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Buckled wheel, Bradley Wiggins behind, Geraint Thomas crashed out; Paris-Roubaix was wrecking Team Sky but, having buried himself for Wiggins throughout, Luke Rowe powered into the sunlit velodrome to sprint for his third Classic top ten, writes Jessica Lamb.
After Thomas exited with 90km to go, the Welshman had been caught in the wrong half of a major split in the peloton, but he rode himself back on on the final five star secteur, Carrefour de l’Arbre, and took control at the front.
Over this Classics season that has been a familiar sight, Rowe proving more than a strong domestique and building into a potential team leader in the Classics.
His strength from track cycling has always pointed towards that as his specialist area on the road and he showed early form as an U23 finishing fifth in the U23 Tour of Flanders.
This year he worked for winner Ian Stannard, then still finished ninth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and worked for Thomas, then got up for 13th at E3 Harelbeke. Now he can add Paris-Roubaix to his list of top tens and he’s not about to stop at that.
“A finish like that is super for me,” he said. “For me this is the biggest and best race by a million miles. The first year I got a puncture at the first section, so this is my second real attempt and hopefully one day I can get on that podium. That’s my dream and I just feel like I’ve really started to step up.”
The 25-year-old – and Wiggins, riding for Sky for the final time – missed Yves Lampaert [Etixx – Quickstep] and Greg Van Avermaet’s [BMC] kick with 12km to go, a move which was joined by winner John Degenkolb [Giant Alpecin] and grew to seven riders that rode into Andre Petrieux Velodrome first.
But Rowe did not sit idle.
“Unfortunately me and Brad didn’t get in that move,” he explained. “But, you know, after 250k it’s not easy. I knew there was going to be a tailwind all the run-in so I thought if I can get a decent gap with 4k to go then I can stay away and round out the top ten.
“I had the Belgian national champ Jens Debusschere with me and we said we’d just commit to the finish and if I beat him or he beats me it doesn’t really matter.”
He added: “I was always in the front, never far away. The only concern for me was I nailed a rock or a cobble halfway through the race, just after the Arenberg, and my front wheel was buckled.
“You can see I’ve opened the lever on the brake all the way; I rode most of the race with just the rear brake. I didn’t have a chance to change it. But everyone’s got their story at Paris-Roubaix and how it could have gone better. I don’t really have any excuses.”
Speaking about Wiggins’ race [18th] and his departure to join his new team, Team Wiggins, with a view to returning to his former track glories at Rio 2016, Rowe felt the Tour de France winner was going out on a high.
He said: “A lot of people doubted him and it’s quite sad to see how much negativity there was towards him so I think it’s nice for him to go out on a high riding the biggest and best one day race; attacking, making the race, finishing the race right up there.
“He’s a super guy, he’s great to have around. Whenever you’re with him it’s just constant banter. But I’ve also learnt a lot of him, I’ve enjoyed winning with him, and I’ve enjoyed losing with him.”