Ten Takeaways from the Roubaix cobbles: Sunday brought us rain, mud and a stunning Paris-Roubaix. It wasn’t much fun for the peloton, but the couch warriors were in their element. Spencer Martin gives us his ‘Ten Takeaways’ from an historic ‘Hell of the North’.


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Paris-Roubaix made us wait for over two years, but, in the end, the historic race over the brutal pave of the austere of Northern France, served up potentially the best one-day race of the season. European champion Sonny Colbrelli announced his arrival as a force in the toughest one-day races by winning a reduced sprint over Florian Vermeersch and Mathieu van der Poel in the famed Roubaix Velodrome.

The win for Colbrelli in the Roubaix velodrome

The race, which had a running time of over six hours and was marked by cold, rainy weather, and took riders over the most difficult terrain the sport has to offer and was a true test of mettle. The hard racing and slick conditions on the cobblestones reduced the peloton to an extremely select group by the time they hit the critical Forest of Arenberg with 100km remaining and set in motion what was essentially the longest finale in the history of modern cycling. Colbrelli slipped off the front unchallenged a few kilometers later and was chased down by a vicious attack by Van der Poel shortly after. While it appeared that Gianni Moscon, the last man standing from the early breakaway, would stay clear for the victory, a series of flats and crashes suffered by the leader meant the race would yet again come down to a highly reduced sprint in the Velodrome. Hoping to use the element of surprise, Vermeersch struck first, but was closed down a few meters before the line by a surging Colbrelli in a thrilling finale to one of the most arduous races in the modern history of the sport.

roubaix 21
Sonny Colbrelli seemed pleased

Ten Takeaways:
Colbrelli gets the biggest win of his career and cements his arrival as a bonafide classics contender. Shockingly, he wins the race in his first-ever edition and becomes the first rider in modern memory to win the race in their inaugural start.

  • The betting markets had him pegged at +3300 odds heading into the race, which in retrospect was a glaring underestimation of a rider on the form of his life and heading into a test of individual strength. By the time he made his move off the front of the Van Aert/Van der Poel group, these odds had tightened to +375, which in retrospect, was still a steal for such a strong rider capable of winning a sprint against every rider ahead of him on the road.
  • He might have technically won in a sprint, but his winning move came with 85km-to-go when he quite literally rolled off the front unmarked. This shows that the favorites also didn’t take him seriously as a potential winner, and once again reinforces that while all the attention goes to the cobblestones, the winning moves often go on the paved sections when the favorites let their guard down.
  • This move was key since if Colbrelli hadn’t seized the opportunity to get away when they let him go, he likely wouldn’t have been able to respond to Van der Poel’s vicious attack to bridge up to him with 68km-to-go. Unlike the rest of the calendar, where conserving energy and drafting is key, getting in front of the race, as Moscon, Colbrelli and Vermeersch did, in the classics can pay massive dividends.
  • Most perplexing is that this is his second major victory in a month where he has been pulled willingly to the line by slower riders. Clearly, there is a disconnect between his on-the-bike abilities and the peloton’s perception of him.

Yes, that is Colbrelli

2) Colbrelli’s Bahrain team, far from a classics juggernaut, did a great job utilizing their strength while also sitting back and waiting for the teams of the favorites to give them a chance to strike.

  • They used Matej Mohorič’s powerful engine to keep Colbrelli upfront and out of trouble in the extremely difficult early portions of the race.
  • They also got two riders into the early breakaway, Marco Haller and Fred Wright, who were able to drop back and offer help to Colbrelli later in the race.
  • And in the cobbled sector immediately following Colbrelli’s bridge to the second group, his teammate Marco Haller in the group behind got to the front and split up the group. It might have appeared as though he was chasing his own teammate down to viewers, but in reality, he was using the cobblestones as a way to break, thin down, and sow chaos in the group to increase his leader’s chances of staying away.

A good ride by Van der Poel, but…

3) Mathieu Van der Poel rode a physically impressive, but tactically flawed race. While bagging a podium at such a difficult race just months after suffering a back injury is certainly an achievement, his lack of tactical nous once again cost him a chance at a major win.

  • He spent what seemed like every kilometer from Arenberg to the finish line on the front in some capacity, and with a good chunk of it with an open and flapping rain jacket, which added a significant amount of aero drag.
  • When he should have been attempting to drop Colbrelli on the final cobble sections, he was almost riding as if to hold the race together, and when he should have been holding the group together and encouraging the others to work to pull back Moscon, he was attacking.
  • Even when it was obvious the race would come down to a sprint against Colbrelli and the chasers weren’t coming back, he kept the power on at the front, which contributed nothing and only softened him up to him for the sprint finish.
  • In retrospect, he likely used his race-winning move to bridge up to the Colbrelli group with 68km-to-go. Had he marked Colbrelli, instead of letting him ride free, he potentially could have delivered a knockout blow to the Italian with that move.
  • Also, if he was indeed using precious mental and physical resources to clean his with 15km-to-go, it shows a massive lack of focus and that he was essentially counting his win before the job was done.

Florian Vermeersch – Impressive

4) Florian Vermeersch, at only 22-years-old and in his first full professional season, gets a shocking second place and came within inches of winning the race.

  • I liked it at the moment, but, if Vermeersch plays the finale a bit more conservatively and launches his sprint on the final corner, one wonders if his initial pop would have given him just enough space to hold off Colbrelli, who is one of the best in the world at long sprints.
  • Colbrelli didn’t know who Florian Vermeersch was and referred to him as ‘that rider from Lotto-Soudal’ in his post-race interview.
  • But Vermeersch used his lack of notability to his advantage. In the mold of Matt Hayman in 2016, he got into the early breakaway, which allowed him to bypass the fight for each cobbled sector and, somewhat counterintuitively, gave him a much easier ride than the chasing peloton.
  • He becomes the first rider aged 22 or younger to land on the podium since Tom Boonen in 2002.

Moscon – Unlucky

5) Gianni Moscon, a major betting odds underdog heading into the race, gets a career-best 4th place and his first top-ten since 2017. However, he, nor his Ineos team, will be happy or satisfied with that solid result after a disastrous final 30kms that saw him suffer a flat tire, slow bike change, and crash that likely cost him the win of his career.

  • Like Vermeersch, he got into the early breakaway and, if not for his flat and crash, would have ridden to victory from it.
  • The painfully slow bike change was shocking coming from a team like Ineos, who despite having the sport boiled down to an exact science, appears to have completely failed in drilling their staff for quick bike changes.
  • Also, Moscon appeared to be at a massive disadvantage compared to the chasers after the bike change. His machine was slipping and sliding all over the road, while the chasers appeared much steadier, which makes me wonder if his tire pressure was much too high on his replacement bike.

A very strong showing from Canada’s Guillaume Boivin

6) In a race that has traditionally favored experience over all else, the top three all finish on the podium in their first-ever start at the race, a first in the modern history of the race, while Canadian Guillaume Boivin finishes 9th in only his second-ever appearance at the race.

  • Even Van der Poel and Van Aert have little to no experience here. Further shows how the specialization of the sport is crumbling.
  • Cross skills are certainly playing a role with Van der Poel, but I’m shocked at how well more traditional road racers like Colbrelli, Boivin, and Laporte fared.

Was the season too long for Wout van Aert?

7) Wout van Aert, despite being the overwhelming favorite heading into the event, struggled to make an impact. After a fantastic 2020 season that saw him win Milano-Sanremo and get second at Flanders, he has regressed slightly and struggled to match that form in the Monuments.

  • His positioning, or lack thereof, seemed to be his major limiter today. He was caught out by crashes while hanging out at the back multiple times.
  • This caused him to miss Van der Poel’s move in the Arenberg Forest with around 97km-to-go, and he seemed to be losing ground during every major cobbled section.
  • And when Van der Poel launched his key attack with 70km-to-go on a technical cobbled sector, Van Aert was buried back in the group and couldn’t respond. This is a shockingly elementary mistake for a rider of his caliber to be making and it frankly looked like he hadn’t prepared for the event.
  • Roubaix rookies like Van der Poel, Colbrelli and Vermeersch rode much more tactically sound races.

Tim Declercq was in the early move for Deceuninck – Quick-Step

8) For the first time since 2011, no Quick-Step riders finished on the podium.

  • The usual bullies of the cobbles missed the first two groups entirely and were forced to race on the back foot all day.
  • While they suffered bad luck at key points, a few of their leaders were ridden off wheels and spat out the back on multiple occasions (i.e. Štybar with 90km, Lampaert with 68km-to-go).
  • This signals a massive changing-of-the-guard in even the most traditional corners of the sport.

Yves Lampaert – Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s best finisher in 5th place

9) In fact, only a single rider, Yves Lampaert, finished in the top ten at both this year’s edition and the last time the race ran in 2009. This shows the shocking tectonic shifts that have occurred in the sport since then.

  • In another example of the rapid progression of the sport, the last three winners, Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, and Greg Van Avermaet finished 28th, 52nd, and 30th, with Gilbert the closest to Colbrelli at over seven minutes back.

Ex-Roubaix winner Philippe Gilbert at 7 minutes

10) The extremely rough cobblestones and impossibly slick conditions highlighted massive differences in the bikes and equipment ridden by key riders.

  • Teams like Alpecin-Fenix rode their standard aero road bikes, which would have been inconceivable ten years ago.
  • Moscon’s bike seemed to lack any traction whatsoever on the cobbled sectors. This isn’t a glaring endorsement for Ineos’ bike sponsor, Pinarello, and the mechanical staff in charge of the tire pressure. This disappointment continues a long line of disappointing classics results for the team.
  • The contrast in average speed and the number of finishers to the last rainy edition of the race (2002) showed just how much better the modern bikes and tires are at navigating these cobblestones. For example, in the last rainy edition, the winner, Johan Museeuw averaged 39kms per hour, while Colbrelli averaged 43kms per hour, and only 41 riders were able to finish the race in 2002, compared to 94 riders today.

# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #

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