It all kicked off around the Forest of Arenberg. It often does at Paris-Roubaix.
There, or rather just before, with the suspense of the race’s most perilous cobbled sector intensifying, a move finally went. And it stayed away. It was Mathieu van der Poel who led into the forest. 100km later, it was Mathieu van der Poel who led alone into the velodrome.
“For sure, this was my strongest Classics season,” he told Cycling Weekly and other outlets in his post-race press conference. “The power output I could do in the last 50km is something I was not able to do in the past.”
It’s unusual to see the winning-move go so early in the Monument, but under the baking Roubaix sun, it wasn’t surprising. For Van der Poel, the racing’s best when it’s done at full tilt. His 11 breakaway companions, among them Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen and Stefan Küng, were happy to oblige.
“We just raced like juniors from start to finish,” the Dutchman said. “It was quite crazy. But for me, it was not bad actually, because the harder the race, the better it is for me, the final especially.”
“It’s strange to see [in] the last years that we’ve just gone all out from the beginning to the end. I think it was the fastest edition as well today. I don’t know for sure. It was incredible.”
Van der Poel was right. Straight from the flag drop, the bunch rode quicker than the fastest time forecast in the road book. Fans dashed between dusty sectors, only to be told the riders had already sailed past.
For just one year, Dylan van Baarle held the record for the fastest-ever Paris Roubaix, until his compatriot came along and bettered it by one kilometre per hour. The benchmark now stands at 46.8km/h.
Still, it wasn’t just the speed that made the difference for the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider. Luck was on his side, too.
With 15.5km to go, on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, he tangled with 2015 race winner John Degenkolb, who crashed heavily at a spectator’s feet. “I haven’t seen the images yet,” the German said afterwards, but he refused to point the finger.
Van der Poel stayed upright. “If it was my fault, my apologies,” he said. “It was not on purpose, It was just a race situation.”
Minutes later, an untimely puncture for Van Aert also fell in the Dutchman’s favour.
“At the moment I had a flat tyre, I was actually attacking myself and feeling really strong,” the Jumbo-Visma rider explained. “I tried to keep my head cool and fight all the way to the finish. Maybe I was also the only one in the group really still fighting for the win and not riding for second place.”
“I’m happy that I’m on the podium at least, but yeah, it’s unfortunate. It could have been a different final of course.”
Van der Poel, echoed the same sentiment. “If he didn’t have the flat tyre, I imagine we’d have gone into the velodrome together,” the Dutchman told the press, but instead he soloed clear.
“As I said before the race, we don’t only need good legs, but also a bit of luck.”
In the end, on the fastest edition the peloton has managed, Van der Poel had both.