Blazin' Saddles: Five things we learned from Paris-Roubaix
Peter Sagan's long-distance attack and Silvan Dillier's sportsmanship and gritty determination shone bright through in an intriguing 116th edition of Paris-Roubaix that was ultimately and irrevocably marred by the tragic death of Belgian youngster Michael Goolaerts, for whom the world of cycling mourns.
Sensational Sagan silences his critics
It's one of the curious aspects of cycling that people can still find the time to criticise a triple world champion who has singularly done more to animate racing in the past few months than collective teams have done in years (*Co-ugh-fidis!*). But there you go.
Well, there was no whining on Sunday – a race in which everything fell into place perfectly for Sagan, to the extent that he claimed afterwards that he'd been less tired as a Roubaix winner than as a Roubaix also-ran following his previous attempts falling short.
Of course, it says it all when so many were tipping the evergreen Philippe Gilbert – whose only previous appearance in Roubaix came 11 years ago, resulting in 52nd place – over the world champion seven years his junior.
Sure, Sagan had yet to finish in the top five before Sunday's barnstorming ride, but he clearly had the pedigree – and in Boonen's criticism, he had that extra bit of motivation. Indeed, it was a deliciously ironic twist that saw Sagan win very much the Boonen way – attacking from 54 kilometres out and holding on all the way to the finish.
It was only the second Monument win from a rider who, now 28, may have been expected to accrue far more at this stage in his otherwise illustrious career. But most importantly, the Slovakian showman now has the monkey off his back and the Roubaix cobblestone on his mantle-piece.
Could this be the start of a Monumental run from a rider who – with nine top-five and a further four top-ten finishes in major classics – very rarely finishes far off the podium?
Plucky Dillier deserves praise after channelling Hayman
In fact, Sagan didn't quite do it the Boonen way – for had Boonen been there in the Roubaix velodrome alongside Silvan Dillier, he'd probably have contrived to allow the Swiss outsider to cause an upset the same way that Mat Hayman did two years previously.
The parallels between Hayman – who won in 2016 after coming back from a broken arm – and Dillier are obvious, with the Swiss champion making his first major appearance after breaking a thumb at Strade Bianche. Like Hayman, Dillier got into the early break – and then held on once the cavalry (in his case, Sagan) joined the party inside the final 50 kilometres.
Switzerland's Silvan Dillier (R) leads during the 116th edition of the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic cycling raceGetty Images
After his fellow breakaway survivors Sven Erik Bystrom and then Jelle Wallays dropped back, Dillier managed to hold on to Sagan's wheel – and that little bit more.
For instead of doing what most lesser riders would have understandably done, Dillier (mindful that his Ag2R-La Mondiale team-mates Oliver Naesen and Stijn Vandenbergh were both out of the picture) forewent the temptation of sitting on Sagan all the way to the finish – instead opting to keep their dream alive with regular pulls on the front.
His strength, sportsmanship and tenacity were clearly not lost on Sagan, who graciously congratulated and thanked Diller on the track following his inevitable victory. For his part, Dillier ceremoniously doffed his cap to his victor.
While obviously disappointed at finishing second, Dillier could hardly be angry at himself for missing out in a sprint in one of the biggest races of the season against the best rider of his generation.
On top of Hayman, there were similar echoes of Denmark's Mads Pedersen too – one week after the Trek-Segafredo rider not only starred in the day's main break in the Tour of Flanders, but held on for his own runners-up spot behind winner Terpstra. The major difference being that until the final metres, Dillier was in with a shot of success – a fact which further underlines his superlative and inspiring day in the saddle.
Quick-Step outfoxed at their own game
Even before Quick-Step's DS Brian Holm had a jokey dig on social media at Julian Alaphilippe, Enric Mas and Pieter Serry for being "too emotional" by celebrating in a manner that did not befit the "crazy-wild-killer and evil wolves" stereotype (and was more what could be expected from "a bunch of whining hairdressers") … even before this oddity, the Wolf Pack fandango was getting somewhat tiresome.
There can be no doubting Quick-Step's brilliance this spring – with Terpstra's Ronde triumph adding victories at Le Samyn, E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen (indeed, the team have 25 triumphs this season to date). And there can be no doubting that Quick-Step got their tactics spot-on in Flanders – with Terpstra proving the ace from a super-strong hand that also included Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert.
Which is why Sagan's win was all the more impressive on Sunday – because until the world champion tried his luck, it looked very much like business as usual for Quick-Step at Roubaix.
Tim Declercq, Iljo Keisse and Florian Senechal had covered all the breaks and controlled the peloton; Lampaert and Terpstra had shown their strength in the early cobbled sectors while many of the team's rivals were picking themselves off the ground or fighting back from being held up in the Troisville pile-up.
And with former Quick-Steppers Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) often at the fore – in particular Martin who, like Trentin, saw his chances scuppered with a hard fall – it often seemed like an all-encompassing celebration of all things Quick-Step on the cobbles.
Then Gilbert went long with 95km remaining on the Arenberg – followed by a carefully choreographed counter from Stybar. When the Czech was reeled in on the Orchies cobbled sector, we were all preparing ourselves for Terpstra's winning move.
But instead, that Boonen-esque move came from Sagan – moments after Greg van Avermaet, the defending champion, had tried his own luck from distance. Unlike Vincenzo Nibali's attack in Flanders, which Terpstra used as a launchpad for victory, no one could or would follow Sagan.
Perhaps, like Terpstra in the Ronde, Sagan was underestimated? Who knows. Either way, Sagan had outfoxed the Wolf Pack at their own game. And top cap it off, he did a Gilbert and lifted up his bike in celebration...
Do we really need a wet Roubaix?
The Beast From The East – not Vladimir Putin; the curious meteorological phenomenon that left much of Europe cold, wet and miserable earlier this spring – got things started early this year. Could this, we all asked, be the first time since 2002 that us baying fans were treated to a wet edition worthy of the race's hellish moniker?
Last week's continued rain and drizzle then upped the ante. As media and teams alike posted a litany of imagery showing practically impassable cobbled sections so caked in mud that the cobbled nature of the treacherous farm tracks was practically rendered invisible, so too did the excitement escalate on social media.
And when the organisers cleared some sectors of the mud, we, including yours truly, tut-tutted our disappointment.
No matter; it's still going to be epic, we all said, rubbing our knees with glee at the prospect of a high-speed bike race trying to negotiate the other muddy strips of jagged hell – a perversion of any race involving speed, wheels and forward momentum.
And despite the sunny forecast for the race, when on the morning of the race drizzle fell on the collective AirBnBs of cycling journalists camped out in an area of France they would otherwise avoid like the plague, there remained a slither of hope that the carnage assured by a wet Roubaix may well still be on the cards.
But then the clouds parted and the sun came out. Riders who had layered up were stripping down. Disappointment, even anger, clogged up the Roubaix hashtag as it became apparent that the wait for a rainy edition would continue to its seventeenth year.
The mud and puddles and slippery cobbles nevertheless took their toll. Even before the first pile-up at Troisville dashed the hopes of the likes of Geraint Thomas and Magnus Cort Nielsen while holding up the defending champion Van Avermaet, we had Movistar's Nelson Oliviera theatrically crashing on a narrow road apropos of apparently nothing – followed by the myriad shares on Twitter of the Portuguese's plight.
And as more and more crashes came – both on the cobbles and on the flat, and including a thoracic spine fracture for Matteo Trentin – it became clearer and clearer that even as the sky, too, became clearer and clearer, this was a race where, put simply, it just seems rather wrong to wish for any more hardship and danger for the participants than that already so clearly presenting itself with every turn of the pedal.
One day in the future it will inevitably be wet once again during Paris-Roubaix. But that doesn't mean we should await that day with such feverish disregard for the wellbeing of everyone involved.
Goolaerts shows that life is too short
When the dust settles on the muddy cobblestones of northern France, this year we will realise just how insignificant everything is – from jibes about sandbagging rivals to anguish about puncturing on a key cobbled sector or even dropping a bidon.
Because at the end of the day, none of this really matters.
The Sunday before last, a 23-year-old Belgian rookie got into the day's main break in the Tour of Flanders and rode up the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen at the head of the race.
Largely owing to pictures and videos shamefully and recklessly shared on social media, we witnessed Goolaerts receiving CPR treatment on the side of the road. He was then airlifted to hospital in Lille where, according to a statement from his devastated Veranda's Willems-Crelan team, he passed away at 22:40.
The news rocked the world of cycling and sent shockwaves through the peloton. Goolaerts became the fourth Belgian rider in the past seven years to be killed during a race – following Wouter Weylandt in the 2011 Giro d'Italia, Antoine Demoitié in Gent-Wevelgem in 2016 and Daan Myngheer, also in 2016.
This latest tragedy is a stark reminder of the real everyday dangers faced by professional cyclists every time they get in the saddle – whether in a race or, as was the case last year with Michele Scarponi, while training. The thoughts of everyone at Eurosport lie with Michael's family, friends and team-mates during this horrific time.
Let us remember Michael not by the sickening images that people were only too quick to share on social media in the immediate aftermath of his crash on Sunday, but by his own tweet from a week earlier showing a proud young man doing what he loved most in front of his home fans.
Rest in peace, Michael Goolaerts.