After a long-range attack, Sagan takes a definitive victory at Paris-Roubaix

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World champion Peter Sagan answered all critics and crossed a major career objective off his list Sunday with a demonstrative, emphatic victory at Paris-Roubaix. The Bora-Hansgrohe star attacked from 54km to go, caught the remnants of the daylong breakaway, and then outsprinted Sylvan Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale) to take his second Monument.

Last weekend’s Tour of Flanders winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) crossed the line alone, having attacked out of a chase group, to finish third, 57 seconds down — a frustrating result for Quick-Step, the Belgian team that dominated the cobblestone classics this spring and entered the race with several pre-race favorites.

After a disappointing sixth-place finish at Flanders, and a week that saw four-time Roubaix winner Tom Boonen critical of Sagan’s race tactics, the world champion let his legs do the talking. Aided by a steady tailwind, Sagan rode away from the pre-race favorites and never looked back.

With the win, Sagan became the first Slovakian to win Paris-Roubaix, the fifth reigning world champion to win Roubaix, and the first since Bernard Hinault in 1981, nine years before Sagan was born.

“It’s amazing to win Paris-Roubaix,” Sagan said. “I’m tired after this race but not as tired as in previous years when I didn’t win it for some reasons. I have to say that I was not involved in any crash or puncture or any kind of mechanical this time, so I could save some energy for the finale. I attacked at the right moment and I kept going until the finish. I must thank my teammates, Daniel Oss, Maciej Bodnar, Markus Burghardt, my brother, and the staff of the team for their support. I’m very happy to be first on the line here in Roubaix. It’s really nice to with this race with the world champion jersey. I said before the race that my goal was to do my best. I’ve done my best.”

A dry, fast Roubaix

Riders were greeted at the start in Compiègne, north of Paris, by clear blue skies and sunshine — no sign of the rain clouds that had been spotted during reconnaissance rides earlier in the week. Tailwind conditions were expected to boost the riders on their 255km  journey north to Roubaix, near the border shared with Belgium. Most cobblestones were dry, though sections of mud lined the edges.

The race began fast and furious, with several attacks and Quick-Step manning the front. Nearly 40km was covered before a breakaway of six riders finally went clear. In the move: Sven Erik Bystrøm (UAE Team Emirates), Silvan Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale), Paris-Nice winner Marc Soler (Movistar Team), Ludovic Robeet (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic) and Jimmy Duquennoy, and Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal).

Three riders bridged across after 59km of racing to make a nine-man group at the front: Jay Thomson (Dimension Data), Geoffrey Soupe (Cofidis), and Gatis Smukulis (Delko Marseille Provence KTM).

The nine-man breakaway worked well together and extended its lead to eight minutes after 72km of racing before entering the first sector of cobblestones at Troisvilles.

A large crash at Troisvilles saw several riders from the main bunch hit the deck, causing a split in the peloton. One of the first key riders to exit the race was Stefan Kung, BMC Racing teammate of 2017 winner Greg Van Avermaet. BMC’s Jurgen Roelandts was also caught up in the crash, and though he would continue on, he would abandon a bit later after a puncture.

Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), and Belgian national champion Oliver Nasesen (Ag2r) were also caught up in the Troisvilles crash, with Thomas and Cort abandoning. Meanwhile, Quick-Step and Team Sky drove the front of the bunch.

With 120km remaining, the gap was 3:31; the peloton entered the 1.6km Sector 23 at Quérénaing just as the breakaway exited it. Just 10km later, the gap had come down a full minute as the main peloton was bearing down; the forest of Arenberg was just 15km away.

Back in the bunch, punctures and mechnicals began playing a role in the racing that would follow. Quick-Step’s Tim Declercq had a puncture and took a new wheel. Shortly after, Daniel Oss (Bora) took a bike change, while John Degenkolb was also spotted chasing back through the cars to the peloton, on his own, after a puncture.

The four-star sector of Haveluy with around 100km remaining saw another large crash, with Mateo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) on the ground and out of the race. Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First-Drapac), third in the Roubaix velodrome last year, also hit the ground heavily and was on the ground. And again, the peloton split.

Into the Arenberg Forest

The five-star Trouée d’Arenberg is always decisive at Paris-Roubaix, and it was no different on Sunday. The 2.4km long section is unique in both its length and the condition of the cobblestones, as shade from the trees lining the section makes it difficult for the moisture in the soil to fully evaporate.

The breakaway split into two groups through the Arenberg Forest while a compact peloton hit the cobbles; German Marcus Burghardt drove the pace, followed by Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Peter Sagan.

Dutch rider Mike Teunissen (Sunweb) rode off the front in the Arenberg sector, with Gilbert (Quick-Step) marking his wheel and ultimately pulling through to work together.

At the head of the race, six riders had emerged from the nine-man breakaway — Soler, Dillier, Smukulis, Robeet, and Bystrom  — with a two-minute advantage as they approached Sector 18 at Hélesmes. Teunissen and Gilbert sat in between, having opened up a 25-second lead over the main bunch, which was already down to about 50 riders.

Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) bridged across to Teunissen and Gilbert. The three riders would soon reach Duquennoy, Soupe, and Wallays who had been in the front group, to make a chasing group of six riders.

Next up was the four-star Sector 17 at Wandignies — at 3.7km, the longest sector of the entire race. BMC Racing’s JP Drucker bridged across to the Gilbert-Teunissen chase group, which still sat behind the Soler-Dillier group. Drucker’s effort would be in vain, however, as the peloton would quickly absorb that move.

With five riders up front holding a 1:08 gap and 75km remaining, Stybar counterattacked on his own as soon as the Gilbert group was caught.

Stybar’s move forced a reaction from Trek-Segafredo, with Mads Petersen, Jasper Stuyven, and John Degenkolb coming to the front of the main bunch across Sector 16 at Brillon.

With 75km remaining, it was an early move from a heavy pre-race favorite, but Stybar wouldn’t be on his own entirely as he rode to catch the leaders. The first rider from the front group picked up by Stybar was Soler, across 2.4km of four-star cobbles at Sector 15 in Sars-et-Rosières.

Behind, Pedersen — second at the Tour of Flanders one week earlier — lost contact with the main bunch across the Sector 15 cobbles.

The leaders held a one minute gap over the main bunch, and a 40-second lead over Stybar and Soler, as a short-lived move from Degenkolb and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) was swept up.

Stybar ditched Soler before Sector 14 at Beuvry-la-Forêt but was not making significant headway over the main group of favorites. Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) went to the front of the group at Beuvry-la-Forêt and drove the pace, which prompted a short-lived solo attack from Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe). Up ahead, three leaders — Dillier, Bystrom and Wallays — drove on after Robeet was dropped.

Into the Sector 13 cobbles at Orchies, the gap from the three leaders was down to just 37 seconds, with Stybar finally caught. Burghardt again went to the front across the pavé, followed by Sagan. Naesen worked his way back after a puncture.

Van Avermaet made a move out of the bunch on the pavement before the muddy five-star sector at Mons-en-Pévèle. Martin counterattacked, followed by Gilbert. And when that move was shut down, with Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan) at the front, Sagan went attacked and went clear.

Sagan reached the three leaders after the cobblestones at Orchies, making a group of four at the front holding a 33-second lead with 52km to go. Behind, Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Van Aert jumped from the bunch to form a two-man chase group.

Next to jump from the field was American Taylor Phinney (EF Education First), who was shadowed by Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r).

Sector 11 — 3km of muddy, five-star cobblestones at Mons-en-Pévèle — was on the horizon.

Sagan stays clear of chaos behind

As expected, the Mons-en-Pévèle cobblestones shook up the race. A crash before the riders even reached the pavé saw several riders down, including Alexander Kristoff and Tony Martin (Katusha) as well as Luke Rowe (Team Sky).

Quick-Step went to the front across the Mons-en-Pévèle cobblestones, catching Phinney and Vandenbergh. As the group exited the pavé, Phinney and teammate Sep Vanmarcke flanked Quick-Step’s Terpstra and Gilbert. The Tersptra-Vanmarcke group caught Stuyven and Van Aert, forming a 10-rider chase group as Sagan motored at the front with Dillier and Wallays. Their gap was 45 seconds, with 41km remaining.

Terpstra went to the front on Sector 10 at Avelin; Van Avermaet and Phinney were momentarily been gapped off, and chased together, while Gilbert was dropped, riding with Stybar. Quick-Step’s dominance had been neutralized, with only one rider at the front, while EF Education First had two in Phinney and Vanmarcke. Also there: Stuyven, Van Aert, Van Avermaet, and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal). The gap between the Terpstra-Vanmarcke group and the Gilbert-Stybar group was just 10 seconds, with Terpstra sitting on.

That gap stretched out closer to 20 seconds, however, with Phinney and Van Aert taking strong pulls while Ag2r drove the chase behind. With just 33km to go, Sagan’s advantage with two riders from the original daylong breakaway held at around 55 seconds. A race moto spotted Sagan tightening bolts on his stem with an Allen wrench while working at the front of the race at nearly 50kph.

With 25km to go, Wallays dropped from the leading trio across the Sector 7 cobblestones at Cysoing, making just two at the front — Sagan and Dillier.

The gap opened up to 1:25 with 22km to go, and it appeared Sagan had the race sewn up. However one critical section remained, the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre at 15km remaining. First came the four-star Sector 5 at Camphin-en-Pévèle, where Dillier rode at the front, giving Sagan a brief respite. The question left in the race appeared to be not whether Sagan would win, but if Dillier would be able to hold on to finish with him.

With Phinney on the front of the chase group at Camphin-en-Pévèle, Van Aert was forced to dismount with a jammed chain. Terpstra then swung onto the front and drove the pace, popping Phinney out of the group. Van Avermaet was also put into difficulty. The group picked up Wallays as the entered the Carrefour de l’Arbre, making a group of six chasing the two leaders. With 16km to go, they held a 72-second lead, Dillier focused intently on holding Sagan’s wheel.

With 10km remaining the gap had dropped down to 47 seconds. Those left in the first chase group: Van Avermaet, Terpstra, Vanmarcke, and Stuyven.

Dillier rode with Sagan into Roubaix, and led through the velodrome. Sagan attacked with 250 metres to go and came around to take the victory by a bike length.

“Peter Sagan was an angel and a devil in the same person,” Dillier said. “I’m happy that he was working with me very well, but he was a devil to be with because he’s hard to beat in a two-man sprint. We have respected each other, but he was better than me in the sprint. I entered first on the velodrome and stayed on the outside. Peter launched at the same time but he accelerated faster than me. I had no chance to beat him. I’m very happy that I was in a position to win, and a little bit disappointed about not winning but I was against the current best rider. I hope to be the winner in the future.”

Terpstra, the 2014 winner, soloed into the velodrome for third place while Van Avermaet, the defending champion, won the three-up sprint for fourth ahead of Stuyven and Vanmarcke.

“We did a pretty good race but Peter [Sagan] made a very good attack at the right moment,” Terpstra said. “It’s impossible to be 257km at the front. We have avoided crashes for a while as we knew that the first cobbled sections were muddy but we were not at the front at the moment of Sagan’s attack. It’s not only Quick-Step that makes the race. Cooperation was pretty good in the chase. We worked well together until the last three kilometers. I can’t complain about the lack of cooperation. Peter was just too strong. We couldn’t catch him. I attacked before the last cobbled section to grab the third place as we realized we were not racing for the win anymore.”

Sagan and Dillier shook hands after riding together for over 50km and sprinting against one another for the victory.

As for Sagan, he said winning Roubaix was the realization of a lifelong dream.

“The key for my success is that I went away alone,” he said. “I caught the occasion on the right moment. It was a good decision. We had a tailwind, I could set my own tempo and keep it constant. I thought if my rivals would come across to me it would okay as well. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. I knew the guys behind were fighting each other. I’m glad I had a very good luck, with no puncture and no crash.

“As Silvan Dillier was the only rider left with me, I thought I should not underestimate him. I asked if we were going to work together and he said yes. Eventually, he was working more than me on the cobblestones and it was impossible for me to drop him. I was cramping at the end but I still had enough resources to win the sprint. When I was young, my dream was to win Paris-Roubaix, and then the world championship and the Tour of Flanders. Now I’ve won all three. It makes me very happy. I don’t have to say if I’d exchange one of these wins for another one.”

Race Note:

Veranda’s Willems-Crelan rider Michael Goolaerts, 23, suffered a dramatic crash with around 140km remaining and required emergency medical attention. A spectator’s video posted to Twitter showed medical staff administering CPR, leading to speculation that he may have suffered cardiac arrest. An hour after the race, the team posted a message on Twitter that read, “No update on Michael Goolaerts yet. We kindly ask to refrain from speculation as we wait for an update on his situation. Our thoughts are with his family and friends now. Thank you for the kind messages.”

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