Experience usually wins out, but the race ended with a podium full of debutants. Deceuninck-QuickStep are the team to beat in the Classics, but they weren’t on the podium. And surely in the muddy conditions the scene was set for another battle between regular rivals Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, but one was missing in the finale, as were many other favourites.
There was plenty to take away from what turned into a memorable Paris-Roubaix, with the wild ride through the 258 kilometres from Compiègne even continuing on to the victory celebration in the Roubaix velodrome, as an overjoyed Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) didn’t seem to know whether to laugh or cry amid the overwhelming emotion of winning his debut Paris-Roubaix.
Read on for our 10 conclusions from a Hell of the North that won’t soon be forgotten.
Colbrelli ends Italy's Roubaix drought
With 13 titles before Sunday's race, Italy was the third-most successful nation in the history of Paris-Roubaix – though some way off Belgium's 57 wins and France's 28. It may come as something of a surprise, then, that Sonny Colbrelli's win was the first Italian triumph at the race since 1999.
In fact, since that race, Italy has only picked up five podium spots, with Dario Pieri, Alessandro Ballan (three times), and Filippo Pozzato coming closest to victory following Andrea Tafi's triumph at the head of that famous Mapei 1-2-3. Colbrelli changed that, not long after Gianni Moscon looked like he might do the same.
The 31-year-old, who had never raced Paris-Roubaix before, became only the third debutant to win the race and now has his name alongside a long list of Italian greats: Maurice Garin, Serse Coppi, Fausto Coppi, Antonio Bevilacqua, Felice Gimondi, Franceso Moser, Franco Ballerini, and Tafi.
There could be more to come from the Bahrain Victorious rider at Paris-Roubaix, too, as he admitted that the victory was "the most beautiful" of his career and he was clearly filled with the emotion and gravity of it after he came over the line. Having previously built his April around Amstel Gold Race, surely he'll now aim for the cobbles instead. (DO)
The season was two weeks too long for Van Aert
After a 30-month absence, the COVID-19 postponed Paris-Roubaix added some much-needed spark to the post-World Championships calendar but having a major target in April, July and October proved too much for Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
Van Aert came into the season on fire in March, winning two stages and taking second overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, then finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo, won Gent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold Race and the Belgian road title before turning his focus to the Tour de France and Olympic Games. He won three stages in the Tour before taking silver in Tokyo. He then kept his sparkling form at the Tour of Britain where he won three stages and the overall race. All of this came after a cyclo-cross campaign where Van Aert finished second behind Mathieu van der Poel at Worlds.
By the time the World Championships came around, Van Aert seemed to lose his edge and the controversy surrounding the Belgian team's tactics in the road race was an unwelcome distraction ahead of Paris-Roubaix.
When it came to the race-winning accelerations of Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Van Aert had no response. It seemed that the season was two weeks too long for the Belgian champion. Come next April, expect a very different situation for Van Aert when the next Paris-Roubaix edition is back in its usual spot. (LW)
Sonny Colbrelli's win made him only the third Paris-Roubaix rookie to claim victory at the race, following on from Josef Fischer (by default) at the race's first edition in 1896, and Jean Forestier in 1955.
It's often said that a rider needs experience of having raced numerous editions of Roubaix in order to be a real contender, so important is knowledge of the cobbled sectors and roads of northern France. But the 2021 edition saw a trio of first timers take to the podium at the end of a gruelling race.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal), and Mathieu van der Poel (Jumbo-Visma) are all quality riders, with the Italian and Dutchman among the pre-race favourites despite their lack of experience. But then again, nobody who started the race on Sunday had any experience of a wet Roubaix, and the weather conditions made it a totally different race to a regular dry edition.
The final position of past winners – Philippe Gilbert (29th at 7:26), Greg Van Avermaet (31st at 8:37), John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan (53rd and 57th at 12:24), and Niki Terpstra (time cut at 29:44) – just illustrates that even for those with the most experience of the race, the new set of circumstances meant that, in a way, everyone was a debutant on Sunday. (DO)
Is a wet Paris-Roubaix one to fear?
Riders looked at the weather forecast for Paris-Roubaix with fear and the tension and apprehension could be seen in the expressions at the sign-on presentation. However, unlike the last wet Paris-Roubaix in 2002, when only 41 riders were classified as finishers, more than half of the starters finished this year even amid the epic conditions.
There were still plenty of crashes and chaos in the rain-drenched 2021 Paris-Roubaix, but 94 of the men's field made it to the finish inside the time limit and even more came as hors delai. Only two riders were listed on the medical report as injured, with Intermarché-Wanty Gobert's Wesley Kreder suffering a concussion and Michael Valgren (EF-Nippo) an injured shoulder.
The average number of finishers for the past 25 years of the race is around 90 riders, but if the numbers say anything, they show that a dry, hot and dusty Paris-Roubaix can be just as miserable and treacherous as a cold and wet one. 74 riders finished a dry but windy 2010 race behind winner Fabian Cancellara.
There are no good conditions in which to ride the cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix, but going by the numbers, perhaps the most ideal weather was in 2014 when the temperature was a cool 9°C and it was overcast and dry. Then 144 riders finished behind winner Niki Terpstra, but several of the favourites crashed including Cancellara and Greg Van Avermaet. (LW)
Technology has come a long way since the last wet Roubaix
In the time of the last wet Paris-Roubaix, 23mm was a wide tyre. Rim brakes, narrow forks and seat stays limited the width of tyre that riders could run. Bike companies came up with special models to give riders better clearance but the machines of 2002 were nothing like what riders have today.
The better clearance on disc brake frames allows riders tyres 30mm wide or more, which make handling a course like Sunday's mudfest more manageable. Although riders are still susceptible to punctures, innovations like tubeless technology can help mitigate the damage, and wide rims help create a rounder profile which helps with both aerodynamics and stability.
Ineos Grenadiers made the switch to disc brakes in the nick of time this season after almost the entire peloton had long since left rim brakes on the shelf, and it paid off with Gianni Moscon making it into a potentially race-winning position, were it not for a puncture and then a crash after a bike change.
The technology can have its downsides, however. Disc brakes with thru-axles are notoriously slow to change and, as Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) showed when he had to use his foot to brake by pressing it on the top of his rear tyre, they are not immune to failing completely.
Riders still need amazing bike-handling skills to remain upright on sections like the Arenberg forest pavé where Wout van Aert managed magically to avoid crashing when a rider fell in front of him, but technology seems to have made a wet Roubaix more do-able. (LW)
A rare Roubaix blank for Deceuninck-QuickStep
You have to go back a decade at Paris-Roubaix to find a final podium devoid of any representation from Patrick Lefevere's squad. Back in 2011, Sylvain Chavanel's 38th place was their best result as Johan Vansummeren took a surprise solo victory.
Since then, they've taken wins courtesy of Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Philippe Gilbert, while Terpstra, Boonen, Zdenek Štybar, and Yves Lampaert have all taken second and third places. On Sunday, Lampaert was their top finisher, winning the sprint for fifth, 1:16 behind winner Sonny Colbrelli.
Deceuninck-QuickStep were a major presence in the early stages of the race but were barely a factor in the final as Lampaert plugged away in Wout van Aert's largely unseen chase group while the likes of Stybar, Kasper Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal had long said goodbye to the front of the race.
Some bad luck came their way, with Lampaert puncturing three times, Asgreen also suffering two punctures, and Sénéchal being accidentally missed by the team car after puncturing. Stybar, meanwhile, admitted he didn't have the legs to compete – in contrast to Lampaert, who said he felt he was the best man in the race.
"It was a heroic race but it's a shame I had such bad luck," said Lampaert afterwards. "I think I was the best man in the race. When Van der Poel attacked, I was in his wheel, but I seemed to puncture in the middle of the cobblestones. It's a shame, but it's part of Paris-Roubaix."
It wasn't Deceuninck-QuickStep's day, but you would be foolish to bet against them being back at the front of the race next year. (DO)
Israel Start-Up Nation arrive as Classics force
While Bahrain Victorious may have taken the win with Sonny Colbrelli and 10th place with Heinrich Haussler, another team also placed two men in the top 10. However, as you've probably guessed from the previous entry, it wasn't the usual suspect, Classics powerhouse Deceuninck-QuickStep.
Instead, it was Israel Start-Up Nation who finished eighth and ninth with Tom Van Asbroeck and Guilaume Boivin, proving themselves an emergent Classics force. The team is a relatively unheralded Classics squad, with no lineup of stars like QuickStep or any one superstar like Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel.
Instead, they've put together a number of strong but unheralded riders and placed them in the right moves on Sunday, with Van Asbroeck among the last survivors from the large early break and Boivin, surprisingly, one of the few able to follow Van der Poel's acceleration on Auchy à Bersée.
Bad luck saw the Canadian crash out of contention with 20 kilometres to go, while team leader Sep Vanmarcke suffered multiple punctures and bike changes. Boivin, riding his debut Roubaix, summed up the team's strength on Sunday.
"We were perfect with the team," he said. "When I was with Colbrelli and Van der Poel we had Van Asbroeck for a long time in the front so I didn't have to pull, and I could save my legs.
"The team was amazing today. We had people on every sector with bottles and wheels. We have a past winner of Paris-Roubaix [Dirk Demol] in the car, so it was all-hands on deck today and a big thanks to the team." (DO)
Belgium gets a new Classics star
Few onlookers would have put Lotto Soudal's Florian Vermeersch down among the favourites to step on the podium on Sunday, but by the end of the race he drew comparisons to Tom Boonen from sections of the Belgian media, having replicated Boonen's podium-finishing ride in the wet on his Roubaix debut back in 2002.
"I don't want to compare myself to Tom Boonen," he said after the race. "I'm just focussing on my own path, and he has such a large palmarès. For me to equal that will take a lot more big achievements. I'm really happy with this today and we'll see what the future brings."
The 22-year-old Vermeersch, who completed his first full pro season this year, won the mountain classification at the Tour de Wallonie, rode his debut Grand Tour at the Vuelta a España, and, two weeks ago, finished third in the U23 time trial at the World Championships.
Now, with a second place in Paris-Roubaix on his palmarès, the ex-cyclo-crosser has marked himself down as one to watch in the future. He may not be the next Boonen, but the man himself said that he was more than pleased with what he saw from Vermeersch, especially his attitude after the race.
"I'm going to get straight to the point – I'm now a fan of Florian Vermeersch," Boonen wrote in Het Laatste Nieuws. "I didn't know him very well, but he has shown himself to the entire world. The 'cool' with which he approached the final blew my socks off.
"I think it's fantastic that he isn't happy with second. You could tell from his face on the podium that he didn't like it. That's the right attitude! The most important thing is the attitude, and you don't change that. Here I've seen a born winner." (DO)
Another chance for glory in six months
Usually the end of Paris-Roubaix marks the end of the cobbled Classics season for another year, as fans of the pavé are forced to endure a long wait for the races in Flanders and northern France to roll around again, or, in Roubaix's case, over two years since the previous edition.
This time, all being well in the world, the wait to return to the Hell of the North will be a mere 196 days, until Easter Sunday. The shorter gap before the Classics start up again makes up somewhat for the fact that the past two Aprils have passed with no Paris-Roubaix, and, in addition to being a positive for the fans, those riders disappointed by Sunday's result can also hope to right any wrongs in record quick time.
For the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, who wore a scowl on the podium, his rival Wout van Aert, and the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad, they'll have something of a do-over in just over half a year's time. You'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who isn't happy about that. (DO)
Saturday's women's race was a chance for several of the peloton to say goodbye to the sport, with Trixi Worrack and Jolien D'Hoore among those riding their last race before retirement as the recently retired Anna van der Breggen enjoyed a baptism of fire for her first race in the team car.
It was no different on Sunday, as 39-year-old Marcel Sieberg – now a veteran of 14 editions of the race – bid farewell to the sport as part of Bahrain Victorious' winning effort. The giant German, who didn't make the finish, had made a career as a key lieutenant in the Classics and lead outs for teams including HTC-Colombia and Lotto, and now, after 15 years in the peloton, hangs up his wheels.
Joining him on the list of retirees are fellow Classics enthusiast Bert De Backer of B&B Hotels p/b KTM (38 th at 9:29), Michał Golas of Ineos Grenadiers (60 th at 12:32), and Mitch Docker of EF Education-Nippo (DNF), while veteran UAE Team Emirates directeur sportif Allan Peiper also enjoyed one last race in the team car.
Each man will have some memory to walk away with after a chaotic Sunday, with Peiper noting that it was a "heroic" race to go out on. After the finish, the 61-year-old said after the race that he made the decision two weeks ago, feeling that he had less energy to do the job due having battled cancer on an off for the past five years.
"The farewells to riders and colleagues were moments where I had an extra hard time this week," he told Het Nieuwsblad. "I think it's fantastic to be able to retire after such a heroic race. It has captivated me my whole life but now I look forward to rest of my life, starting with a holiday on the Amalfi Coast in Italy." (DO)
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