The cobbled Classics season has drawn to a close, with Sunday’s 119th Paris-Roubaix concluding what has been a non-stop and compelling run of racing stretching back to the Opening Weekend at the end of February.
Almost without exception, the races over the cobbles of Belgium and northern France have been captivating, tense and exciting through to the end, and Paris-Roubaix was no exception.
There was barely time to breathe during the 257km marathon over 30 cobbled sectors from Compiègne to the Vélodrome André Pétrieux as splits, crashes, punctures, attacks and counter-moves came almost minute by minute during the five-and-a-half-hour race.
Now that the dust has settled, literally and figuratively, on the race, we can take a look back at what was another Hell of the North thriller. Here are our six conclusions from the 2022 Paris-Roubaix.
Ineos Grenadiers cap dazzling spring Classics with the biggest prize
Much has been made of Ineos Grenadiers’ cobbled Classics strategy over the years, with the team never quite being able to replicate their Grand Tour dominance on the roads of Flanders and Belgium.
Until Sunday, two E3 Harelbeke titles, courtesy of Geraint Thomas and Michał Kwiatkowski remained their biggest triumphs in 12 years of racing, while there were also five Opening Weekend triumphs and Dylan Van Baarle’s Dwars door Vlaanderen victory last spring.
However, the 2022 spring season has seen the British squad announce themselves as a force for the foreseeable future on the cobbles, putting into action a new racing philosophy and capping off a phenomenal April with Van Baarle’s solo win at Paris-Roubaix.
Neo-pros Magnus Sheffield and Ben Turner have burst onto the scene with a series of stunning rides, including the American’s solo win at Brabantse Pijl and top 10 places for the Briton at that race and Dwars door Vlaanderen having worked tirelessly for his teammates.
Tom Pidcock grabbed a podium spot at the latter following a hectic final, while back in March Jhonatan Narváez was sixth at E3 Harelbeke, alongside Van Baarle in the chase group. The Dutchman went on to take second at the Tour of Flanders, before his stunning ride in Roubaix rounded out the team’s best-ever spring campaign.
The success doesn’t look like a flash in the pan either, with a host of young riders – Sheffield, Pidcock, and Turner are all 22 or under, and Narváez and Filippo Ganna are 25 – all experiencing either their first or second Classics campaigns. At 29 and 31, Van Baarle and Amstel Gold Race winner Michał Kwiatkowski also have plenty left in the tank.
The future of the spring classics is bright at Ineos Grenadiers, and the present is, too.
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl conclude a cursed cobbled campaign
While the likes of Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert can come away from the spring overjoyed with their all-round team displays, it has been a different story for the traditional Classics powerhouse, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl.
At race after race through March and April, the Belgian team has come unstuck, hit by illness, crashes and bad luck on their favoured terrain. Depending on how you count them, the team has 60 wins on the cobbled Classics through its 20 years, though Fabio Jakobsen’s triumph at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne all the way back in late February was their sole title from a bruising 2022 campaign.
Heading into the final 10km at Roubaix, Yves Lampaert, who has seen his spring wrecked by illness, looked all set for a podium finish as he raced with Matej Mohorič to the finish in the chase behind eventual winner Dylan van Baarle.
However, the usually quiet second-last sector at Willems had other plans for the Belgian, one final blow for QuickStep just as some form of Classics salvation looked on the cards. A collision with a fan leaning out into the road saw Lampaert sent careering across the road and onto the ground, his podium chances dealt a death blow.
He eventually crossed the line in 10th place but said afterwards that he was devastated by how his race had concluded.
“To lose the podium in this way is devastating. It would have felt like a win after such a bad spring. Luckily, I have no fractures, but we were left empty handed.”
As team boss Patrick Lefevere has reminded us multiple times this spring, the team has still been a winning machine in 2022, racking up 18 victories so far. This ruinous spring, however, will linger, the frustrations unable to be corrected until they hit the cobbles again next year.
“We are unlucky again,” he concluded. “But in Roubaix every team will be able to tell that same story.”
Van Aert defies his own expectations after Covid comeback
When Wout van Aert lines up to start a race, few expect anything less from the Belgian than to put on a show and, more often than not, contend for victory – whatever the terrain.
Ahead of Paris-Roubaix, though, there was a rare air of uncertainty over what the Jumbo-Visma star would be capable of, having been away from racing for two weeks following a Covid-19 infection.
The official team line was that he would be working for his teammates Christophe Laporte and Mike Teunissen but, come race day, those expectations were proven to be a false dawn. Van Aert was back to his best on Sunday, or at least his near-best, as he rode to a career-best second place finish in the Roubaix velodrome.
He suffered his own difficulties, though, as almost every rider does at Roubaix, having been caught on the wrong side of the early crosswind split before puncturing in the Arenberg just after getting back to the main peloton.
After another chase back, his team forced a decisive selection 60km out, with Van Aert suffering a second puncture before eventually attacking with Stefan Küng to form the small group which would contest the podium places behind Van Baarle.
While any second place would be viewed as something of a disappointment for rider of Van Aert’s calibre, he said later that he was proud of finishing as best of the rest on what was a brutal comeback race.
“I’m definitely not disappointed to arrive second,” he said later. “It’s a big surprise to feel this good in the race and actually I’m just happy and proud.
“I think today shows that after sickness, I’m still able to ride the podium. So that actually makes me proud and it’s a confirmation to myself that it was worth it to keep believing.”
Fifth place a small reward for Mohoric’s big ride
There would be several contenders for the ride of the day award at Paris-Roubaix, including Van Baarle, who emerged as the strongest man in the final, and Van Aert on his comeback from Covid.
Slovenian rider Matej Mohorič is also surely up there, having animated the race from a long way out and at one point having looked as though he might just ride away to a famous long-range victory.
The Bahrain Victorious leader was in no mood to wait for the decisive final sectors on Sunday, instead jumping away in a five-man move with Casper Pedersen, Davide Ballerini, Tom Devriendt, and Laurent Pichon with a mammoth 112km left to run.
At that point, none of the race’s three five-star cobbled sectors had been traversed yet, with the Trouée d’Arenberg still 17km away. 60km later, having shed Ballerini (a puncture on the Arenberg) and Pedersen (dropped at Wallers), the remaining trio were two minutes up on the next group on the road, and staying away to contest the win looked a real possibility.
It wouldn’t turn out that way, though, as the favourites behind accelerated and attacked before Mohorič punctured at Pont-Thibault with 39km remaining. He had more left to give after being caught by what turned into an 11-man lead group, though, going on the attack with Lampaert at Cysoing, the move which Van Baarle would soon bridge to en route to victory.
Mohorič had looked to add a podium spot to his Milan-San Remo triumph but would have to settle for fifth after being caught by the second chase group following Lampaert’s crash. After his ride it would’ve been hard to begrudge him a place on the podium.
“I was quite lucky in the chaos,” he said later. “I believed up until the puncture and I still believed afterwards. I really wanted the podium, but this is how it is and it was the maximum today. Also, I had Sonny [Colbrelli] in my mind all day – I’m sorry that he’s not here with us today, but I hope he can come back in the future”
Van der Poel not at his best
Mathieu van der Poel’s career rival Wout van Aert may have been surprised and proud to race to second place at the end of 257km over the cobbles, his first day back racing after missing two weeks of action.
However, the Dutchman will have come away from Roubaix feeling the opposite way about his own ride, having said after finishing ninth that he “didn’t have the legs to win today.”
Aside from that early crosswind split, Van der Poel had made all the right moves through the race and had avoided the crashes and punctures that had hit many – including Van Aert. But come the final, the man anointed as race favourite beforehand wasn’t part of the winning move or the attack that decided the remainder of the podium.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, though, with Van der Poel having chased and bridged across to multiple attacks and counters over the final 50km of action.
His spring began amid questions of whether he’d be in any sort of form in April following a long rehabilitation from a lingering back issue, but titles at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders have rendered his Classics season a great success.
His Roubaix ride, then, is a smaller ‘what-if’ in the context of the past month of racing.
“I didn’t have the legs I hoped for,” he reflected afterwards. “I reacted to attacks a few times and had no intention continuing to do that. I think I kept fighting well, though.
“Realism prevailed. I’m very happy with my spring, especially with my victory in De Ronde. Now I’m going to rest for a few days.”
No rain needed for a thrilling Paris-Roubaix
Thanks to a Covid-hit calendar unlikely to be repeated anytime soon – at least unless UCI president Davide Lappartient is to be believed – a historic wet edition Paris-Roubaix last year ramped up the entertainment and the chaos beyond the norm for the Hell of the North.
It’s said that every rider has a story to tell at Paris-Roubaix, and those stories were in no shortage last October following the mud-filled, six-hour marathon across northern France. It was a race for the ages, unlikely to be forgotten by riders, fans, and journalists alike for many years.
But Sunday’s race showed that a bone-dry Roubaix can be just as eventful and exhilarating as the brutal, rain-hit 118th edition.
The action began at the start and never let up during the long battle from Compiègne to Roubaix. Within the first 50km – usually time for the break to jump away and the peloton to warm up for what lies ahead – there was carnage on the roads as Ineos Grenadiers seized the moment and split the field in 20kph crosswinds gusts.
There were favourites at the front and favourites dropped, and that was before a cobblestone had been troubled. The crashes and punctures soon came, too, while the long-range breakaway led by Matej Mohorič added another angle to the race which still had yet to see the wind-hit groups get back on.
A brief period after the Arenberg brought perhaps the only real lull in proceedings before Jumbo-Visma took it upon themselves to smash the race apart once more at Orchies 60lm from home.
The 80 minutes that followed were as tense, intriguing, and entertaining as any race so far in 2022, with moves and counter-moves, punctures and regroupings and, finally, the decisive attacks being made over the final 30km.
Perhaps all that was missing in the final of the race’s fastest edition in history was a little tension as Van Baarle powered home to seal his solo victory. However, there’s no doubt about it – you don’t need the rain for a special Paris-Roubaix.