Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Once again the Queen of the Classics fully lived up to its reputation for hellish moments and totally captivating racing
Any bike race can highlight the extreme highs and lows that have always been a fundamental part cycle sport, but Paris-Roubaix stands above them all in its ability to do this. You can pick your own moment to illustrate this as, once again, there were plenty of them. Among the most obvious was seeing men’s winner Mathieu van der Poel and his teammate and runner-up Jasper Philipsen apologizing to John Degenkolb as he lay sobbing in a foetal position on the velodrome’s in-field grass, the German’s disappointment at crashing out following contact with the Alpecin-Deceuninck duo so overwhelming that he later admitted he hadn’t even been aware of them speaking to him.
It was, as Roubaix always tends to be, a weekend of heroics and contention, euphoria and dismay. The women’s race encapsulated the more upbeat side of these descriptions. It was dramatic, unpredictable, heart-stopping and, ultimately, glorious, and by some distance the better of the two events that have comprised the Roubaix Weekend since 2021. In allowing an 18-rider breakaway group to go clear, the favourites always looked like they might have made a tactical misjudgement. Gradually, though, it was becoming apparent that they hadn’t. That was until defending champion Elisa Longo Borghini’s bike went slip sliding away on the cobbles, her fall producing a domino effect among the big hitters on the Italian’s wheel.
For fans, moments like these are the essence of Roubaix, an essential part of its beauty. The only thing that’s fixed in stone when the riders are on the cobbles is the surface beneath them. There’s always the chance of something sensational occurring. Every sector of pavé is like the start of a F1 Grand Prix, endured 17 times by the women and 29 by the men, a moment when you’re hoping that everyone emerges safely from the melee, while knowing there’ll be a mis-step somewhere.
Even then, the favourites could have made it back to the front. That they didn’t was partly down to their lack of support riders and, crucially, the sheer determination of Alison Jackson to keep the break ahead of the closing pack, her cajoling and drive pushing the escapees ever closer to the velodrome and the chance of a success completely against the odds. I didn’t know much about the Canadian before Saturday’s race, but it’s been a long time since I felt so happy about a rider taking victory, the dancing, hugging and sheer exuberance of her celebrations adding to the delight I felt. If someone could point me the way to somewhere I could get hold of Action Jackson-style EF bucket hat, I’ll wear it with pride.
Sunday’s race was engrossing, but took a long time to ignite. It sparked early when Jumbo-Visma forced a break off the front the bunch that featured several of the favourites. Inevitably, it sparked again in the Arenberg Forest, where there was the usual clutch of horror crashes, Jumbo’s hopes were hit by Christophe Laporte’s puncture that removed a vital support for Wout van Aert, and where Mads Pedersen and Filippo Ganna surged back into contention.
For the next hour or so, apart from occasional surges and acrobatics from Mathieu van der Poel, who treated every bend on the cobbles as an opportunity to blow the group apart, the action simmered rather than fizzed. The riders later admitted that they were all waiting for the key sections of pavé at Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre in the final 30 kilometres. Ultimately, that second sector triggered the explosive action that we’d all been anticipating.
It kicked off with Degenkolb, second in line behind Philipsen, switching to the right to find a smoother line at the edge of the cobbles, a manoeuvre that encouraged van der Poel, who was behind the German, to fill the gap. Then the expected collided with the unexpected. It was no surprise when the Dutchman began to accelerate, starting to pass his teammate on the right, but a total shock when Philipsen veered right, perhaps as the result of seeing a fan in the road with a selfie stick, his sudden movement sending van der Poel careering into the unwitting Degenkolb, who went hurtling along the verge, his bike and hopes shattered.
Looking back at the incident, the same thought goes through my head as it did at the time: how does Mathieu van der Poel stay upright? As was the case on a number of other occasions, you were left marvelling at his handling ability, and even more so at this point at how he remained lucid enough to respond to Wout van Aert’s attack, which was undermined of course by the most ill-timed of punctures.
Van der Poel surged on. “That’s it! Race over!” I said to my wife as he went 20 metres clear. Only two riders looked strong enough to chase him down. Van Aert had just punctured and Philipsen is van der Poel’s teammate. This meant, of course, we were denied the climax of the latest instalment in the van der Poel-van Aert rivalry. I’d go further than saying that it’s the best in professional cycling. It’s the best anywhere in sport at the moment, but, as I suggested in a post-race Tweet, the sad fact is that cycling is so niche that most sports fans aren’t aware or immersed in it. How you change that is the question that everyone in cycling would dearly love to have an answer to.
In the meantime, though, those of us in the know about bike racing can continue to savour this fascinating duel. In Sunday morning’s L’Équipe, former Roubaix winners Andrei Tchmil, Peter Van Petegem and Marc Madiot offered their insight into the pair, Tchmil saying quite acidly of van Aert that, “For the moment, he’s filling the role of Raymond Poulidor, van der Poel’s grandfather, with all of his places of honour and just his victory at Milan-Sanremo (2020).” Madiot made a more incisive point, though, saying of the Jumbo-Visma rider: “He’s always better when he’s got more freedom, like on the Tour de France where he carries out these raids that he wouldn’t do in the Flemish Classics.”
All three of them agreed that van der Poel has added another dimension to his racing craft, that he’s cannier in picking his targets and also in his tactics when racing them. What’s more, they added, his edge in explosive power over the more diesel-like van Aert gives him a weapon that is often proving decisive.
In this two-wheeled Prost v Senna or Nadal v Federer, there’s no knowing which way the balance will swing next. Like every other fan, I can’t wait to find out, apparently in July at the Tour de France, by which time I hope to have tracked down an Alison Jackson bucket hat.