They came, they saw and in the end, they conquered – though not in the way many had hoped. Fans from Belgium made the short journey to northern France in great numbers on Sunday to cheer on Tom Boonen one last time before the 36-year-old retired, but left celebrating another Belgian's victory after Greg van Avermaet added Paris-Roubaix to a palmarès that has expanded week-by-week through what has been an almighty spring for the 31-year-old.
When Boonen stood on the third step of the podium in the centre of Roubaix Velodrome after making his debut here in 2002, winner Johan Museeuw supposedly told his compatriot that he, one day, would become 'the next Museeuw'. Since then, of course, Boonen became synonymous with Paris-Roubaix and, in fact, eclipsed the rider nicknamed the Lion of Flanders with 21 wins in the cobbled classics – including three at the Tour of Flanders and a record-equalling four at Paris-Roubaix alongside another Belgian, Roger de Vlaeminck.
Race organisers, local media and large swathes of the cycling media had, understandably, teed up the 115th edition of the race as a battle royal between Boonen, the 2005 world road race champion, and current rainbow jersey holder Peter Sagan. Van Avermaet, though, ensured that after chasing the rainbow bands through the Arenberg Forest following an earlier crash, it was the Olympic road race champion that struck gold after eventually outsprinting Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld on the smooth concrete of the 500m track in Roubaix after an agonising five hours 41 minutes and seven seconds in the saddle.
Thousands had lined the cobbled roads that cut through the farmlands of northern France, with crowds swelling in the Arenberg Forest and Carrefour de l’Arbre sections to three or four deep in parts, as the rolling dustball of riders gathered steam in the unseasonable heat on the road to Roubaix.
Just under 40 kilometres of the 257km race from Compiègne to the small industrial town of Roubaix, it was time for Boonen to pass the baton – albeit figuratively – to Van Avermaet. With Daniel Oss leading the race, Van Avermaet started to turn the screw as he, Stybar, Langeveld, Jurgen Roelandts, Gianni Moscon and Jasper Stuyven chased down the Italian who had done the ride of his life in support of his Belgian team-mate.
After threatening to become the modern Belgian version of Raymond Poulidor – a rider whose career was overshadowed by compatriot Jacques Anquetil, leading to him becoming referred to as 'the eternal second' – Van Avermaet broke through the glass ceiling last year when he won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a stage at the Tour de France and the Olympic road race. Subsequent victories in 2017 at Ghent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and now Paris–Roubaix have elevated Van Avermaet into a higher position, a position that will mean he will be a marked man for years to come.
“For sure I’m happy that I am now in this position," Van Avermaet said afterwards. "I tried for so many years to sit in this spot at these kind of races. I always believed that I could do it but you also need the results. When you win, you get more confident and the team gets more confident.
"It’s nice to win on the last day of Tom Boonen. I was looking last night at Wikipedia at Tom’s results and his career is so impressive. He won four times here and it’s to be part of his last race.
"This is the maybe the race I would say I was not able to win. When I first came here I was so tired at the finish line, and it was not really what I was expected but I am so happy that I did it. I think everything went perfectly. For me the Olympics will always be my greatest win but now it’s really nice to have a Monument too.”
Boonen, who finished the final race of a glittering career in unlucky 13th spot, later paid tribute to the thousands of supporters that had lined the roads on Sunday and throughout his career.
“[The] last few weeks have been a roller-coaster of emotions, but I’m telling you that I wouldn’t have imagined such incredible moments this morning. These fans are fantastic and I want to thank them for being by my side in the past 15 years," Boonen said in a team statement.
"To be honest, I wasn’t thinking of my retirement today, I was all in for the victory. It was only at the 5km-to-go mark that I began thinking these are the last kilometres of my career."
In the junior race, meanwhile, British rider Tom Pidcock soloed to victory after earlier joining the leading group with 16km of the 111km race remaining. The British, European and world junior cyclo-cross champion attacked off the front before becoming the third Briton to win the race after Geraint Thomas and Andy Fenn prevailed here in 2004 and 2008 respectively.