We can say with some confidence that this year’s Paris-Roubaix featured some of the finest racing we’ve seen all season, with the drama unfolding all the way from the earliest pavé section up to the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome. Here’s our recap of all the major moves that led up to the thrilling spectacle of the finish.
It was with 110km to go that things truly kicked off, which tells you plenty about how the race was being ridden. An early break had gone from the gun, but was reabsorbed within the first half hour of racing, thanks to a tailwind that benefitted a nervously speeding peloton. Heading towards the first sections of cobblestones, a large and talented group went clear of the Etixx-led peloton. They included Sylvain Chavanel, Sky’s Salvatore Puccio, Johan Le Bon, and the Orica-GreenEdge duo Matty Hayman and Magnus Cort Nielsen. Also in the break were Movistar’s Imanol Erviti, who stunned us with his 7th place finish in Flanders, as well as Trek’s Yaroslav Popovych, who was celebrating his last day in the pro peloton before retiring by stretching his legs up front. The group quickly got up a lead of over 3mins 30 across the first sections of cobbles.
The first big move came when Tony Martin took to the front of the peloton, and suddenly upped the pace for Etixx across a rough section of country road. There had been a crash in the pack, and Etixx decided to use the confusion to their advantage. The peloton was instantly torn apart, and riders were caught unawares as the Etixx train, featuring Martin, Zdeněk Štybar, and Tom Boonen, sped up the road with other riders in tow including Sky’s Ian Stannard and the young Gianni Moscon (the 20 year old riding his debut Paris-Roubaix), and Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen. (Luke Rowe and Sep Vanmarcke lagged behind in no man’s land, but eventually got up to the Etixx group at around 83km remaining.) This was a huge and decisive selection. By 103km to go, there was a minute’s gap between the two parts of the peloton, and the big losers were Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara: the two favourites for the day were back in group two, and fighting hard to try to bring things back together.
It looked a lot like the Sagan/Cancellara group couldn’t reach an agreement, and the disorganised chase allowed the favourites group to gain ground on the breakaway, but lose no time to the chasing peloton. It was already looking good for the Etixx group, with over 90km remaining. This dynamic kept up till the 12th section of cobbles, with 60km to go, at which point Sagan and Cancellara threw their full force into the chase. The peloton strung out behind them, and riders were dropped all along the uneven road. They brought the gap to a more manageable 35 seconds to the Etixx group, but ahead of them the pace was strong as ever: this was the closest they would get to the head of affairs for the rest of the race.
The next section of pavé brought disaster for Sky. First, Gianni Moscon in the second group slipped out, hitting the deck hard. Following his wheel was Rowe, who also came down. Next, Puccio, who had dropped back from the breakaway to help his team, missed his line around a wet corner and was also brought down. Both times Stannard managed to dodge his teammates. It was with thanks to a huge effort by Rowe, who managed to claw his way back to the Etixx group after his fall, that Stannard wasn’t left alone.
The very next section brought further big-name casualties, this time in the chasing peloton. With 45km to go, Fabian Cancellara himself slipped out on a muddy patch of road, and came down hard onto his side. By nothing short of a miracle (or, possibly just great bike handling skills), Sagan, who had been in Cancellara’s wheel, skidded around the fallen Trek rider and managed to stay on his bike by riding on the wet grassy verge. He carried on as best he could, but the pace was cut from the chase. Nikki Terpstra, who’d also been holding on behind Cancellara, was less lucky, and was amongst a handful of other riders who hit the deck.
Fabian’s race looked over, as he quickly gave away nearly three minutes on the lead group, which was now made up of the survivors of the Etixx group and the last of the day’s break. Matty Hayman had held on strongly, and kept his place in the front group, now led by Boonen. It also became apparent that the post-crash Rowe was now dedicating the rest of his energy to Stannard’s cause, and we saw him take long turns at the front of the group for his leader. Rowe was also seen banging his fist on his gear-shifter, so it looked like he’d survived his crash a little better than had his bike.
Meanwhile, the gap back to the depleted Sagan group went back and forth, but was hanging at around 40 seconds as they sped into the last 20km. It therefore wasn’t necessarily all over for Sagan, but it was going to require an extraordinary effort for him to make the bridge. Entering sector 5 of pavé, Sky made the move that would finally end Sagan’s plans. Rowe led towards the section fast, and completely emptied himself for Stannard. Rowe’s race was over, and, exhausted, he dropped back from the leaders. Stannard continued the effort, and the group was once again whittled down. Sagan’s group fell back to around a minute again, and the final selection was made: Stannard, Boasson Hagen, Hayman, Boonen, Vanmarcke. It was going to be a thrilling finish.
One last difficult test remained before the gentler cobbled streets of Roubaix, and it was the famous Carrefour de L’Arbe. It was here that Vanmarcke made his big move, and he shot off the front of the group. Vanmarcke quickly took a 10 or so second gap, but equally quickly the chasers caught up with him. Hayman looked to be in trouble for a second, but managed to get back in contact with the strong leading group. The riders began eyeing each other, as a small group of chasers including Heinrich Haussler appeared only 20 seconds back, which kept the pressure on at the front.
Vanmarcke went again on the penultimate cobbled section, and then, with 6km to go, Stannard gave it his best shot. But at 5km, it was still the five of them. Finally coming close to the 2km mark, and well into the streets of Roubaix, Hayman surprised everyone by digging deep and going off the front — despite having been in the break for the best part of 190kms. Boonen managed to keep the pace, but the others lagged, and the Hayman-Boonen duo gained ground into the last kilometre. As they entered the famous velodrome, Vanmarcke had just about managed to tack back on, and Stannard and Boasson Hagen were able to chase them all down with half a lap remaining. But by now the riders were already going full gas, and no one would be able to dig deeper for a final sprint with any success.
Every man did his best, but positions didn’t shift as they hit the line. Though Boonen was hot on his heels, it was an ecstatic Matthew Hayman that took the line. As the commentators relished in reminding us, Hayman had come back from a broken arm just five weeks ago, and was on at some bookies at 800/1. Delighted, Hayman was probably amongst the most surprised of people in the velodrome, but he had done it, and he had deserved it. He’d been there to animate all the moves, and he’d been the one to spark off the final attack into the last 2km — truly this was a well-earned victory, and it will surely be the crowning achievement of his splendid career. Boonen came across in second, and may never get a chance to take the record for Roubaix wins — however, Boonen was the most gracious of runners-up, smiling broadly and shaking Hayman’s hand. You could tell that Boonen was just happy to be there, to be a part of the Paris-Roubaix finale. In third was Stannard, followed by Vanmarcke and Boasson Hagen. EBH, it seemed, just didn’t have the energy left to launch his usually strong sprint. But the most disappointed riders will be Sagan and Cancellara. Sagan fell outside the top ten, finishing 11th overall. And Cancellara, in his last ever Roubaix, came in 40th, over seven and a half minutes down on Hayman.
We should also highlight British Eurosport’s decision to show the race in its entirety. Captivating from start to finish, this will hopefully mean all major races have a chance of being shown in all their glory in the future. After all, you wouldn’t start The Brothers Karamazov halfway through and expect the same satisfaction and its end, would you?