Gilbert moves closer to historic Monument clean sweep
When Philippe Gilbert reiterated at the start of the season his desire to win all five Monuments before retiring, it came across as admirably ambitious, but increasingly implausible.
The Deceuninck - Quick-Step rider will turn 37 this summer, and his form in last season’s classics was some way short of his initial return to the cobbles the year before, when he added the Tour of Flanders to his Monument collection of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and two Il Lombardia crowns.
However, today Gilbert took a huge leap towards his goal today by winning Paris-Roubaix. It was a typically savvy and aggressive performance from the Belgian, who had the nous to recognise the potential of an attack by Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) with 67km still left to ride, and the boldness to commit to it early on.
Much is made of how modern day pros are less versatile and more specialised than their forefathers, which outlines just how special Gilbert’s achievement is. In fact, he becomes the first rider to win four different Monuments since Sean Kelly in the 1980s.
And he’s not done yet. All that’s left now for Gilbert to become just the fourth rider in the history of the sport to boast all five Monuments on his palmarès is a Milan-San Remo victory. His build-up towards targeting the next edition is likely to be one of the most engaging narratives of the 2020 season.
Another vintage Deceuninck - Quick-Step performance
As legendary an individual as Philippe Gilbert is, he may not have won today were it not for yet another tactical masterclass from his Deceuninck - Quick-Step team.
Yves Lampaert was especially instrumental. By managing to mark Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) as they joined Gilbert and Politt at the front of the race, he ensured Deceuninck - Quick-Step had a crucial numerical advantage in the decisive break.
The team capitalised on this advantage in the final kilometres, when the threat of a chasing Lampaert allowed Gilbert to sit on Politt’s wheel heading into the Roubaix Velodrome, putting Gilbert in an ideal position to win the two-man sprint. Lampaert himself was rewarded with third place, his first ever Monument podium finish.
The roles of Zdeněk Štybar and Florian Sénéchal should not be underestimated, either. Their presence in the group of chasers helped ensure that the likes of Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) were given no freedom to attempt to bridge the gap to the leaders.
Any disappointment at having missed out as last week’s Tour of Flanders will have disappeared, as Deceuninck - Quick-Step cap off yet another sensational cobbled Classics campaign.
Star-making ride from Nils Politt
By leading the sprint for sixth in a chasing group at the E3 BinckBank Classic, then riding aggressively to finish fifth at the Tour of Flanders, Nils Politt had quietly impressed all spring, to the extent that he was being hyped by some as an outside candidate for victory at Paris-Roubaix.
The German may not quite have managed to win, but his ride for second place was a career-best performance that confirmed the extent of his considerable talent.
Despite spending the longest amount of time out front than all of the other riders to make the race-winning selection, and despite contributing to his fair share of pace-setting turns, Politt still had enough left in the tank to attack on the third-to-last pavé secteur, where he raced clear with Gilbert.
The 25-year-old was always at a disadvantage in that two-man sprint against the veteran Gilbert, but with his whole career ahead of him you expect he’ll have more chances to win the Hell of the North.
The selection is made early
As has been the trend in the cobbled Monuments of recent years, the race-winning selection of the 2019 Paris-Roubaix was made early.
Nils Politt instigated it by attacking through the feed-zone at 67km, taking everyone by surprise apart from Philippe Gilbert.
Peter Sagan recognised the threat this duo posed shortly after, and set off in pursuit on the Auchy-Bersee pavé, just over 50km from the finish, taking Van Aert, Vanmarcke and Lampaert with him.
This was where several of the top favourites lost the race. Most notably, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) failed to spot the danger, despite having appeared very strong early on after leading the peloton over the crucial Arenberg Forest, and spent the rest of the race in a frustrating, fruitless pursuit.
Oliver Naesen’s (Ag2r La Mondiale) good legs were also wasted as he missed the selection, while Trek-Segafredo - who moments before had four riders massed at the front - lamentably failed to place a single rider in the move.
Incident packed Paris-Roubaix
As is always inevitable in a race characterised by such chaos, tension and such monstrous road surfaces, this year’s Paris-Roubaix was again full of dramatic crashes and mechanicals.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) was one of the early victims of misfortune, suffering not one but two punctures, the second of which saw him distanced prior to the race-defining Arenberg Forest sector.
It had looked as though Van Aert would suffer a similar fate when, having only just made it back to the peloton following a puncture, he was forced into another sole pursuit after crashing on a seemingly benign stretch of tarmac.
Remarkably, he not only bridged up to the peloton some 10km later, but still had the legs make the key selection, as if to send a message of ‘anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better’ to his rival Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) following his similar stunning comeback at Flanders last week.
However, these efforts later took their toll, and the Belgian was dropped in the finale and ultimately distanced by the chasing group, eventually stuttering to a 22nd-place finish.
Similar bad luck also befell the perpetual bridesmaid Sep Vanmarcke. Despite failing to follow Politt and Gilbert’s attack on the Gruson secteur 14km from the finish, he remained just about in contention as the finish approached.
But a problem with his bike prevented him from helping Sagan with the chase, and he had to settle for fourth place - a fifth career top six finish at Paris-Roubaix, but another day when victory proved elusive.
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