Sonny Colbrelli has for years been seen as something of a second tier sprinter.
He has spent the 2021 season altering that perception, with wins at Romandie and the Dauphine and the European championships. It took today, however, to transform him into a champion.
The 31 year-old Italian had never before taken the start at Paris-Roubaix, but he rode the 268km as shrewdly as one who had seen it all - several times - before.
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Of course, both riders with him at the finish were there for the first time as well, and none of those who lined up this morning in Compiegne had confronted the cobbles in such challenging conditions.
It was the race we’d all been waiting for, more than 19 years on from the last edition of the Hell of the North to take place in the wet. Few would surely say it was not worth the wait.
There were those who feared that the wet weather would turn Paris-Roubaix into a game of Russian roulette, rather than a bike race. They needn’t have worried. It did, of course, call on different skillsets, benefit those with better bike-handling abilities, over those who ride purely on power, but it was not simply a matter of who happened to remain upright.
In fact, in many ways the 118th edition of Paris-Roubaix clung closely to the traditional formula, only with a little - okay, a lot - more mud.
It all began long before the pave, as a foreboding rain fell on the roads out of Compiegne. More easily than many have in the past, a fragile breakaway of 29 established itself before two hours of racing had elapsed. The first name on that particular team-sheet? A young man named Florian Vermeersch, at this end of his first season in the WorldTour, without a pro win to his name. More - a lot more - on Vermeersch later.
Crashes, too, came ahead of the cobbles. With nerves heightened, wet or dry, they always do. Stefan Kung of Groupama FDJ fell once on a roundabout, a second time on the centre line of a left-hand bend. He would go down a third time, on the cobbles, and that would be that for the Swiss rider. Fading force, and former champion, Peter Sagan was also a victim of twitchy brake levers, removed from contention before the fifth sector of cobbles.

'Unbelievable. I'm very happy' - Sonny Colbrelli delighted with Paris-Roubaix win

By some miracle, the famous fearsome farmtracks did not claim their first victim until a Qhubeka Assos rider went down on sector 26. Already mud-caked beyond recognition, the unknown rider was riding again before too long.
The break was never going to last long in high numbers. Four riders split off the front, led by Ineos veteran Luke Rowe. The less experienced names of Vermeersch - him again -, Nils Eekhoff and Max Walscheid followed. The quartet made good progress before a mechanical did for Luke Rowe, and a wheel slip put paid to Walscheid’s hopes. It seemed certain that the remaining duo, looking as unhappy as anyone ever has on bikes, would soon be embraced by the larger group of escapees behind.
They were not. Instead they extended their lead to over a minute by sector 21, with 116.5km to ride. No-one imagined either rider would make it to the finish, but they were working well together, making a good fist of it.
As the Forest of Arenberg loomed large on the flat horizon of northern France, the first moves were seen from the favourites. An attack from Mathieu van der Poel was swiftly shut down by Michal Kwiatkowski, who was riding the race as both a debutant and a veteran.
While riders did indeed see their challenges end on its boards, the Arenberg stage was not the catalyst for chaos that many predicted. The lead pair made it through safely, as did most of the other big names.
Two sectors later, Eekhoff and Vermeersch’s alone time was over. As they were caught by the bigger breakers, the race appeared to be heating up behind. With almost 180km ridden, a certain Sonny Colbrelli slipped away from the peloton. By the 200km mark, Mathieu van der Poel had made his inevitable move as well.

Colbrelli was triumphant

Image credit: Getty Images

Van der Poel looked like the unstoppable force. Certainly the other pre-race favourite, Wout Van Aert, could not stop him. With stowaways Haussler, Lampaert and Stybar, Van der Poel wolfed down the lead of Colbrelli’s group and looked to be closing on the front of the race, which was itself being gradually whittled down.
By the cobbles of Orchies it contained just three figures: Gianni Moscon, Tom Van Asbroeck and Florian Vermeersch. Him again. How?
With Van Der Poel’s group closing in, Gianni Moscon lost faith in the abilities of his company, so set out alone. If in doubt... Whether or not it would be a winning move, it would leave him with no more tactical decisions to make.
As Moscon marched, Van Der Poel did soon form a final gang of chasers. None seemed desperate to help him, however, and the Dutch strongman did not pressure them to add fuel to the fire. While Colbrelli would not allow MVDP to go off alone, chasing him down when necessary, nor was inclined to cooperate. The Bahrain Victorious rider completed fewer, shorter, slower turns than those about him. Simply put: if Van Der Poel wanted to bring Moscon back, he would have to bring him back.
With the race entering its final phase, that Moscon would be caught was still some way from certain. That is, until he suffered a rear wheel puncture, which took twenty seconds off his lead, and then crashed his new bike on sector seven, with 26km to go.
Still, Moscon managed to hold out longer than he should, though the inevitable collection occurred three sectors later, the equally inevitable dispatch out the other end not many more metres down the road.

Paris-Roubaix 2021 highlights as Sonny Colbrelli sprints to stunning victory

Van Asbroeck already dispensed with, the Wout van Aert-led peloton closing but not closing quickly enough, the 2021 Hell of the North was down to three debutant riders: Mathieu van der Poel, Sonny Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersch. Sorry. Who? Still Van der Poel seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the leg-work.
On the run-in to the world’s most famous velodrome, Vermeersch had to try something. Of course it came to nothing, but of course he had to try.
On the upper banking of the final straight of the Andre Petrieux arena, it was no surprise when the Lotto-Soudal rider made the first move.
After 268km it was, however, Sonny Colbrelli who had the legs for the finish, maneuvering between his two rivals to claim his first Monument by a length. After leaving the hallowed track, the first Italian to win Paris-Roubaix since Andrea Tafi in 1999 lifted his bike to the heavens before collapsing to the grass in a howl of jubilation.
In his immediate post-race interview the winner did not seem to know the name of his Belgian fellow traveller, who finished second, referring to him only as “the Lotto-Soudal rider.” That alone should say something about the magnitude of Florian Vermeersch’s second place.

Florian Vermeersch put in a brilliant effort but was beaten into second place

Image credit: Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel, for his part, may have finished a few regrets about the way he rode.
Colbrelli, said Dan Lloyd on The Breakaway afterwards, “is slightly more clever than Van Der Poel, who never seems to want to save energy.”
Which should not be seen as a sleight towards the Italian. No rider could make it to the finish of this brutal, beautiful edition of this brutal, beautiful race, let alone win it, without giving everything they had.
Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch had the final word. “Today is a day we won’t forget,” he said. “Every one of these riders a warrior.”
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