Paris-Roubaix: Breaking Down the Chaos on Cobbles
A long-awaited battle of the cobblestones served up an instant classic with some of the most intense racing of the year
Paris-Roubaix made us wait for over two years, but, in the end, the historic race over the brutal pave of the austere of Northern France, served up potentially the best one-day race of the season. European champion Sonny Colbrelli announced his arrival as a force in the toughest one-day races by winning a reduced sprint over Florian Vermeersch and Mathieu van der Poel in the famed Roubaix Velodrome.
The race, which had a running time of over six hours and was marked by cold, rainy weather, and took riders over the most difficult terrain the sport has to offer and was a true test of mettle. The hard racing and slick conditions on the cobblestones reduced the peloton to an extremely select group by the time they hit the critical Forest of Arenberg with 100km remaining and set in motion what was essentially the longest finale in the history of modern cycling. Colbrelli slipped off the front unchallenged a few kilometers later and was chased down by a vicious attack by Van der Poel shortly after. While it appeared that Gianni Moscon, the last man standing from the early breakaway, would stay clear for the victory, a series of flats and crashes suffered by the leader meant the race would yet again come down to a highly reduced sprint in the Velodrome. Hoping to use the element of surprise, Vermeersch struck first, but was closed down a few meters before the line by a surging Colbrelli in a thrilling finale to win one of the most arduous races in the modern history of the sport.
1) Sonny Colbrelli +0
2) Florian Vermeersch +0
3) Mathieu van der Poel +0
4) Gianni Moscon +44
5) Yves Lampaert +1’16
6) Christope Laporte +1’16
7) Wout van Aert +1’16
8) Tom van Asbroeck +1’16
9) Guillaume Boivin +1’16
10) Heinrich Haussler +1’16
97km: The peloton is as small as I’ve ever seen it by the time they hit the Arenberg forest. This will make it easier to position and safer, but it will still be critical to stay positioned at the front, and means there will be no place to hide from here to the finish line.
93km: Van Aert, who has fallen to the back of the group in the critical section of cobblestones, is nearly taken down due to a crash at the back. This shows that even with such a small peloton, you can’t afford to be at the back.
91km: Van Aert is able to recover and make his way towards the back onto the chase group, but there is a serious gap to Van der Poel group, and to make matter worse, the group is splitting it up in front of him, meaning he has a long chase awaiting him once he exits the forest.
86km: Van Aert’s group finally is able to make contact with the Van der Poel group, but at the expense of nearly 10kms of all-out chasing just to correct a positioning mistake.
85km: Sensing weakness due to the just-completed chase, Colbrelli almost accidentally rides clear of the group on an innocuous section of road. He looks back, almost in disbelief, at the lack of response, and wastes no time opening the gap and bridging up to the next group on the road. In retrospect, this was the winning move.
69km: Van der Poel attacks and Van Aert misses it due to being buried much too far back in the group on a critical section of cobbles.
67.9km: Van der Poel drops the three riders with him, and bridges a 30-second gap to the Colbrelli group in a single kilometer on the ensuing paved section.
55km: Van der Poel is working a ton, but not really closing down the gap. Also, he is in a tough spot because so many riders are just going to sit in this group while he burns himself out.
53km: Moscon drops the remainder of the front group and is now solo at the front of the race with close to a minute lead. He will be incredibly hard to reel in at this point.
37.2km: After putting in a significant amount of work pulling the group without making a dent into Moscon’s lead, Van der Poel attempts to attack solo on a cobbled section with the gap at 1’27 to Moscon. He ultimately can’t get clear, which will only hurt the organization in the group and decrease their chances of catching Moscon.
29km: Moscon gets a flat and has a terrible bike change. The mechanic needs to have the bike to him almost as he is dismounting his old bike, but once he gets it there, Moscon doesn’t appear ready to receive or start riding, which results in an awkward moment and loss of precious seconds. He also doesn’t take his bottles, and the mechanic forgets to place the new bottle onto the bike, which now means he has no nutrition for the final 30km.
25km: Moscon crashes on a patch of muddy cobbles (and almost exactly where Deignan was fishtailing yesterday).
20km: Moscon is still in the lead but is constantly fishtailing again and has no grip. Did Ineos pick the wrong tire setup? Why is he having so much more trouble than the others?
16km: Van der Poel, on the front in the chase group, finally reels in Moscon on the critical sector of Carrefour de l'Arbre.
15.9km: If Van der Poel wants to win the race, he needs to get clear on this sector. But, instead of passing Moscon as soon as he catches him, which would allow him to use the Italian as a screener, he pauses and sits on Moscon’s wheel. This allows Colbrelli to blow by Moscon instead and force Van der Poel into a defensive position in the exact place he should be on the offensive.
14km: Colbrelli, all-in for the sprint finish, is glued to Van der Poel’s wheel, who won’t have the chance for an attack with no significant cobble sectors remaining. It also appears as though he has taken the time to clean his shoes since the Carrefour sector in an effort to win the race with sparkling white shoes, which shows a world-class level of hubris.
6km: Despite a healthy lead over the chasers, Van der Poel is parked on the front and appearing to put out significant power, while Colbrelli, the faster sprinter, gets a free tow to the line.
3km: Vermeesch attacks, which is smart, since the worst he can do at this point is 3rd and he could potentially catch Colbrelli and Van der Poel looking at each other. However, Colbrelli quickly closes it down, which shows us he is feeling really confident about the sprint.
600m: Van der Poel leads the group into the velodrome, which puts him in the least favorable position with a single full lap of the velodrome to go.
250m: Vermeersch, knowing the early sprinter can win at Roubaix, catches out the others when he launches before they enter the final turn.
Finish: Colbrelli is able to step out in front of Van der Poel to avoid being boxed in, which gives him a clean run to the line. His superior power and speed allow him to pull past Vermeersch, who is able to hold on to second due to his early sprint. None of the three can even stand to sprint due to their extreme fatigue.
1) Colbrelli gets the biggest win of his career and cements his arrival as a bonafide classics contender. Shockingly, he wins the race in his first-ever edition and becomes the first rider in modern memory to win the race in their inaugural start
The betting markets had him pegged at +3300 odds heading into the race, which in retrospect was a glaring underestimation of a rider on the form of his life and heading into a test of individual strength. By the time he made his move off the front of the Van Aert/Van der Poel group, these odds had tightened to +375, which in retrospect, was still a steal for such a strong rider capable of winning a sprint against every rider ahead of him on the road.
He might have technically won in a sprint, but his winning move came with 85km-to-go when he quite literally rolled off the front unmarked. This shows that the favorites also didn’t take him seriously as a potential winner, and once again reinforces that while all the attention goes to the cobblestones, the winning moves often go on the paved sections when the favorites let their guard down.
This move was key since if Colbrelli hadn’t seized the opportunity to get away when they let him go, he likely wouldn’t have been able to respond to Van der Poel’s vicious attack to bridge up to him with 68km-to-go. Unlike the rest of the calendar, where conserving energy and drafting is key, getting in front of the race, as Moscon, Colbrelli and Vermeersch did, in the classics can pay massive dividends.
Most perplexing is that this is his second major victory in a month where he has been pulled willingly to the line by slower riders. Clearly, there is a disconnect between his on-the-bike abilities and the peloton’s perception of him.
2) Colbrelli’s Bahrain team, far from a classics juggernaut, did a great job utilizing their strength while also sitting back and waiting for the teams of the favorites to give them a chance to strike.
They used Matej Mohorič’s powerful engine to keep Colbrelli upfront and out of trouble in the extremely difficult early portions of the race.
They also got two riders into the early breakaway, Marco Haller and Fred Wright, who were able to drop back and offer help to Colbrelli later in the race.
And in the cobbled sector immediately following Colbrelli’s bridge to the second group, his teammate Marco Haller in the group behind got to the front and split up the group. It might have appeared as though he was chasing his own teammate down to viewers, but in reality, he was using the cobblestones as a way to break, thin down, and sow chaos in the group to increase his leader’s chances of staying away.
3) Mathieu Van der Poel rode a physically impressive, but tactically flawed race. While bagging a podium at such a difficult race just months after suffering a back injury is certainly an achievement, his lack of tactical nous once again cost him a chance at a major win.
He spent what seemed like every kilometer from Arenberg to the finish line on the front in some capacity, and with a good chunk of it with an open and flapping rain jacket, which added a significant amount of aero drag.
When he should have been attempting to drop Colbrelli on the final cobble sections, he was almost riding as if to hold the race together, and when he should have been holding the group together and encouraging the others to work to pull back Moscon, he was attacking.
Even when it was obvious the race would come down to a sprint against Colbrelli and the chasers weren’t coming back, he kept the power on at the front, which contributed nothing and only softened him up to him for the sprint finish.
In retrospect, he likely used his race-winning move to bridge up to the Colbrelli group with 68km-to-go. Had he marked Colbrelli, instead of letting him ride free, he potentially could have delivered a knockout blow to the Italian with that move.
Also, if he was indeed using precious mental and physical resources to clean his with 15km-to-go, it shows a massive lack of focus and that he was essentially counting his win before the job was done.
4) Florian Vermeersch, at only 22-years-old and in his first full professional season, gets a shocking second place and came within inches of winning the race.
I liked it at the moment, but, if Vermeersch plays the finale a bit more conservatively and launches his sprint on the final corner, one wonders if his initial pop would have given him just enough space to hold off Colbrelli, who is one of the best in the world at long sprints.
Colbrelli didn’t know who Florian Vermeersch was and referred to him as ‘that rider from Lotto-Soudal’ in his post-race interview.
But Vermeersch used his lack of notability to his advantage. In the mold of Matt Hayman in 2016, he got into the early breakaway, which allowed him to bypass the fight for each cobbled sector and, somewhat counterintuitively, gave him a much easier ride than the chasing peloton.
He becomes the first rider aged 22 or younger to land on the podium since Tom Boonen in 2002.
5) Gianni Moscon, a major betting odds underdog heading into the race, gets a career-best 4th place and his first top-ten hers since 2017. However, he, nor his Ineos team, will be happy or satisfied with that solid result after a disastrous final 30kms that saw him suffer a flat tire, slow bike change, and crash that likely cost him the win of his career.
Like Vermeersch, he got into the early breakaway and, if not for his flat and crash, would have ridden to victory from it.
The painfully slow bike change was shocking coming from a team like Ineos, who despite having the sport boiled down to an exact science, appears to have completely failed in drilling their staff for quick bike changes.
Also, Moscon appeared to be at a massive disadvantage compared to the chasers after the bike change. His machine was slipping and sliding all over the road, while the chasers appeared much steadier, which makes me wonder if his tire pressure was much too high on his replacement bike.
6) In a race that has traditionally favored experience over all else, the top three all finish on the podium in their first-ever start at the race, a first in the modern history of the race, while Canadian Guillaume Boivin finishes 9th in only his second-ever appearance at the race.
Even Van der Poel and Van Aert have little to no experience here. Further shows how the specialization of the sport is crumbling.
Cross skills are certainly playing a role with Van der Poel, but I’m shocked at how well more traditional road racers like Colbrelli, Boivin, and Laporte fared.
7) Wout van Aert, despite being the overwhelming favorite heading into the event, struggled to make an impact. After a fantastic 2020 season that saw him win Milano-Sanremo and get second at Flanders, he has regressed slightly and struggled to match that form in the Monuments.
His positioning, or lack thereof, seemed to be his major limiter today. He was caught out by crashes while hanging out at the back multiple times.
This caused him to miss Van der Poel’s move in the Arenberg Forest with around 97km-to-go, and he seemed to be losing ground during every major cobbled section.
And when Van der Poel launched his key attack with 70km-to-go on a technical cobbled sector, Van Aert was buried back in the group and couldn’t respond. This is a shockingly elementary mistake for a rider of his caliber to be making and it frankly looked like he hadn’t prepared for the event.
Roubaix rookies like Van der Poel, Colbrelli and Vermeersch rode much more tactically sound races.
8) For the first time since 2011, no Quick-Step riders finished on the podium.
The usual bullies of the cobbles missed the first two groups entirely and were forced to race on the back foot all day.
While they suffered back luck at key points, a few of their leaders were ridden off wheels and spat out the back on multiple occasions (i.e. Štybar with 90km, Lampaert with 68km-to-go).
This signals a massive changing-of-the-guard in even the most traditional corners of the sport.
9) In fact, only a single rider, Yves Lampaert, finished in the top ten at both this year’s edition and the last time the race ran in 2009. This shows the shocking tectonic shifts that have occurred in the sport since then.
In another example of the rapid progression of the sport, the last three winners, Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, and Greg Van Avermaet finished 28th, 52nd, and 30th, with Gilbert the closest to Colbrelli at over seven minutes back.
10) The extremely rough cobblestones and impossibly slick conditions highlighted massive differences in the bikes and equipment ridden by key riders.
Teams like Alpecin-Fenix rode their standard aero road bikes, which would have been inconceivable ten years ago.
Moscon’s bike seemed to lack any traction whatsoever on the cobbled sectors. This isn’t a glaring endorsement for Ineos’ bike sponsor, Pinarello, and the mechanical staff in charge of the tire pressure. This disappointment continues a long line of disappointing classics results for the team.
The contrast in average speed and the number of finishers to the last rainy edition of the race (2002) showed just how much better the modern bikes and tires are at navigating these cobblestones. For example, in the last rainy edition, the winner, Johan Museeuw averaged 39kms per hour, while Colbrelli averaged 43kms per hour, and only 41 riders were able to finish the race in 2002, compared to 94 riders today.