It’s always the same question with Paris-Roubaix: where to begin?
Perhaps we should start with the splits that formed in the race with less than 50km gone, when crosswinds started to blow through the fluttering fresh green foliage and Ineos Grenadiers sent seven riders to the front, including human wrecking ball Filippo Ganna.
With the fact that Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Stefan Küng were all caught napping (or peeing). With the extraordinary sight of Christophe Laporte, captured by a spectactor’s phone, skidding to a half on a semi-collapsed rear wheel, one foot out like a boy riding a scooter.
Or perhaps we should begin with obsessive planner Matej Mohorič, who attacked ahead of the Arenberg Forest like he knew something everyone else didn’t. Or even with the utter madness of that infernal cart track itself, which for one day a year turns into a mixture of picnic spot and absurd sporting amphitheatre.
Or with Mons-en-Pevèle, that oft overlooked but crucial five-star sector of cobbles with 50km to go, where Dylan van Baarle squeezed the throttle, drifted through the dust away from the second group on the road, and began his journey to Paris-Roubaix glory.
Or with the punctures for Van Aert, for whom Covid-19 looked like a mere memory of a sniffle as he remembered the extraordinary feats of riding his body is capable of, or the stray arm that brought Yves Lampaert to a tank-slapping halt on the penultimate cobbles at Hem.
Or the fact that clear blue skies and steady tailwinds made this the fastest Roubaix ever: 257.2km in 45.79kmph. Or Lewis Askey's mangled knee, dripping blood through bandages, down his muddied calf and onto the infield grass. "Is it alright?" an onlooker asked him. "No... I don't think it is," he stoically replied as the adrenalin gave way to the agony.
There’s simply no other race like Paris-Roubaix. All the rules of modern cycling are temporarily withdrawn, the race’s narrative turning quicker than a rogue stone pierces a thin rubber sidewall.
“Classic Roubaix,” said Luke Durbridge as he made his way to the the old fashioned concrete showers that have become a rite of passage for any rider who makes it to the velodrome. “Breakaway never went, group splits, crashes, punctures, people everywhere, I had no idea where we were half the time with the dust.”
Bahrain Victorious rider Fred Wright said he had to keep going back to the Astana team car simply to ask what was going on. Stefan Küng, who finished third, admitted that he also had no idea where he was for large parts of the race.
“After the first few cobbles section we kept keeping up with guys, and at a certain moments I was thinking, are we at the front of the race now? Are there still some guys up the road?”
Even the winner, Van Baarle, could scarcely believe that when he rode alone into the Roubaix velodrome to the cheers of the packed crowds and the drone of the chopper blades, he hadn’t been conned by the Queen of the Classics.
“I just checked to make sure I was alone, that they didn’t flick me, that there weren’t guys up the road,” he said.
Wout van Aert hit the nail on the head when he said that in all this confusion lies the beauty of Paris-Roubaix. “Everybody has his own story during the race,” the runner-up said. “When I get back to the bus I will hear the stories of my teammates and some stories come together and I start to understand what happened. It’s the beauty of the race.”
Out of this chaos emerged Dylan van Baarle, a straight-talking Dutchman and a figure of composure in the dusty madness. The key to success in Roubaix is to fire off enough early bullets to see you through to the final hour near the front of the race, but to concurrently save enough to use when for you eventually get there.
Six months ago during the wet autumn Roubaix, Van Baarle got it all wrong and finished over the time limit. This time around everything went right. His final, decisive attack on the four-star cobbles of Camphin-en-Pevèle with 19km remaining was enough to drop Mohorič and Lampaert and could only have come from such a chaotic race.
“Cycling has changed a lot over the last couple of years, guys start to attack earlier and earlier to make the race hard,” Van Baarle explained. “That’s what I tried to do, it’s only in my favour, to race super hard, to get everyone on their knees before the big moments, to [reduce] their big power. I know I’m not the best in big power but I can do that after 250km, that’s my strong point.”
Cycling may have changed a lot but this was a throwback, an anachronism, a recalling of a time when road racing was less about ‘watts’ and more about ‘what happened?’ Because for all that this Paris-Roubaix was so characteristic of modern cycling, it proved that as long as this race remains, the sport will always stay true to its roots.
And as the dust settled on the weather-worn stones and the sun set on the tribune overlooking the venerable concrete track, sport’s oldest adage still rang true: the best man won.