It was Philippe Gilbert’s day, of course. How could it be anyone else’s? He won Paris-Roubaix; perhaps the most revered, definitely the most romanticised, of all the bike races. Any time you win Paris-Roubaix someone else is going to have to do something pretty damn special to trump that.
Being Paris-Roubaix, though, there were what-ifs. There were riders who could, with a bit of luck, have snatched Gilbert’s day and made it their day.
Exhibit number one, I would suggest, was Wout van Aert, three-time cyclo-cross world champ and now, as of the last year and-a-half, world class teeth-gritting I-can-suffer-longer-than-you-can one-day road specialist.
A massive win is surely not far away.
But not here.Embed from Getty Images
As the peloton crashed like a medieval war scene into the Arenberg Forest, van Aert had a wobble. Off to the side and wallowing in the grass as Stijn Vandenbergh and Greg Van Avermaet gave it the full granite-jawed war-horse up front.
Our Belgian ‘cross man with a double-whammy puncture and misbehaving drive-train.
The race headed up the road as he availed himself of the roadside service in the form of a teammate’s bike. A tad too small for him. He would need a new bike when, if, the race next found a lull.
Adrenalin fuelled, van Aert pulled and battled his way back through the field, catching groups of riders and pedalling right through them, before re-joining the business end of the race and executing that bike change. Then, rather spoiling things, promptly losing it on a bend, hitting the deck, and sliding into the gutter.
A lesser man might have chucked the towel in here. But he had good legs and he wasn’t afraid to use them. Slicing through the field second time before eventually barrelling clear in the company of the beginnings of the race winning move.
But, as we know, there’s a well-known analogy in cycling about matches, and the burning thereof. You have only so many, you see. Each lung-bursting field-slicing effort uses one up.
Van Aert, we knew, had emptied a whole box in chasing, wild and demented, like a young pyromaniac with a glint in his eye and a lack of meaningful diversionary activities in his life.
At some point he would go to that box, in need of fire, and find it empty. Beaten not by the stones, but in a head-to-head battle with his own depleted glycogen stores.Embed from Getty Images
That leading group, from which Gilbert and Nils Pollit would go on to contest a two-up sprint in that dusty old velodrome in Roubaix, dropped him. Sagan, Vanmarcke, and Lampaert would then suffer the same fate.
Gilbert, the old lag, fluid of style and glittering of achievement, had the measure of Pollit, the young pup, to take the sprint in formidably uncomplicated fashion. This once punchy climber having morphed, in his cycling dotage, into a powerhouse on the cobbles.
But could Gilbert, on another day, have been sprinting Politt for second behind solo winner Wout van Aert?
We’ll never know.
(Gilbert Image: By youkeys – D71_8034_DxO, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62285354)