Poel was coming around Degenkolb when Philipsen drifted right, and van der Poel and Degenkolb briefly bumped before the German rider crashed heavily to the ground. In the chaos, Van Aert surged and briefly got a gap before van der Poel closed it down. With daylight behind them, it seemed likely that the race would see a titanic two-rider sprint for another chapter of the hottest rivalry in pro cycling.
Instead, disaster struck as Van Aert suffered a flat tire right at the café near the sector’s end. Without Laporte – who rides the exact same size bike – for a speedy swap, even a perfectly placed team assistant with spare wheels couldn’t save his day, and Van der Poel was off alone. Van Aert tried several times to jump clear of the chase, but an alert Philipsen closed it down every time. As the two entered the velodrome together, Philipsen took a moment to shake a fist in the air at Van der Poel’s solo victory before dispatching Van Aert in the sprint for a 1-2 finish for the Alpecin team.
For Van der Poel, it’s his third Monument, added to Milan-San Remo this year and two Tours of Flanders. For Van Aert, it’s another bitter almost, left to wonder again what might have been had luck not conspired against him.
Peter Sagan DNF’d after a hard early crash and was taken to a hospital in Cambrai for treatment of a possible concussion. The crash-out brings a close to a frustrating final cobbles season for the TotalEnergies leader and 2018 Paris-Roubaix winner.
Defending Roubaix champion Dylan van Baarle also came to grief in a hard crash in the Arenberg forest, alongside Kasper Asgreen (Soudal Quick-Step). Speaking of frustration, 2023 marks the third season in the last four that Soudal Quick-Step failed to win a WorldTour cobbles race. They’ll hope for better luck in the last Monument of spring, as Remco Evenepoel is set to start Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Laporte and Van Baarle were both running the Gravaa KAPS tire-pressure management system, although that didn’t stop Laporte’s flat tire in Arenberg. Van Aert tested the system but ultimately did not run it on race day.
Derek Gee of Israel-Premier Tech went viral on social media after his front tubeless tire separated from the rim in Arenberg. He ended up as the last official finisher, in 135th, 25:44 down. Ineos Grenadiers’ Josh Tarling, the youngest Roubaix participant, was among the last riders into the velodrome, riding 120 km solo to finish outside the time cut.
We’ll have much more shortly from the men’s Paris-Roubaix.
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