European champion Sonny Colbrelli won a phenomenal edition of the 2021 men's Paris-Roubaix, out-sprinting Mathieu van der Poel and Florian Vermeersch in the closing metres.
Making his debut in the race, the Bahrain Victorious rider came from behind to win by a bike length from 22-year-old Vermeersch with Van der Poel settling for third.
In the first wet edition of the race since 2002 - and the first running since 2019 due to coronavirus cancellations - riders succumbed to the wet, muddy cobbles frequently, television cameras broadcasting images that will go down in instant folklore.
A large breakaway group eventually whittled down as the day wore on, Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers) going clear with 60km to race and looking on course to secure an unpopular triumph until he suffered a flat tyre and fell.
Van der Poel rode hard all day and he came together late on with Colbrelli and Vermeersch - himself having led for much of the race earlier on - before the race was decided on the famous boards.
Victory for Colbrelli is just the latest in what has been a career-defining season for the 31-year-old, who recently swapped the Italian national champion's jersey for the continental European one. None of his victories have been as special nor as memorable as this one though. A Paris-Roubaix for the ages.
How it happened
The wet conditions at the start in Compiègne were not expected to abate throughout the 258km of racing, and thus the succession of attacks as soon as the race flag dropped were foreseen.
It took almost an hour of relentless racing, however, for a breakaway to form, a group of around 25 clipping off the front and riding clear of the peloton. Greg van Avermaet (AG2R Citroen), Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) were joined by the Deceuninck – Quick Step duo of Tim Declercq and Davide Ballerini and the Ineos Grenadiers trio of Gianni Moscon, Luke Rowe and Owain Doull.
The strong break stretched an advantage to more than two minutes, and ahead of sector 25 – the fifth of 30 - four of them departed their breakaway colleagues: Rowe, Max Walscheid (Qhubeka Assos), Nils Eeekhoff (Team DSM) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal) working together to build a small lead.
Treacherous conditions, meanwhile, were causing an innumerable amount of riders to slip, slide and crash on the wet roads and muddy cobbles, with Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) falling no less than three times in the opening 120km of racing.
Rowe was dropped by the leading group, and moments later Walschied became the latest crash victim, leaving Vermeersch and Eeekhoff out front alone, able to navigate the deep puddles and the mud more easier. At 120km, they had a lead of 50 seconds with the Matej Mohorič-led peloton two minutes behind the big chasing group.
Mechanicals were commonplace but few were as bizarre as Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) being forced to place his foot on the wheels to slow him down due to a failing rear brake.
It was near-impossible to identify the mud-cloaked riders, but TV cameras continued to pick up riders somersaulting off the cobbles and into the fields, bikes thrown across the ground, and Van Avermaet puffing out his cheeks and shaking his head in disbelief at the conditions in chaotic scenes that were so far detached from a normal road bike race.
There was a temporary lull in the action with around 100km left to race as the riders prepared to take on the Trouée d’Arenberg, but Wout van Aert did come awake before the five star sector, joining a 15-man headed by Deceuninck – Quick Step riders that Mathieu van der Poel missed out on.
Into the Arenberg, though, and roles reversed with Van der Poel going past his rival. The duo came together as part of the third chasing group though, with Eekhoff and Vermeersch finally being caught by their former original breakaway colleagues.
Riding on the 17th sector, 14 riders held an advantage of 30 seconds from a group of four headed by European champion Sonny Colbrelli, with Van Aert’s group a further 35 seconds in arrears. Zdenek Stybar and Sep Vanmarcke were also alongside the two pre-race favourites.
At 74km from the line, Vanmarcke crashed hard and looked in pain as he limped to retrieve his bike, while the front group split into two distinctive groups, Moscon and Stefan Bissegger (EF Education First) pulling along four others.
At the start of sector 15, Van der Poel unleashed a trademark powerful dig, bringing Stybar, Yves Lampaert and Heinrich Haussler with him – but crucially not Van Aert. Within kilometres, though, Van der Poel was solo, working his way across to the Colbrelli group that was a minute behind the leaders.
The head of the race, with 62km from the finishing line, was led by Moscon, Vermeersch and Tom Van Asbroeck (Israel Start-Up Nation), and as the sun began to appear through the clouds in the relenting rain, Moscon made a solo move with 53km to race.
The Italian, who is joining Astana from the 2022 season, built a 50 second lead quickly over Vermeersch and Asbroeck, with Van der Poel, Colbrelli and Guillaume Boivin 1-24 back, and Van Aert’s group 45 seconds further back.
At 40km to go, Moscon was continuing to extend his lead over a minute and thus the five behind decided to come together and work as one instead of two groups, before Van der Poel distanced them again towards the end of the ninth sector. The group containing Van Aert still had two minutes to make up on Moscon, television footage illustrating just how dirty they were, their faces and cycling wear entirely covered by wet mud that was slowly leaving a dried, crusty surface.
Approaching the eighth sector, Van der Poel was back with the group he had briefly left, while Moscon had to have a bike change at 30km to go due to a flat tyre, losing around 20 seconds to reduce his lead to 45 seconds.
On the seventh sector, Moscon dramatically slipped on the mud but was able to remount. The two following cars struggled to drive out of the entrenched mud and a motorbike fell as well, and as Moscon got back on his bike, Van der Poel and his four colleagues in the chasing group were just one hundred metres behind, 16 seconds the deficit.
Surprisingly, and with an apparent bent rear mech, Moscon increased his lead to 23 seconds as he rode across the fifth sector. Behind, Guillaume Boivin slipped and took out a motorbike, leaving just Van der Poel, Vermeersch and Colbrelli to catch Moscon which they soon did to make a leading group of four.
Colbrelli didn’t wait, though, the Italian powering on to try and distance the four, but only Moscon fell off the back.
At 12km to go, Colbrelli, Van der Poel and Vermeersch held a gap of 25 seconds to the fading Moscon and 70 seconds to the group of Van Aert. The winner, though, was destined to be come from one of the three debutants at the head of the race.
On the final cobbled sector, Van der Poel hit the front to try and move clear, but he was unable to dispatch his companions, ensuring that the winner would be decided in the famous velodrome.
Vermeersch was the first to go long on the boards and it temporarily looked like the youngster would sprint to an historic victory, but in the closing 100 metres Colbrelli came through to win by a bike length.
The emotion was palpable, Colbrelli jumping off his bike, raising it aloft and then crashing to the floor in tears of joy. Van der Poel, meanwhile, lay on the grass, desolate and exhausted.
Result: Paris-Roubaix 2021, Compiègne to Roubaix (257.7km)
1. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Victorious, in 6-01-57
2. Florian Vermeersch (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
3. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix, both at same time
4. Gianni Moscon (Ita) Ineos Grenadiers, at 44 seconds
5. Yves Lampaert (Bel) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 1-16
6. Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis
7. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma
8. Tom van Asbroeck (Bel) Israel Start-Up Nation
9. Guillaume Boivin (Bel) Israel Start-Up Nation
10. Heinrich Haussler (Aus) Bahrain-Victorious, all at same time
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