Alpecin-Deceuninck are on fire in Hell: How Paris-Roubaix was won

Alpecin-Deceuninck put on a dominant display at the 2024 edition of Paris-Roubaix 

There’s no getting around the lack of suspense when a rider is as dominant as Mathieu van der Poel has been this week. From the very moment he got a gap with a typically explosive acceleration on sector 13 of Paris-Roubaix, everyone from the spectators watching and the riders competing knew that he would arrive at the Roubaix velodrome as the victor, just as victory was inevitable when he soloed away on the Koppenberg last week at the Tour of Flanders.

But what these races have lacked in nail-biting tension, they’ve made up for in a sense of wonder. Both have allowed cycling fans to witness a very special athlete at the very peak of his powers, reaching a level that perhaps even he didn’t believe was possible, and achieving things that will ink his name permanently in the history books. Future generations of cycling fans will look back at his exploits with the same fascination we reserve for the likes of old heroes such as Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and, of course, Eddy Merckx.

Van der Poel’s victory today is an opportunity to take stock of his place in cycling history. While he becomes the 16th rider in history to win at least six Monuments, he is in an even more elite crowd in terms of just the cobbled Monuments. This was his second Paris-Roubaix title, following his third Tour of Flanders title last week, drawing him level with Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Van Looy on five cobbled Monument victories, one behind Johan Museeuw and Fabian Cancellara, and two behind Tom Boonen. When it comes to pavé, we can already say that Van der Poel is one of the greatest to ever do it.

This particular purple patch Van der Poel is currently enjoying is without recent precedent. Nobody else this millennium, be it Tadej Pogačar, Boonen or Cancellara, has managed to win four Monuments in the space of two consecutive seasons as the Dutchman has just done, let alone also win a Worlds road race title alongside that. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the one and only Eddy Merckx, half a century ago, for the last time anyone did. And there are still two more Monument to come before the season’s finished, with one of them, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, very much on his radar.

Of course, part of the reason neither Boonen nor Cancellara achieved this was because they would often deprive the other of victory during their years as fierce rivals, something Van der Poel had the luxury of avoiding this spring given the absence of his great adversary, Wout van Aert, through injury. But you can only beat the opposition in front of you, and the sheer size of his winning margins was enough to convince that even Van Aert could have done nothing to stop him. Add the 45km of his Tour of Flanders-winning attack to the 60km of his Paris-Robaix-winning attack, and he spent a total of over 100km riding alone at the front of the race. Although Boonen and Cancellara both achieved the same double twice in their careers, only Cancellara in 2010 won both of them with solo attacks as Van der Poel did this week.

The favourable comparisons to Boonen and Cancellara don’t end there. Almost as if to make a point of his own greatness relative to Boonen, Van der Poel made his race-winning Paris-Roubaix attack on the cobbled sector preceding that where Boonen attacked to win the 2012 edition, which had been the longest-range solo attack since 1994. And then there was the enormity of his winning margin: neither Boonen nor Cancellara ever won a Monument by three minutes as Van der Poel did today, the biggest at Paris-Roubaix since Museeuw in 2002. As the most recent geniuses of the cobbled Classics, Boonen and Cancellara are the obvious riders to compare Van der Poel against, and in some ways, he’s kind of like a perfect hybrid of the two: he has the diesel engine power to attack long and win solo that was Cancellara’s trademark, and, when needed, the explosive finishing kick comparable to Boonen. Add to that his sublime bike-handling skills, and the Dutchman has a decent claim to be even better than both.

Before we get too carried away in hyperbole for Van der Poel, it needs to be acknowledged just how exceptional his Alpecin-Deceuninck team as a whole were at Paris-Roubaix. Whereas all the talk during Opening Weekend was how super-powered Visma-Lease a Bike was, and at Gent-Wevelgem how Lidl-Trek was emerging as the strongest line-up, Alpecin-Deceuninck peaked when it mattered for cycling’s Holy Week. With Jasper Philipsen again winning the sprint for second place, they repeated their one-two from last year, and Gianni Vermeersch’s surprise sixth-place finish makes this an even more dominant display.

Alpecin-Deceuninck controlled the race pretty much from start to finish, leading in the early pre-cobbles phase of the race to prevent the break from gaining much of an advantage, then leading onto all first sectors of pavé. They also ensured that this was a far more aggressive, selective Paris-Roubaix than usual, causing an unusual number of splits early on. Was the intention for a hard race, as that would suit Van der Poel best? Or perhaps they were worried about the much-talked-over chicane leading into the Arenberg Forest, of which Van der Poel was one of the most vocal critics? After all, the most likely way of the Dutchman being denied victory would have been through a crash, and by ensuring that fewer riders were in the peloton upon its entry to engage in the fight for position, they minimised the risk of crashes — which, ultimately, there weren’t any of, either on the chicane of the Arenberg cobbles.

When asked at the finish, though, Vermeersch explained that it wasn’t actually the team’s plan to split the race up so early, only to “take control over the whole race”, and that the wind shaped what happened. “I think the third sector [Quiévy à Saint-Python] had a slight crosswind, and we came on the road [after cobbles] and I saw there were only 30 guys in the group. So I said to Oscar [Riesebeek] in front: 'just keep going,' and we started to pull, and it was perfect. From then on, we just had control of the whole race.”

Vermeersch in particular was exceptional today. He marked practically every move Van der Poel’s rivals made prior to the Dutchman’s race-winning move and was a race-killing nuisance after he went clear, time and time again covering attempted attacks and thereby preventing any chance of cohesive chase. Mads Pedersen in particular must be sick at the sight of him, given he had also marked him during the Tour of Flanders. But even before Vermeersch’s heroics Alpecin’s other teammates did a number on everyone else, Riesebeek almost single-handedly kept the early break on a leash, and later unheralded domestiques Edward Planckaert and Timo Kielich riding to the occasion to control the race and give the team a numerical advantage once the early selection on the cobblestones were made.

Then there was Philipsen, who matched his breakthrough ride of last year to finish second place, never being dropped by anyone on the cobblestones. His victory at Milan-Sanremo earlier this spring also means Alpecin-Deceuninck achieved something no team, not even Soudal–Quick–Step at the peak of their powers, have ever done before. complete a hat-trick of Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same season. For all the records broken by Van der Poel, history is not only being made by him but by his whole Alpecin-Deceuninck team.

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