Jumbo-Visma were the team that did everything right. The pre-race plan was to surprise the rest of the peloton by attacking still with over 100km to go on one of the first sectors of cobblestones, splitting the bunch before the expected chaos a few kilometres down the road in the Arenberg forest. They executed it perfectly.
As fans awaited in the forest - Flandrian flags blowing in the wind and the smell of frites wafting through the air – the team in yellow and black hurtled towards them in a promising group that was building a big gap over some of the other big pre-race favourites who had missed the move, including Fiippo Ganna of the Ineos Grenadiers and Mads Pedersen of Trek-Segafredo. The plan had gone faultlessly.
However, Paris-Roubaix is not nicknamed the Hell of the North for nothing. Every year, as the riders plough through the darkness of the trees in the forest, the Arenberg takes its victims. This year, it targeted Jumbo-Visma and turned a race that looked to be going well for the Belgian squad, completely upside down. It began as Dylan van Baarle found himself face to face with the cobbles in a fast and vicious crash and not long after, Christophe Laporte punctured and suffered a slow wheel change. The dynamic of the group in which Jumbo-Visma once had a numerical advantage shifted as Alpecin-Deceuninck were now the best represented team at the front of the race.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
But Roubaix was still not done with its hellish treatment of the team that everyone expected to dominate. With just under 20 kilometres of the race remaining, Van Aert was in prime position on the wheel of Mathieu van der Poel – it was the start of what could have been another historic duel between the two riders. But you could almost see the pain and heartbreak etched on Van Aert’s face when it happened: a rear wheel puncture. As they exited the cobblestones, Van der Poel had a gap and Van Aert was forced to stop for a wheel change. He could only watch the chance of a Monument victory slip slowly out of his grasp.
“It's very sad and disappointing that we didn't win or could not fight for the win. Let's put it that way. Today was the biggest challenge and the biggest goal of this part of the season,” team manager Richard Plugge said after the race.
“There was a big crash in the Arenberg Forest and Dylan was a victim of that crash. He should have been in this breakaway or behind this breakaway to put the pressure on, but luck was not with us today. Christophe was also really disappointed, he raced a strong race and was one of the strongest riders but if you have a flat tyre, everything stops.”
Van Aert, who eventually finished third after Van der Poel soloed to victory and Philipsen outsprinted him in the velodrome, shared the sadness of his sports director about the team’s luck in the Hell of the North this year. The Belgian rider stood on the podium with his mouth set in a stony line. In the post-race press conference, though he tried to remain optimistic and focus on the positives of his team’s Classics campaign, the look in his eyes and the slumped shoulders gave it away.
Although, in some ways, has been a Classics season of dominance for Jumbo-Visma, but Van Aert’s third places in Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix and fourth place in Flanders are so painfully, tantalisingly close to a Monument win – one that most would argue the team deserves after their performances this year.
“It was a classic Roubaix scenario, in two minutes everything shakes upside down,” Van Aert said after the race. “It was our plan to surprise everyone before Wallers. Me and Christophe [Laporte] were there in the small group and suddenly after the Arenberg he was not there anymore. I assumed he had a mechanical but it was unclear. Before I realised, it became a group with two guys from Alpecin in the front group. It was not a good situation but I tried to stay calm and my teammates tried to put pressure on from behind.”
As he spoke, Van Aert valiantly tried to shift focus to the 24 victories the team has had so far this year, praising his teammates for the work they have done and the aggressive way they have raced in the cobbled Classics.
Photo: James Startt
“I’m happy I am on the podium but it’s unfortunate as it could have been a different scenario.” he explained. “I’m proud of the level I showed. Luck wasn’t on my side, that’s true. We have to be proud of how we raced. Of course, we hoped for more in the last two races especially but I think every race was historic and it would be a shame to call this season a failure. How we raced made me proud, I was always in the final of the big races and always did everything I could.”
At Paris-Roubaix, there is often talk about how the difficulty and brutality is what makes the race such a spectacle, how such impressive feats of strength can highlight the pure beauty of cycling. There are always stories of bravery and success, of riders who battle valiantly to the velodrome or those who exhibit such stunning power to take victory. For Jumbo-Visma, however, it seemed that all Paris-Roubaix served today was cruelty.
As Plugge himself explained, the Hell of the North is a complex race: “It's not only the power, but it's the tactics. It's bike handling, it's the material everything should be in order. And that makes this race special.”
What he doesn’t mention, though, is the importance of luck. And it was that which Jumbo-Visma lacked today. They say fortune favours the brave, and Jumbo were valiant in their early attack on the cobbles, but it the hellish cobbles of Northern France choose who gets the luck themselves.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix