Two days later, the dust is finally settling on one of the most thrilling editions of Paris-Roubaix in recent memory. With that in mind, here’s what we’re talking about after the 114th edition of the world’s hardest one-day race.
It doesn’t need to rain for Paris-Roubaix to be a scintillating spectacle
In the lead-up to Sunday’s race it seemed as if cycling fans around the world were doing one, big, collective rain dance. It had been 14 years since the last rain-affected edition and many were keen to see the drama that would unfold when dust turned to mud on the cobblestones of northern France.
It rained the night before the race, leaving a few puddles and slippery corners here and there, but no rain fell during the race itself. And yet it was one of the most exciting editions of Paris-Roubaix in living memory and one of the most thrilling bike races of the last few years, full stop.
Live coverage started from the gun which, for most races, would mean several dull hours of watching the breakaway ride away and build a lead. But not at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. The attacks came thick and fast in the first few hours with riders desperate to get in the early move. It took the best part of 75km for something meaningful to stick and even then the 16 leaders were never allowed more than a few minutes.
And then, with 115km still to go, a crash in the bunch saw Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) caught behind a split and the action heated up once again. Etixx-QuickStep forced the issue with Tony Martin and Tom Boonen and all the while the breakaway was slowly being reeled back in.
All of this happened before the thrilling, attack-filled final 100km of racing meaning viewers were kept enthralled for the entirety of the nearly six-hour race. It was bike racing at its aggressive, dangerous best. And it didn’t even need to rain.
Imanol Erviti has had an incredible fortnight at the Cobbled Classics
A little over a week ago, Imanol Erviti (Movistar) battled his way into the early breakaway of six at the Tour of Flanders. The Spaniard held firm at the head of the race as his breakaway companions dropped away and as other riders came up to join him, including the big favourites. Erviti would go on to finish seventh on the day, a remarkable effort after working so hard out front for the best part of 180km.
A week later, Erviti lined up at Paris-Roubaix – different country, different race, but a very similar outcome. The 32-year-old got himself in the first meaningful move off the front and again plugged away at the head of affairs as the big names chased from behind. Erviti was there with less than 40km to go when it was a group of 10 riders at the front; a group containing Tom Boonen and Mat Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge), the latter of which had also been in the early break.
It was only when Sky duo Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard dropped the hammer on sector 5 with about 20km to go that Erviti was cracked. But he didn’t give up. The Movistar rider continued to work in a chase group containing IAM duo Heinrich Haussler and Alexsejs Saramotins and Lotto Soudal’s Marcel Sieberg, the quartet riding through to the finish together.
Erviti crossed the line in ninth place, adding to his seventh in Flanders a week earlier, and capping off a commendable Cobbled Classics campaign for he and Movistar; a team far more suited to the hillier races.
We’ll never get sick of watching Peter Sagan’s evasive manoeuvres
Just about every time Peter Sagan gets on his bike we seem to get a demonstration of his formidable bike handling skills. Whether it’s a breakneck descent, a post-race wheelie or impressively dodging an impending crash, the world champion shows just how beneficial an MTB background can be for road cyclists.
At Paris-Roubaix Sagan wowed all who were watching (and seemingly himself) by managing to stay upright when Fabian Cancellara crashed directly in front of him. The Slovakian bunny-hopped and then endo-ed over his rival, his right foot unclipped, before swerving over on to the grass, somehow managing to stay on his bike throughout.
That incident thwarted Sagan’s chances of reaching the front of the race (if an earlier crash hadn’t already done so) but for fans it was yet another opportunity to marvel at the skills of the man in the rainbow jersey.
Sky was impressive but luck wasn’t on their side
In the six-and-a-bit years since Team Sky’s first race, the British-registered squad has won three Tours de France and somewhere in the vicinity of 200 races all told. But a victory in one of the sport’s five, one-day Monuments remains elusive.
In the first three such races of this season Sky has been consistently close to the mark — second at Milan-San Remo (Ben Swift), fifth at the Tour of Flanders (Luke Rowe) and, on Sunday, third at Paris-Roubaix (Ian Stannard). The team rode a near-perfect Roubaix, getting Salvatore Puccio in the break then having numbers around Stannard and Rowe as the chase group and the breakaway came together with 63km to go.
But then a crash on a muddy left-hander saw Gianni Moscon hit the deck, forcing Luke Rowe to somersault over his teammate. And then, less than two kilometres later, Puccio crashed as well.
Stannard managed to avoid both crashes and Rowe was able to chase back up to the lead group after his tumble. And then a Rowe-Stannard one-two forced the final split in the lead group with Stannard safely there, representing the team’s interests.
It’s impossible to say whether Puccio and/or Moscon would have been there when that selection was made had they not crashed, and indeed whether they would have been able to make the split. It’s equally hard to know whether Rowe would have had the legs to follow, had he not had to chase back on after his crash. Had he been able to, Sky would have had the numerical advantage in the closing 20km.
As it was, Stannard rode a terrific race and finished with a well-deserved podium place. But that first Monument victory continues to evade Sky. Kwiatkowski for Liege-Bastogne-Liege?
Tony Martin was deployed to great effect and proved a valuable ally for Tom Boonen
When Tony Martin revealed earlier this year that he’d be racing the Cobbled Classics it was cause for excitement for fans of such races and of Martin himself. Sure, the German time trialist mightn’t have had much experience on the cobbles, but with an engine as big as his he’d surely be able to make a strong Etixx-QuickStep squad even stronger.
It took a while for Der Panzerwagen to find his feet. He crashed at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, didn’t finish E3 Harelbeke and was arguably used too early at the Tour of Flanders. But at Paris-Roubaix, Tony Martin came into his own.
With Cancellara and Sagan caught behind a crash with 115km still to go, it fell mainly to Etixx-QuickStep to force the advantage. Tony Martin did the bulk of the work in that group, helping to extend and then maintain the gap between his teammate Boonen and his rivals behind.
Martin’s hard work on the front of the chase group was instrumental in helping that group bridge to the lead group, from which Boonen made the final selection and dashed to second. Boonen himself was very impressed with his German teammate:
“Tony did an incredible ride,” Boone said afterwards. “I told him a few times, ‘Listen, if you want to wait for the guys you just dropped, it is okay. We can work together.’ But he didn’t want to, he just wanted to keep on going.” In just his first cobbled classics campaign Tony Martin had a demonstrable impact on the race and he’s only likely to be more valuable in the Spring Classics in the years to come.
Sep Vanmarcke did everything he could
There’s a lot to like about Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo). The rangy Belgian is one of the strongest and most consistent Classics performers in the world and a humble, well-spoken individual off the bike. He’s been close to winning the world’s biggest one-day races on many occasions and on Sunday he again came close at Paris-Roubaix, taking his third top-four result at the French Monument.
In the lead-up to the Tour of Flanders Vanmarcke gave a memorable interview (see video below) in which he spoke with refreshing honesty and humility about his capabilities as a rider. “For me it will always be hard to win a race … I’m not the fastest sprinter and there is always some other sprinters that are faster. I’m not the best time-trialist so I can’t go on my own easily. So for me to win a race … I need some good luck with it too.”
Vanmarcke rode a smart race on Sunday, supported well by his LottoNL-Jumbo teammates, and got in the lead group while the two riders that beat him at Flanders — Sagan and Cancellara — got caught behind as a result of crashes.
When the race was whittled down to just five riders Vanmarcke was there. He made two concerted attacks, the first on the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbled sector, and opened up a decent gap thanks to some impressive risk-taking. But the 27-year-old would be caught after that and his later attack, and he would have to settle for fourth in the eventual sprint.
It’s possible that Vanmarcke is just one of those unlucky riders that, had he not been fated to race at the same time as generation-defining champions like Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan, might have been a true champion of the sport with several big wins to his name.
Still, at 27, the affable Belgian is still young and assuming he has the desire to carry on, he’s got a good many years of potential Classics glory ahead of him. And few cycling fans would begrudge Sep Vanmarcke that glory.
Tom Boonen was wonderfully gracious in defeat
It would have been easy to forgive Tom Boonen for being surly after finishing second to Mat Hayman on Sunday. In Boonen’s own words, Paris-Roubaix is “the only reason I’m still racing”, he was boxed in during the final sprint, and a victory on Sunday would have made Boonen the outright record-holder at the race with an incredible five wins.
But despite doing everything right throughout the day, and despite being beaten in the final sprint by a rider he would usually back himself to beat, Boonen wasn’t upset with second place.
The four-time champion didn’t just congratulate Hayman, he seemed genuinely pleased for the 37-year-old. “Mathew turned out to be the strongest and deserves to get such a victory after a career of helping people out and not scoring the big wins,” Boonen said after the race. “So congrats to him for today.”
This photo and Boonen’s words to Hayman at 12:35 in the Backstage Pass video below say it all really. A class act.
Hopefully Tommeke will have at least one more crack at the Paris-Roubaix record before his retirement. As with his long-time rival Fabian Cancellara — who raced his last Roubaix on Sunday — the Hell of the North will surely be a poorer race once Boonen hangs up his bike.
Mat Hayman’s victory was one for the ages
To see how much Mat Hayman’s win at Paris-Roubaix meant to him and to his team, look no further than the latest edition of Orica-GreenEdge’s Backstage Pass. It’s a terrific piece of film that captures the pure emotion associated with winning one of the biggest races in the world, particularly when no one thinks you can.
There are many reasons why Hayman’s win should be remembered as one of the greatest moments in Australia’s cycling history, if not Australia’s sporting history. The fact Hayman broke his arm barely six weeks before the race; the fact he was a week from his 38th birthday and in his 15th appearance at a race he loves so much; the fact he’s spent the vast majority of his career working in the service of others; the tenacity he showed to even be there to contest the finale …
From the day’s early breakaway Hayman maintained his position at the front when an elite chase group came across with roughly 60km to go, eventually becoming one of just five riders in the lead once the decisive selection had been made. He was dropped at a crucial moment with less than 20km to go but somehow, against the odds, managed to fight his way back to the front. To finish it off by leading out the velodrome sprint was magnificent.
It’s a huge moment for Orica-GreenEdge – arguably the team’s greatest success – but a great moment for cycling and for sport more generally. It shows that years and years of sacrifice and hard work can pay off and that even when people have written you off for being too old and too slow, it’s possible to prove them wrong in the best possible way.
Mat Hayman’s expression of disbelief after crossing the line was sport at its very best; an athlete achieving what he thought he never would after so many years spent trying. For Australian cycling fans it’s the greatest story since Cadel Evans won the Tour de France in 2011. Chapeau, Mat Hayman.
What have we missed? What will you take from the 2016 Paris-Roubaix?