It all started in the Arenberg Forest. It’s often in Paris-Roubaix.
There, or rather, just before, as the suspense mounts in the most treacherous cobblestone section of the game, action is finally taken. It goes away. It was Mathieu van der Poel who led into the forest. After 100 kilometers, Mathieu van der Poel led the team into the racetrack alone.
“Of course, this is my strongest classic season,” he told Cycling Weekly and other media in his post-race press conference. “I was able to do a power output in the last 50 kilometers that I wasn’t able to do in the past.”
It’s not uncommon to see the winning move so early at the Monument, but in the scorching Roubaix sun, it wasn’t surprising. For Van der Poel, the car is at its best when it goes all out. His 11 breakaway partners, including Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen and Stefan Küng, were happy to help.
“We played like teenagers from start to finish,” said the Dutchman. “It’s crazy. But for me, it’s actually not bad because the tougher the game, the better it is for me, especially the final.”
“It’s been weird to see us go all out from start to finish the last few years. I think it’s also the fastest version today. I’m not sure. It’s just fantastic.”
Van der Poel is right. Straight from the flag drop, the group rode faster than the fastest time predicted in the road book. Fans shuttled between the dusty areas only to be told drivers had passed.
For just one year, Dylan van Baarle held the Paris Roubaix record for the fastest ever, until his compatriot came along and surpassed it by a kilometer per hour. The benchmark is now 46.8 km/h.
Still, it’s not just speed that sets the Alpecin-Deceuninck drivers apart. Luck was also on his side.
With 15.5 kilometers to go on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, he tangled with 2015 race winner John Degenkolb, who crashed into the feet of a spectator. “I haven’t seen the images,” the German said later, but he declined to point fingers.
Van der Poel stayed upright. “If it was my fault, I apologize,” he said. “It wasn’t intentional, it was just a game.”
An untimely puncture by Van Aert a few minutes later also worked in the Dutchman’s favour.
“I had a flat tire and I was literally attacking myself, feeling really strong,” the Jumbo-Visma driver explained. “I tried to keep my head down and fight all the way to the finish line. Maybe I’m the only one in the group who’s still really fighting for the win and not for second place.”
“I’m happy that I’m at least on the podium, but yeah, it’s unfortunate. Of course, it could have been a different final.”
Van der Poel expressed the same sentiment. “If he hadn’t had a flat tire, I think we would have entered the circuit together,” the Dutchman told the media, but he overtook on his own. “As I said before the game, we need not only good legs, but also a little bit of luck.”
In the end, in the fastest version managed by the peloton, Van der Poel had both.