All images by Justin Britton

Sometimes racing is straightforward, sometimes it’s complicated. Sometimes, you witness a performance so out of this world that you have two choices: you can resort to cliches, and write the same thing everyone else has written, desperately scrabbling around for new words to say ‘wow’ or you can opt for the more unusual choice, and completely lose your mind, and write something that feels fitting, as it’s both a bit bonkers, and probably the only time something like this will ever happen. So it’s with great pleasure that I present to you this experimental piece in which I don’t exactly tell you what happened at Paris-Roubaix 2024, but rather present some aspects of it, in unconventional ways. Feel free to read them in order, or select the pieces you feel most drawn to.

A men’s Paris-Roubaix Review, in Three Acts

ACT I: the surrealist episode, in which I compare Alpecin to Aquaman, Movistar, and some kitchen knives

ACT II: the epic, in which I wax lyrical over the immensity of Mathieu van der Poel – warning, hyperbole will be employed, and with due cause

ACT III: the ensemble piece, where I review the rest of the race, and showcase the stories of Everyone Else (there were other people in the race – if you tuned in with 60km to go expecting the see the exciting bit, you might not have realised this)

ACT I: Knives Out
ACT II: Too fast, too furious
ACT III: By the wayside

Featuring spectacular images from Justin Britton throughout, let us begin our three-part odyssey back across the pave, beginning with the sharpest tools in the box…

ACT I: Knives Out

Here’s what happened, when I first sat down to write this race review (reader, she did not sit down – she was in fact in the bath. Where all the best ideas are born).

Open Thesaurus.

Search 'dominance'

Synonyms: control, domination, influence, power, preeminence, rule, sovereignty

Nothing new there. They've all been used. Well, maybe not ‘preeminence.’ Maybe we could try rearranging them into a different order. Upside down? Anagrams?

I jest, of course. Well, sort of.

While I've spent the winter coming up with new ways to explain how utterly devastating at riding a bicycle Mathieu van der Poel is, I do now have something new to add. A new dimension, should it be necessary (it wasn’t but credit where it’s due): utterly, overwhelmingly, indisputably destructive teamwork.

A demolition job. Complete and total annihilation. Before the majority of the cobbled sectors had come and gone. This is what we are dealing with, with this Alpecin-Deceuninck team. It began early and it was ruthless from the get-go. Alpecin put on the hurt, and showed no mercy, drilling it in the crosswinds (echelons at Paris-Roubaix! Be still my beating heart!) and then setting a mercenary pace as the cobbled sectors began, splitting the race at an unprecedentedly early stage.

While the smaller but undoubtedly vital blades in the kitchen knife block whittled away in the early stages of the race – chapeau Riesebeek, Kielich et al who did the work, chopping the peloton down to a manageable size – the three sharpest tools in the toolkit took off to scythe their way to victory.

The word 'trident' has been used disparagingly in pro cycling circles over recent years, as team after team try the approach made infamous by Movistar, of sending three leaders to a race, and like throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, simply 'waiting to see what comes out in the wash.'

No. This was not that. This trident was something ultimately far more devilish and distinctly more threatening. I'd suggest an Aquaman analogy but it wasn't even a wet Roubaix. Just imagine three sharp spikes, the longest of them chiselled to perfection and striking out alone, while the other two menace to either side. Wolverine's hands maybe? It was indeed a slasher movie of Hollywood proportions, except there wasn't any blood, just the souls of Alpecin's victims, torn asunder by the sheer relentless accuracy of their incisions.

Jasper Philipsen is the bread knife. (Bear with me). Always there, never dulling, yet never striking a fatal blow, the threat of Philipsen was enough to instil a sense of fear and inevitability into the chasing pack. As long as he was present, their metaphorical loaves could not remain pristine. They might be freshly baked, even on arrival in the velodrome, but there, he would carry out his ultimate plan, and become the best thing that sliced bread. (Sorry). Even when he punctured, there was no panic; Alpecin simply slowed the pace, waited for him to ride back on, and proceeded on their way.

Yes, Philipsen has far exceeded expectation – once a sprinter capable of overpowering the world's fastest men on two wheels, now, he is a sprinter capable of overpowering the world’s fastest men on two wheels... and he's also a near perfect cobbled classics rider. A stand-up teammate. And probably the most deluxe back-up plan since Jonas Vingegaard took the reins for Jumbo-Visma on stage 11 of the 2021 Tour de France. Despite rumours circling around a potential lucrative transfer for Philipsen, if Alpecin want to retain their heart, which once was considered to beat for Mathieu van der Poel alone, they must open the wallet and invest in the future of this bread knife. With his ‘disaster’ days long behind him, the only disaster now would be Alpecin letting him go to a rival team.

For the sake of this analogy, Gianni Vermeersch is a fish knife. Doesn't look all that threatening. Quite small and unassuming on the outside. But he will gut you, and leave you with nothing left inside, you mark my words. (Metaphorically. Obviously. Feel free to read that in a Cockney accent if you like).

I’m not being facetious I swear. I genuinely think that Vermeersch was EPIC at Paris-Roubaix, following on from his sterling performance at the Tour of Flanders, in which he played the role of Mads Pedersen’s shadow, in the ill-fated move that saw the two go off for a long and uninterrupted one-to-one performance review.

It’s no secret that within the peloton, Vermeersch hasn’t been everyone’s favourite rider in the past, and with his dogged defence tactics paying dividends time and time again on Sunday, it’s not just his physical riding style that his colleagues now have to object to. He displayed tactics to match, not giving an inch, chasing down moves like an aggrieved terrier, and essentially marking out anyone who would dare do the unthinkable and try to go after his leader. He’s a strong off-road rider, traversing the cobbles with the deft handling of a seasoned cyclocrosser, all the while lurking with intent around the likes of Laurence Pithie and Tim Wellens and chasing after them whenever they dared to stray. Maybe an angry sheepdog is a better analogy.

Also, word on the street is he snores (I didn't make this up, this is according to the other knives - I mean, riders - on the team). This guy knows how to live his best life: make yourself indispensable to your team, AND get your own room.

And with the teamwork element of the race dealt with, is it finally time to get serious? Fine, if I must. Onto the sharpest blade of them all...

ACT II: Too fast, too furious

Mathieu van der Poel is a steak knife.

Sorry, I promised this would be the serious segment. I'll start again.

Mathieu van der Poel is a legend. A true, bona fide legend of our sport. His palmares currently boasts a World Championship, three Tours of Flanders, two Paris-Roubaix, one Milano-Sanremo, and a partridge in a pear tree. Where the partridge is a Strade Bianche and the pear tree is a stage of the Tour de France. And the tree is buried in fertile soil made of E3s and Dwars Door Vlaanderens and Amstel Gold Races.

Look, what I’m saying is, he wins bike races. But he doesn’t just WIN bikes races. He completely steamrollers them, and is stunning in not only his ruthlessness, and his sheer ability to go faster than everyone else, but also his style on the bike. He is no less than the Muhammed Ali of cycling, levitating over the cobbles at frankly phenomenal speed – I defy you to watch this clip and tell me it isn’t the definition of ‘floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.’ Except there were no bees in sight. (A moment of silence for the lack of Wout van Aert at this race – though Per Strand Hagenes and the van Dijke brothers gave it a bloody good shot in his stead – but this section isn’t about them. Cue the clip!)

It feels somewhat disingenuous not to write more about this legend, this titan, this champion in rainbow stripes who completed a rainbow shut-out, pairing his win with Lotte Kopecky’s the previous day to ensure that two World Champions were victorious in the velodrome. But what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said?

It’s barely worth recapping the race itself (though you can read an excellent report of how the action unfolded in the race reports section) as everything that unfolded was simply preamble to a one-man show. Even his teammates’ considerable efforts, while expertly deployed, would not really have made much difference in the grand scheme of things. If a man can do this, with 60km remaining in a Monument (on sector 13, unlucky for EVERYONE except MVDP) there’s really nothing anyone can do, either to help or to hinder him. He is simply a force of nature. It’s like trying to speed up the wind by blowing into it. Or slow it down by holding up your hand. To the winning performance, and the current leading man of one-day racing, everything else is irrelevant.

ACT III: By the wayside

And yet, Paris-Roubaix is always a race of stories. It’s the day, of all days in the cycling calendar, that will invite a long, rambling anecdote down the pub, when all these pros have retired and are recounting their glory days to the next generation. It’s the quintessential sporting example of the Vietnam war movie line – ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there.’ Blistered hands, numbness in the extremities, a glazed stare… have these riders been competing in a bike race, or trying to conquer an inhospitable wilderness? These are one and the same at Paris-Roubaix.

From Tom Pidcock, rocking up as a late surprise addition to the INEOS Grenadiers line-up after his withdrawal from Itzulia; the man who won the junior edition of the race and instantly became a wildcard to watch. His teammate, young Josh Tarling, showing up with a monstrous 62 tooth chainring, then suffering a crash, a mechanical and a disqualification after an ill-advised sticky bottle.

To John Degenkolb, whose name is intertwined with the race, from his own win nine years previously, to his involvement with the Friends of Paris-Roubaix assocation, to the part he played in the 2023 race and the cruel way he crashed out, and his crash earlier in the week during recon. He was the man everyone was willing to do well, but once again, the fickle hand of fortune did not favour the German, as he suffered a mechanical on the Trouee d’Arenberg, and was forced to chase back on. He still finished 11th.

There was Intermarché-Wanty’s Laurenz Rex – for many, a strong outside bet for the win or at least the podium, following an impressive 9th place in 2023. He came down in the early crash but rode on, only to collide with some road furniture, fly head over heels off his bike, and in an act of incredible resilience or sheer bloody-mindedness, depending on which way you look at it, continued to try and ride, despite his skinsuit resembling er, some shreds of something that was once a skinsuit. He subsequently DNF’ed, and who can blame him.

Big props to Liam Slock (Lotto-Dstny) and Kamil Malecki (Q36.5 Pro Cycling) from the day’s doomed early break. Both from ProTeams, they both finished in the top 20, while Soudal-QuickSteps’ highest finisher was Yves Lampaert in 36th (he was also their highest finisher a week earlier at the Tour of Flanders, in 18th).

Alberto Bettiol, who rode his debut at the race, and claimed ‘I don’t really know a lot about this race – I know that there is a velodrome in Roubaix, I know you have to go through a forest.’ Whether these comments were in jest or not,

And then there are all the riders that did not finish the race. Of all the races on the calendar, there are more three letter acronyms at the bottom of the Paris-Roubaix results list than you can shake a stick at. DSQs (sorry Josh), DNFs, OOTs, DNSs. There are multiple reasons why this might occur. As usual, many of the 43 DNFs (did not finish) were as a result of riders having done their jobs for the day and simply deciding enough was enough. Many more were as a result of crashes or mechanicals. In a long, challenging one-day race, this attrition race is normal. Well, as normal as dropping out midway through a top-level sporting event for which you have trained your whole life will ever be.

For me though, it’s the 18 riders finishing the race ‘OOT’ (out of time) – that really stand out to me. For this is NOT normal. Sometimes in the Tour de France riders might finish outside of the time limit, if they are particularly unlucky. Having a time limit at all, in Paris-Roubaix, feels distinctly mean. But this is racing. And to ride on in the knowledge that you won’t even record a finishing position tells its own story. To finish Paris-Roubaix – to ride those 29 cobbled sectors and finish in that lauded velodrome – is an achievement in itself, regardless of where you finish.

While Van der Poel was busy setting the fastest time in history, putting so much distance between himself and everyone else that he forced even more riders to go over the time limit, these valiant men, many of them debutants – the likes of AJ August, Cyrus Monk, Jardi van der Lee, Riley Sheehan – ploughed on through the sectors, the TV crew long gone, hopefully being cheered on from the roadside by the supporters, to complete their race. Because you never know after all, what life may bring you – to say you’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix even once, is to initiate yourself as a true classics rider, and regardless of where you finished, you'll always have that story to tell, in the pub. Cheers to that.

Paris-Roubaix 2023

A Roll of the Cobblestone: Paris-Roubaix 2023 in review

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