The 29-year-old Dutchman, Dylan van Baarle, launched a solo attack to surprise the favourites and win cycling’s most famous one-day race.
Thousands of fans from across Europe flocked to northern France this weekend to line the 257km route of the ‘l’Enfer du Nord’ or The Hell of the North.
The 119th edition of the event lived up to its reputation in a particularly chaotic showdown that saw many of the race’s protagonists pick up punctures at crucial moments.
Paris-Roubaix, also known as the ‘Queen of the Classics’ is one of cycling’s five ‘monuments’ alongside Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia.
Many fans regard it as the toughest of them all, due to the 30 cobbled sections that make up almost a fifth of the overall distance, which is the same as cycling from London to Sheffield.
Legendary Irish cyclist and two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, Sean Kelly, said: “Paris-Roubaix is a horrible race to ride but the most beautiful one to win.”
The event holds a mythical status for many, but it isn’t universally popular among riders.
The cruel nature in which victory can be snatched from leaders due to factors out of their control, such as a fall on slippery cobbles or an unfortunate mechanical failure, has led to Oympic gold-medallist Chris Boardman calling it “a circus.”
While, after winning it in 1981, five-time Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault, said: “Paris-Roubaix est une connerie!” (Paris Roubaix is bulls**t!).
The race is one of the most storied in the sport and pre-dates the Tour de France.
It has been running continuously since 1896, pausing only for two World Wars and more recently, a global pandemic.
Despite the name, this year’s route began 60 kilometres north of Paris in the small town of Compiègne, before snaking through France’s traditional coal-mining region to Roubaix, where the race finishes with one and a half laps of the open-air Velodrome André Petrieux.
The Hell of the North made a welcome return to its traditional Easter slot for the first time since 2019, after last year’s event was postponed until the autumn.
In stark contrast to the treacherously wet conditions faced last October, this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix was bone dry, forcing riders to contend with clouds of choking dust that hampered breathing and visibility.
In the build-up, the race was touted as a straight shootout between Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), fresh off the back of winning the Tour of Flanders, and Belgian all-rounder Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
Instead, it was British team Ineos Grenadiers that took the early initiative, using their strength in depth to set a blistering pace in crosswinds, causing the peloton to split in half before the 50km mark.
Many of the pre-race favourites, including van der Poel and Van Aert, were caught out by the move and had to expend some of their domestiques to chase down the lead group.
With over 100km left, Slovenian Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) showed his strength by igniting an attack ahead of the first iconic five-star cobbled section, the Arenberg Trench (one of only three sectors given the highest difficulty rating).
At one point, the breakaway group managed to build a two-minute lead on the main field before an elite selection of riders forged together to reel them in.
As the race passed 40km to go, a nine-man group including van Aert, van der Poel, Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Yves Lampaert (Quickstep-Alpha Vinyl) and Dylan van Baarle battled it out just behind the leading duo of Mohorič and the defiant Tom Devriendt (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux).
Over the last seven cobbled sectors, countless attacks were launched in the leading group and just as many cruel punctures were suffered.
With van Aert and van der Poel too worried about countering each other they missed the chance to clamp down on the decisive move of the race.
Van Baarle surged from the group with 19km to go, just before the final five-star section, Carrefour de l’Arbre with Lampaert and Mohorič giving chase.
However, the dutchman was at one with the cobbles and managed to extend his slender lead in the final kilometres to cross the line nearly two minutes ahead of anyone else.
“It’s unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it when I came into the velodrome. I was completely alone”, van Baarle said.
His team manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, stood with open arms at the finish to embrace the race-winner as he broke the record for the fastest-ever Paris-Roubaix, notching an average speed of 45.8kph along the route.
The win was even more special for the Ineos Grenadiers team, who have been in fine fettle this spring, as van Baarle handed them their first win at Roubaix.
The Dutchman’s victory comes after teammates Michał Kwiatkowski and Magnus Sheffield won Amstel Gold Race and Brabantse Pijl respectively, in the week prior to the monument.
The hugely successful team (formerly Team Sky) have won 11 grand tours since they were formed just over a decade ago but had never emerged victorious on the prestigious cobbles.
Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins, heaped praise on Ineos and Brailsford stating that: “they played it perfectly.”
Lampaert and Mohorič looked nailed on to round out the podium until a spectator caught Lampaert’s handlebars, throwing the Belgian from his bike with 7km left.
Mohorič was soon caught and a bunch sprint eventually saw van Aert claim second and Küng third, with van der Poel rolling across the line 45 seconds later for a ninth-place finish.
Van Aert’s result was particularly impressive, maintaining his composure despite having a challenging day that saw him forced to change bikes three times following mechanical issues.
Questions were raised over the Jumbo-Visma rider’s fitness in the build up to the race, with doubts over whether he would even start after testing positive for COVID only a fortnight ago.
However, he put to bed any doubt with a gutsy performance, declaring at the finish line: “every classic is hard, but Roubaix is utter chaos and a suffer-fest until the finish line.”