Images: Justin Britton
Paris-Roubaix is never an easy watch, but it’s invariably compelling: with crashes and mechanicals a requisite part of the race narrative - not a matter of if but when - maintaining objective distance is all but impossible as a lover of the sport. It's a basic thing, to want everyone to be safe, and for a race to be a fair battle, but the cycling gods almost always ensure that neither of these things can be true, at Paris-Roubaix. Yet we surrender ourselves to it year in, year out, knowing that whatever happens, it will typify bike racing at its most pure and brutal, and that we will talk about the countless stories from the race for a long time to come. 2023 was no different.
Rolling out of Compiegne, the 175 men of the 2023 edition of Paris-Roubaix had a long day in Hell ahead of them, 256.6km to be exact, and cycling fandom relinquished control to the vagaries of the cobbles and hoped, collectively, for a race to remember for the right reasons.
It was a curious opening to the day, remarkable at once for its unprecedented speed, yet concurrently offering little by way of incident – perhaps mercifully, given what was to come later. Many, many attempts to establish a break were launched, and it took 84km for something to stick – four determined men plus, shortly afterwards, Team DSM’s Nils Eekhoff chasing on behind.
The peloton understandably eased off the gas after a hell-raising 51km/h average speed clocked up for the first 80km, and with precious little road remaining between them and the first cobbled sector, the break opened only a modest gap. The four valiant souls taking their chance at making history were Jonas Koch (BORA-Hansgrohe), Sjoerd Bax (UAE Team Emirates), Juri Hollman (Movistar) and Derek Gee (Israel-Premier Tech). Sadly, Eekhoff never made it across.
Tension rose through the streets heading into the first sector, the gap to the break already trimmed back to 1.15, but miraculously the first stretch of cobbles from Troisville to Inchy was successfully navigated by both the break and the peloton. Once again the nerves settled and there was a pervasive sense of calm before the storm; it was simply a case of when the storm would strike.
When it struck, it was vicious and exacting – two crashes in quick succession saw Peter Sagan’s troubled farewell tour continue its cursed trajectory, along with four other riders, on sector 28. Just the second cobbled stretch, and trouble was already brewing.
Meanwhile back in the peloton, the youngest man in the race since 1937, Josh Tarling, rode for an Ineos Grenadiers team who were very much up for the fight, with Tarling himself doing his fair share of the early work. He lost his wheel on a corner right out of the second sector taking down his teammate Luke Rowe and Soudal-QuickStep’s Bert van Lerberghe and impeding a number of other riders – the young Welshman would be in for a very long day indeed.
Jumbo-Visma were left to boss the bunch heading into sector 27, and the pace picked up once again. Over the course of the next couple of sectors splits began to appear as the peloton stretched out, snaking through the French farmland, and as time ticked by luck began to run dry, with a myriad of mechanicals and mishaps stultifying the progress of many, and a nasty crash for Dusan Rajovic of Bahrain-Victorious adding to a steadily growing DNF list.
Half the race had unfolded and it calmed once again as the stress of the early kilometres eased, several cobbled sectors elapsed without incident, outside of the expected rash of mechanical incidents and the odd mashed wheel (Bingoal WB’s Guillaume van Keirsbulck the victim of that one). Stefan Küng had a fight to get back to the bunch, as did Kasper Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal, the Soudal-QuickStep team suffering yet again in what has been a truly dismal classics season for them so far.
Wout van Aert had a tyre issue and had to ride back onto the back of the bunch, just in time for his Jumbo-Visma teammates to push on into sector 20 – one sector prior to the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg. Van Aert attacked with Christophe Laporte and unsurprisingly Mathieu van der Poel for company – perhaps more surprising was the addition of John Degenkolb to the trio, as the rest were momentarily left in the dust. A smart move from the Dutch team to attack early, as their leader detached himself from the pack in time to attack the Arenberg cobbles with some breathing room. They picked up Stefan Küng and Laurenz Rex from Intermarché-Circus-Wanty to make it a group of six, with Ineos caught short and left chasing at the front of the pack.
Onto arguably the most lauded stretch of cobbled road in existence. Arenberg is dark, formidable, and unforgiving. The poker-straight gothic menace of sector 19 amplifies the torment of the race, enticing those who dare to take a risk, though still early in the race, casting the fickle hand of fortune on the unlucky and allowing the chosen few to pass unscathed.
There were issues immediately, as one of the breakaway quartet Derek Gee stalled as his tyre came off. It foreshadowed the chaos to come, as a series of crashes took out a number of riders, including defending champion Dylan van Baarle. Battered bodies and mangled bikes lined the cobbles but there was no time for real concern, not right away, the casualties left behind as the race moved on, the rest of the Arenberg tackled with less furore but no less action, as Mads Pedersen struck out alone in pursuit of the group of favourites with another chase group behind that included Filippo Ganna and Jasper Philipsen. Not long after the Arenberg was done and dusted the break was caught, and Laporte suffered a flat tyre, leaving Wout van Aert without support just as the chasers made contact.
It took 2km for Pedersen to make contact, a massive effort that should not be underestimated, and a couple of kilometres later the rest of the chasers arrived and a supergroup was formed, including the remains of the break, former winner John Degenkolb, and two teammates for MVDP, signalling a power shift that could potentially spell trouble for the rest. They weren’t just any teammates, either – Gianni Vermeersch, cyclocrosser and gravel World Champion, and Jasper Philipsen, a rider who owed a great deal to MVDP already this season. It could prove decisive.
88km and 17 cobbled sectors remained. As Laporte drifted back to the peloton, the 13 men up front opened their gap to over a minute. The group worked well together for a while and allowed us to draw collective breath, before upping the pressure on sector 15, beginning to shed riders who weren’t up to the task.
Back in the bunch Nathan van Hooydonck attacked, towing a rejuvenated Laporte and dragging Lotto-DSTNY’s Florian Vermeesch along for what would be an impossible task to try and bridge across to incredibly strong leading group. With 60km to go, the selection had shed two of its number there was a sense of resetting, as the race within the race would begin, the peloton long forgotten by the broadcasters; who knew what stories they would have to tell, once the day was over?
All was quiet for a while, the pace and effort being exerted by the riders almost negated by the serenity of the conditions, the lack of mechanicals and crashes, the unexpected air of cooperation and order. How long would it hold?
The answer was, until just over 50km to go, when Van der Poel began to do Van der Poel things on the 4-star Auchy-lez-Orchies-Bersée sector, pressing on at the front, executing a deft off-road manoeuvre and dragging John Degenkolb of all people with him. It worked, as he distanced three of the group for a time, including Ganna, as Küng, Van Aert and Philipsen were able to work their way back to him. They quickly regrouped but it was a statement of intent from the irrepressible Dutchman who was still clearly enjoying the form of his life.
The Magnificent Seven
It was Cofidis' young German Max Walscheid who launched the first speculative attack as the leaders entered one of only three 5-star rated cobbled sectors, Mons-En-Pévèle, but he was drawn back in and almost as quickly and spat out the back as Van der Poel amped up the pressure with an aggressive injection of pace. Van Aert was equal to his rival, immediately on his wheel, Philipsen and Küng clinging on behind. Against all odds, former winner Degenkolb also remained, with Ganna and Pedersen holding on to make the final, final, FINAL selection: exiting the Mons-En-Pévèle the race came down to seven riders, with 46km left to ride.
Yet again Van der Poel attacked, this time on the tarmac, and yet again Van Aert was immediately onto him, the rest agonising over staying in touch as the two rivals matched one another, Van der Poel using one of the few inclines to kick on, Stefan Küng clawing his way up the short climb, pain etched across his features.
The sectors were tackled one by one, Van Aert controlling the pace in a sketchy, narrow stretch, once again riding smart, taking control and exerting his influence over the rest. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6… the sectors ticked off like an ominous countdown and aside from a puncture for Jasper Philipsen, it was stalemate in the group of seven, Philipsen finding his way back on in time to hit the final 5-star sector of the day. Things were about to change dramatically.
There’s no secret about the toughest sectors of cobbles along the route of Paris-Roubaix – they are literally graded to demonstrate their severity. If the Arenberg is the devil on the shoulder, whispering suggestion into the ears of the riders who feel they have the legs, the Carrefour de l’Arbre is the Joker, a coin flip, a pandora’s box of a challenge. Arriving with 17.1km remaining in the race, the sector forces the hand, offering those still in the running one final chance to take fate into their own hands. If they don’t, someone else will.
This year, the sector was more about who wouldn't make it, than who would.
As John Degenkolb skirted the cobbles, storming out on to the verge, Philipsen surged up alongside, then past him, and powering through, Van der Poel found himself in between the German and his teammate deviating from the line he had obviously expected. The result was catastrophic, as far as Degenkolb’s day was concerned. A racing incident, with unfortunate consequences, and a truly heroic ride from the veteran cut short. Van Aert charged on in the ensuing moments of confusion, not letting sentimentality cloud his judgement as he seized his opportunity. Van der Poel closed him down and the final nail in the coffin of the race we thought we were going to enjoy was hammered in, as with 15.7km to go, Van Aert spoke into his radio, and it became clear shortly afterwards what he must have said. Just as the two of them put an incredible gap into those behind, the Dutchman in turn began to gap the Belgian, and the devastating truth became rapidly clear: Van Aert had a rear wheel puncture. With Van der Poel storming away from him, the writing was on the wall, and it read: game over.
To say it was easy to watch after that would be doing Van der Poel a disservice. He made damn sure that, despite his not insignificant lead over the rest of the chasers, we could not rest easy. He rode like a man possessed, employing all of his impressive bike handling skills to stay upright in the treacherous corners of the penultimate cobbled sector with its hulking yellow barriers and massing crowds, ensuring heart rates which had been high for some time already remained that way. With Van Aert back in amongst the chasing group, the gap came down to 20 seconds at one point, but once Van der Poel traversed the final sector and the velodrome was in his sights, the cobble was effectively his. He rode the 1.5 victory laps, and crossed the line with Van Aert and Philipsen right behind him, on their first time around the track, Philipsen raising his arms despite having his own battle for second place still to fight in a lap’s time.
Van der Poel the victor, Philipsen beating Van Aert on the line to make it an incredible 1-2 for Alpecin-Deceuninck, and complete a brilliantly executed team race in which it hadn’t always been clear who was riding for whom, and Philipsen proved himself beyond doubt as not only the best sprinter in the world right now, but a whole lot more besides, and perhaps a future winner of the race.
As for Van Aert, in him, as in John Degenkolb, lay the unfinished business, the unanswered question, the flat feeling of not-right-ness that cloaked the final of one of the most epic races in recent memory. It was an oppressive feeling that weighed heavily, despite the prowess and elite sportsmanship that had led to a deserving winner.
The quiet that followed didn’t match the euphoria of the previous day. It was off somehow, a strange notion of having entered the wrong timeline, and of wanting to do the final 20km over again. How could I reconcile the overflowing melee of emotions that this incredible, unique race brought washing over me? I wasn’t alone. The outpouring of joy, shock, disappointment, and heartbreak had social media in thrall.
The images that played out on screen compounded the maelstrom of emotion. The sight of John Degenkolb in the foetal position sobbing was enough to break the stoniest heart. Wout seeking out Mathieu to congratulate him, despite what must have been one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking moments in a career that has already seen some pretty frustrating moments. Later, with his young son Georges, a study in contrasts, as the self-absorption of the blithe toddler and the spent athlete existing side by side melted into one as Wout snapped out of his exhausted torpor to give his son a fatherly wink and smile, despite his physical and emotional lack. The joy of Alpecin-Deceuninck, who played the race to perfection, the sheer athletic prowess of Mathieu van der Poel, attacking repeatedly during the race, leading many to question his race craft – was he spending his bullets too soon? Was he working for Philipsen after all? Was he taking too many risks with some of his nail-biting off-road manoeuvres?
There was a general ambience of discombobulation that pervaded despite the acceptance of Van der Poel’s outstanding performance. A sense of wrongdoing: not necessarily of individual wrongdoing (though in the heat of the moment some chose to point fingers over the Degenkolb crash) but of wrong having been done on a grander scale: to the race, and the outcome we perhaps felt as a collective that we deserved, after the investment of time and emotion into the anticipation, the speculation, the first 200km, risking our own hearts on whoever we are backing, or on the chance of witnessing something truly epic.
Whichever way you sliced it, and whatever your personal preference, Van der Poel was a truly worthy winner, regardless of what ifs and maybes. There’s something in his DNA that thrives on these big occasions. Literally, probably, given his pedigree, but also in his mindset – stone cold yet passionate – and the way he can execute a race that, while rarely flawless, has enough power and drive and luck and flair in combination to outdo all his rivals. And one rider in particular who suffers at the hands of his oldest rival. Wout van Aert once again came out on the wrong side of luck on the big occasion and once again, his fans are left to rue another lost opportunity. Next year perhaps, we will get the battle we – and he – deserves.
Paris-Roubaix is truly a race of contrasts – from euphoria one day to deflation the next, from applauding sheer power and brilliance to consoling hard luck and tough breaks. The stories that continued to flood in over the course of the day, and the days following - injury reports, stories of those, like young Josh Tarling, who completed the race despite being over the time limit. Enough storylines for a trilogy, every single year. It’s compelling, and painful, and bloody impossible to forget. It’s the best weekend of the year, yet a weekend that I wouldn’t want to repeat more than once annually.
So... See you next April?
Images: Justin Britton