Paris-Roubaix’s tradition makes it one of the most loved races of the cycling season. First run in 1896, its brutal cobblestones have become an enduring symbol of the race, scattered with ghosts of cycling’s murky past. In today’s world, someone pitching to create a race with 55km of dangerous, slippery cobblestones would likely be shut down, perhaps even lambasted for a lack of consideration for rider safety. But Paris-Roubaix gets away with it, and always will. It’s the Hell of the North, The Queen of the Classics, the most iconic one-day race in the calendar.
As tradition goes, a breakaway is usually established in Paris-Roubaix during the 140km of tarmac roads before the peloton hit first cobbled sector. The escapees get a big gap on the peloton, who ride piano behind, tapping away on the pedals, taking the opening 100 kilometres to stop for snacks and nature breaks. The race then kicks off as riders approach the first sector of pavé, when the big favourites head to the front of the bunch, firing on all cylinders.
In this year's race, however, the script was ripped up. Torn to shreds, in fact, by one team in particular: Ineos Grenadiers. Clad in their red and navy outfits, every single one of the team’s riders shot to the front of the bunch in with over 200 kilometres of racing remaining. As crosswinds began to blow, the team rotated hard on the front, and the race exploded behind them. The three-man early breakaway were awarded less than 20 kilometres of TV time, before they were swallowed up by a reduced hectic and surprised peloton, led by the British team.
The events of today signified a step-change in the Hell of the North. It pointed to a rejection of the formulaic structure of the race that has been present throughout its decorated history. “They [Ineos Grenadiers] did it on a section where no one would have expected that to work and they had everyone there,” said Bradley Wiggins, a former rider for the team, after the race. “It's definitely a change, there has been a shift in the traditions, especially this race and what it's about. Normally in that first 100k, the break goes and everyone waits for the first sectors. That went out of the window today,” he continued.
While Ineos Grenadiers riders rotated hard at the front of the bunch, pre-race favourite Wout van Aert was among the cars at the other end of the peloton after stopping for a typical early-race nature break. “He stopped for a little pee, that was weird for me because I knew that it was open for a crosswind and it split,” explained Ineos Grenadiers’ sports director and former Paris-Roubaix winner, Servais Knaven, after the race.
While Van Aert was on the back foot, the attacking British team were disappearing up the road with their full contingent of seven riders and around half of the peloton.
It's a surprise that the Belgian champion wasn’t more attentive. A glance back at some of the most recent one-day races indicates a wider shift in the dynamic of men’s professional bike racing. Tadej Pogačar’s 50km solo attack in Strade Bianche was one clue, for a start, as was the Ineos Grenadiers taking to the front of the Tour of Flanders still with 100km remaining.
The British team have, in fact, been instigators of this new racing style. We can look to their reborn, Classics squad as key to why they were so prepared for a very different version of Paris-Roubaix this year.
“I think the introduction of the young guys in to the team, Magnus Sheffield, Tom Pidcock, Ben Turner, Luke Plapp, Ben Tulett and all these riders who have come into the team, they just want to race,” explained team manager Dave Brailsford when questioned on his squad’s new structure. “They've just got freewill in abandon. I think they’re nipping on the heels of the older lads, who are looking over their shoulders thinking: bloody hell.
“You've got this upward pressure, it's a great impact on the older lads. The enthusiasm of the youth permeated throughout everybody, and it just created a fantastic environment and the team, I don't think you can coach that.”
It’s true that the Grenadiers' new riders have a bright-eyed exuberance, this was clear even after they’d suffered round over 200km of Hell today. A key player in the team, Ben Turner (who eventually finished in 11th position in Paris-Roubaix), described the race as “fun” despite coming down in a hard crash in the closing stages. “You've got to love bike racing, it's the best thing in the world,” he grinned.
With riders like Turner and his teammates unafraid to race in an unorthodox style, with little regard for the typical format the day should follow, we saw a very different Paris-Roubaix this year. Cycling is evolving, and the Ineos Grenadiers are at the spearhead of this change.