Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) capped off what has been easily the best season of his career with an unexpected victory at Paris-Roubaix, narrowly outsprinting fellow race debutants Florian Vermeersch and Mathieu van der Poel in the velodrome after a wet and muddy day in the saddle.
The Italian, who has this year taken the Italian and European road titles as well as the Benelux Tour and stages at the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné, said after the race that he has followed Greg Van Avermaet's example – not in winning the race, but in reaching his peak as a rider after the age of 30.
"We've seen other riders like Greg Van Avermaet who started winning Monuments after 30 years of age," 31-year-old Colbrelli said at the post-race press conference. "That was the example I wanted to follow.
"I've become mature as a rider at the age of 30 and that's when I've reached my 'position' in cycling. I hope to keep this up for a few more years.
"This year my mentality has changed. I got myself helped by a mental coach and there's something inside myself which is different. That is what has made everything go so well this year."
Colbrelli revealed that his main tactic during the treacherous race, which saw only 92 of the 175 starters make it to the finish, was to follow Van der Poel whenever the Dutchman made a move.
In the early stages of the race, Colbrelli was in the same group as Van der Poel as the peloton fractured over the early cobbled sectors, which were raced in the rain for the first time in almost two decades. He later made it out of the five-star Trouée d'Arenberg sector with Van der Poel, too, and was together from 70 kilometres to go after his rival had tried a long-range move on the sector at Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières.
"This is my first Paris-Roubaix, and I still can't believe what I achieved and what I've done on the cobblestones," he said. "Moreover, the mud was difficult. I was close to crashing a few times, but I kept my head focussed and I managed to stay upright and follow Van der Poel.
"This day was legendary with all the rain from the beginning and our attack at 90 kilometres to go after Arenberg. After that, my only tactic was to follow Mathieu van der Poel. I was a bit scared that Wout van Aert's group would bridge across. I followed Van der Poel and I also remained attentive not to crash and I was trying to avoid the mud and the wet cobbles."
Atop a podium of younger debutants, the question posed by Colbrelli's victory is a simple one – why didn't he race at Paris-Roubaix – his self-proclaimed "most beautiful win" – sooner? Colbrelli said that, previously, his spring goals had lay elsewhere, so an October Paris-Roubaix was perfect timing for him.
"I didn't take part here in the past because my main goal was always the Amstel Gold Race," Colbrelli said. "I was afraid to be too tired and not recovered from Roubaix. I always had the idea to take part in Paris-Roubaix. This morning I didn't even think that I would manage to finish the race. I started and rode without pressure.
"Then after 250 kilometres, even a climber can be fast in the sprint. I was afraid of Van der Poel there. Vermeersch I knew was a young and promising rider. He launched the sprint, but I managed to beat him at the very end."
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