It’s been 20 years since a wet Paris-Roubaix – 20 years of dry or dusty cobbles. Sure, sometimes they’ve been a
little bit sloppy – an earthy hint of mud creeping in at the periphery – but a proper wet Paris-Roubaix is a different beast.
The 2021 edition – twice delayed by the pandemic, and occupying a new spot in the calendar at the end of the season when the continent is on the cusp of its winter hibernation – will be remembered as one of those vintage editions.
Heavy rain from the outset. Mud-slicked cobbles. Puddles that verged on being ponds. It’s always the Hell of the North – it’s the race’s whole schtick – but the conditions this year made it extra hellish.
All eyes were on a couple of familiar faces for the win – perpetual cyclocross rivals turned-road superstars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert. In the end, neither of them took home the big cobble.
It’s often that way at Paris-Roubaix, where fortune plays as big a role as form. An Italian won, for the first time since Andrea Tafi in 1999. Another Italian lost. Plenty of people were happy about both of those things.
The results were almost secondary to the spectacle, though: the toughest male road cyclists on the planet speeding along the worst roads, in the most miserable conditions, in pursuit of cycling’s most prestigious, peculiar prize.
I think it’s time we look at some pictures, don’t you?
Wout van Aert was – like he is in many races – the pre-race favourite. Mathieu van der Poel was another tipped for the win. Tim Merlier was giving Kristof Ramon absolutely nothing. It was raining cats and dogs at the race start in Compiegne, but that didn’t deter a bashful German Shepherd with a pink cape from taking in the sights. This Very Good Dog looked a bit worried. It was right to be. Where we’re going in this gallery, you’d better get used to seeing wet cobbles. Before the cobbles, though, there were crashes. Jonas van Genechten and Mitch Docker – in his final race – crashed in the first 200 m after the flag dropped. It was going to be one of those kind of days. A breakaway group formed (this is after they’d been going for a while, hence the slop) … … which split, and split again, until it was two of the race’s youngest riders off the front, working together to build out an advantage. Up front is Nils Eekhoff (DSM), with Florian Vermeesch (Lotto Soudal) trailing. But surely this was just youthful high spirits. I can’t imagine that one of them would factor in the finale, after spending most of the day off the front. That seems implausible, even for Paris-Roubaix. I would like to believe that I would cop a load of dirty cobble spray with the grace and quiet dignity of this spectator, while knowing full well that I would not. Alexander ‘The Stavanger Stallion’ Kristoff flew under the radar most of the race, but somehow still managed to finish a wholly respectable 14th. The latest in a long line of examples of the Stallion finding where the magic happens. Jonas was in a Rutsch to get to Roubaix. Wout Van Aert steps on it, stretching the peloton out and forcing some splits. Hey, look over there! It’s Luke Rowe getting a puncture! If we were in Italy, the Helpful Older Gent would be called an ‘ umarell‘, but we aren’t, so ‘Helpful Older Gent’ is what we’ll go with. Toms Skujiņš stayed lovely and clean at his Paris-Roubaix debut. He spent much of the race in the breakaway, before drifting back through the field to finish 44th. Nice one, Toms! As dank as the conditions were, the fans showed up. These TotalEnergies riders looked a bit like they had TotalDysentery, but I won’t hold that against them (if they promise not to come anywhere near me). Here’s everyone having a simply lovely time. Juraj ‘The Other’ Sagan and, according to the metadata, Peter Sagan behind him, chomping on his sunglasses (but it doesn’t really look like him, so just quietly, I’m not convinced). ANYWAY: the more famous Sagan, who may or may not be in frame, had a day to forget, crashing on a non-cobbled stretch and finishing in 57th. There was just a touch of water on the road. Florian Vermeersch and Nils Eekhoff were first into the infamous Forest of Arenberg. Toms Skuji ņš was jamming to his own tunes at this point. If you listen carefully, you can still hear the clang from the hammer Mathieu van der Poel dropped as he entered the Trouée d’Arenberg. He was trying to bridge across to a second group on the road … … comprising about 15 riders. Gianni Moscon led the group out of the Arenberg Forest, past a big banner for ‘Stybi Frits’, a product and/or personal manifesto that does not appear to exist on the internet. What are your secrets, Mr. Stybi Frits Sign Man? Where are you from, where are you going, and why do you want us to know about Stybi’s Frits so badly? Just an awful no-good terribly bad day to be Mads Pedersen’s bike, after he collided with an aimlessly veering Luke Rowe. Sonny Colbrelli (he’s the one with the orange bike) somehow dodged it and stayed upright. And so, by the time Van der Poel neared the end of the sector – after crashes and calamity and a trademark Van der Poelian acceleration – he had a little less company. A little further back was Van Aert, who was slowed at the start of the sector dodging a fallen BikeExchange rider. He’d catch back to his eternal rival Van der Poel, but got gapped again a bit later and would be left fighting it out for the minor placings. And so we were onto the Pont Gibus sector, with Van der Poel and co chasing the remnants of the breakaway and ahead of them, the two young leaders on the road. Paris-Roubaix: nature’s exfoliant. At about 50km to go, to the dismay of vast swathes of the global cycling audience, Known Supervillain Gianni Moscon made a move of his own, solo off the front. Chasers behind included Van der Poel (on the front, because of course he is), Sonny Colbrelli (in that fetching European Champs jersey), and Guillaume Boivin (Mr Canada 2021, having a hell of a ride). Gianni Moscon was riding very well, I’ll give him that, and looked for a good half an hour like he might have it in the bag. In the interests of balance, it is also worth noting that he has also had multiple violent and/or racially motivated indiscretions over the course of his career, which Ineos has given the most delicately featherweighted slaps on the wrist for. Anyway. A puncture was manifested for Moscon, scoring him a shiny new bike and slashing about 20 seconds off his advantage, and there was an audible exhale. Wout van Aert was more mud than man, but he had some very bloody cool rivulets cutting down his cheeks, so it wasn’t all bad. That’s a pretty high-risk toy to take to this bike race, champ. Van der Poel makes his way through a grainy agricultural scene. Colbrelli was diligently following Van der Poel’s wheel…. … while a bit back on the road, Wout Van Aert had given his face a squirt with his water bottle and was about a kilogram lighter as a result. Jonas Rutsch was still in the mix, dangling around the Van Aert group. Don’t be fooled by how dirty he looks in this picture – Sonny Colbrelli actually rode a pretty clean race. Yves Lampaert in second wheel was well and truly earning his Maes 0.0% with this ride. He’d finish fifth. Gianni Moscon was trying to hold off the inevitable, but shortly after this picture he crashed. Which was not good. But it was also not not good. And so Moscon got swept up by his pursuants, and all of a sudden there were three off the front: Sonny Colbrelli, Mathieu van der Poel, and Florian Vermeesch. The race would come down to this trio of Paris-Roubaix debutants. Van der Poel led them onto the Roubaix velodrome, with Colbrelli behind him and the big Belgian Vermeesch skulking at the back. Vermeesch went first, but Colbrelli had his measure … … with Van der Poel fading to third … … and then it was over. An emotional victory for the Italian, who rode a pretty canny race and picked up a popular win for his unpopular human-rights-abusing-government-sponsored team. He couldn’t believe how Victorious he’d just become. Cue one of the best victory celebrations in recent memory … … that climaxed with writhing and weeping in the infield. It was pretty great. Nice one, Sonny. Mathieu van der Poel was visibly delighted with third on the day … … wearing kicks as crisp as a middle-aged dad’s brand spanking New Balance sneakers. Van Aert and his posse entered the velodrome, making their sprint shortly after Gianni Moscon crossed the line for fourth. Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-QuickStep, in brown) got fifth, followed by Christophe Laporte (Cofidis, in brown) in sixth, Van Aert (in brown) in seventh. Jonas Rutsch, left of frame in brown and pink, finished 11th. At the end of the voyage that is Paris-Roubaix, everyone’s a sailor on the good boat, Friendship. It was one of those editions of Paris-Roubaix that left everyone looking like a renaissance painting of a coal miner. Luke Durbridge was one of BikeExchange’s protected riders, but for whatever reason it didn’t really pan out for him. He finished in 54th, 12 and a bit minutes back, and then treated himself to a facewash. Sep Vanmarcke looked surprisingly mellow for someone that’d just put their body through the wringer for more than six hours. Is… is that a smile?! Shower o’clock! Bert De Backer, in his final pro race, had some shower beers to celebrate. They’re a lazy 7%er, so if our dude wasn’t feeling a little floaty after the race, he sure was after he’d finished washing up. Bin bag for the lot, I reckon. Fake news. There’s muck all over the bloody thing. And to the roar of the crowd and some erratic flamethrower blasts, that was that: Sonny Colbrelli picking up the biggest win of his career, young Florian Vermeersch announcing his arrival on the world stage for 2nd, and Mathieu van der Poel in third. FIN