On a day that Tom Boonen was bidding to bow out of the sport with a record fifth Paris-Roubaix title, it was his compatriot Van Avermaet who stole the show by becoming the 40th Belgian to win the Queen of the Classics.
Van Avermaet, the 31-year-old Olympic champion from BMC, fought back from a crash and some serious mechanical issues mid-way through the race – and before the critical Arenberg cobblestone section – to end his barren run in cycling’s monuments: a maiden win in 37 appearances at the top table of the sport’s one-day races.
On a sunny and unseasonably warm day in northern France, Van Avermaet proved the strongest in a tight sprint between Boonen’s Quick-Step Floors teammate Stybar and Langeveld of Cannondale-Drapac – but not before chasing duo Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) sensationally returned to the fold ahead of the final bend.
But it was Van Avermaet who built on his sensational spring form to secure the first cobblestone trophy of his career – much to the dismay of Stybar, who slammed his handlebars after missing out on winning a first monument for the Czech Republic.
By completing the 257-kilometre race in a rapid time of 5 hours 41 minutes and seven seconds, Van Avermaet set a record average speed of 45.204 km/h. If clement conditions – which included a favourable tailwind – were largely responsible, then it could not be said that this was an easy race; Paris-Roubaix never is.
Dutch outsider Langeveld completed the podium while Belgium’s Stuyven and Italian youngster Moscon completed the top five. In his 42nd and final monument, Boonen came home just outside the top ten. Meanwhile, world champion Peter Sagan, well-placed after an early attack, suffered a puncture at a crucial moment and was unable to reel in the leaders after his lengthy stoppage.
How the race was won
A super-fast opening two hours meant that a break only stuck with 10km to go until the first of 29 cobbled sectors at Troisvilles. After an opportune solo attack Frenchman Yannick Martinez (Delko Marseilles Provence KTM) was joined by compatriot Mickael Delage (FDJ) and Belgian Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal) with around 165km remaining.
The gap was just 45 seconds for the three leaders as the race took on the first of the cobbled challenges – and it was not long for the carnage to take its toll on the pursuing peloton.
A series of crashes split the pack into numerous groups and ended the chances of 2014 champion Niki Tepstra (Quick-Step Floors) while hampering the progress of the exciting Belgian Oliver Naesen (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
After Martinez and Delage fell back, Wallays was joined by Naesen’s teammate Stijn Vandenbergh on the front of the race, with the latter’s former teammate Tony Martin – now in the red of Katusha-Alpecin – doing much of the early pace-setting in the pack.
If the favourable conditions meant there were not – once things settled – as many crashes in the pack, then the same could not be said of punctures and mechanical issues.
Defending champion Mathew Hayman (Orica-Scott), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Team Sky’s Ian Stannard all picked up early flats on the cobbles, while Van Avermaet himself needed to tighten a loose stem while on the go – only to narrowly avoid a mini pile-up when the road bottlenecked between cobbled sectors.
The omens continued to look ominous for Van Avermaet when the Belgian was involved in a crash with just over 100km remaining on the Haveluy-Wallers cobbled sector. Although he was not injured in the incident, Van Avermaet needed to change his bike at a critical moment in the race ahead of the infamous Arenberg Trench.
Despite its legendary billing, the Arenberg proved a rather sedate affair – perhaps because the main pack had already been whittled down considerably by the time the race hit the five-star sector.
Italian Matteo Trentin set the pace through the forest for Quick-Step Floors as the streamlined pack exited the first major rendez-vous of the race just 20 seconds down on the two leaders, Vandenbergh and Wallays. Van Avermaet, meanwhile, chased back on a further 25 seconds in arrears.
Sagan and Boonen in the mix
French veteran Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) replaced Vandenbergh as Wallays’ companion on the Wallers-Helesmes sector before the impressive Sagan put in a huge dig on the four-star Hornaing-Wandignies sector with 78km remaining.
The world champion edged clear with fellow Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Maciej Bodnar – only to be joined shortly after by Trek-Segafredo’s Stuyven and van Avermaet’s BMC teammate Daniel Oss. If this felt like a decisive move then it was over almost as quickly as it began: after apparently suffering a mechanical, Sagan took his foot off the gas and dropped back with Bodnar. The duo was swept up by the chasing pack, which was being driven by Boonen – his dreams of a record breaking fifth win still very much alive.
Sensing history in the making, Boonen then attacked in sector 15 in move which sparked Sagan into life and split the chasing pack to smithereens. It looked like we were in for a masterclass by these two sparring cyclists.
After another regrouping, Boonen once again tried to force a selection in the Orchies section with 60km remaining, with the two leaders holding a gap of 40 seconds.
Pendulum swings towards Van Avermaet
Boonen and Sagan may have tirelessly tried to set the agenda, but it was left to Moscon to shuffle the pack when Sky’s Italian youngster rode clear with Belgians Dmitri Claeys (Cofidis) and Roelandts. After Sagan broke clear in pursuit it was left to Boonen’s teammate Stybar to lead the chase on the five-star Mons-en-Pevele section. Boonen soon joined them – not before the three chasers had joined the two leaders on the front of the race.
But the dynamic changed over this critical period of the race with the shaggy-haired Oss suddenly riding alone ahead of a chasing group that included the likes of Sagan, Boonen, Van Avermaet and the 2015 winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), as well as Stuyven, Stybar, Moscon, Claeys, Roelandts, Chavanel and Bert de Backer of Team Sunweb.
Langeveld, Stybar and Roelandts led the chase before disaster struck for Sagan: chasing down the trio, the Slovakian picked up a puncture and saw his chances disappear. Sagan did manage to fight back onto a reformed main pack, which also included Boonen, but he faded fast on the decisive Carrefour de l’Arbre section inside the final 20km – by which time Oss had been caught and dropped by the leaders.
It was on these hallowed cobbles where Van Avermaet rode clear with Stybar and Langeveld. The trio held a 45-second gap over the Boonen pack entering the final cobble sector but they underestimated the staying power of Moscon and Stuyven, who managed to rejoin the party inside the velodrome and with just 300m remaining.
Moscon kept his momentum going but Stybar opened up his sprint and surged into the lead. Langeveld never looked in contention as Van Avermaet darted out of the saddle and finally got the monumental monkey off his back.
A week after missing out in the Ronde van Vlaanderen to compatriot Philippe Gilbert, Van Avermaet became the first man since Sen Kelly in 1986 to win Paris-Roubaix after finishing runner-up a week earlier at Flanders.
Frenchman Arnaud Demare (FDJ) won the sprint for sixth place 12 seconds down to lead home a chasing group that also contained Boonen, Degenkolb, Hayman, Chavanel, van Baarle and Oss. If Boonen finished an unlucky 13th in his final professional race then he will not be as disappointed as Sagan who, despite so much promise, came home more than five minutes down in 38th place.
The world may have been willing a very different Belgian victory, but on the day Greg van Avermaet proved by far the strongest rider in the 115th edition of the Hell of the North.
Read the original article on Eurosport: Van Avermaet wins fastest ever Paris-Roubaix