The talk before the race was always that it should come down to a duel between Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan but the fickle gods of Roubaix-luck wanted otherwise. The race started out much as it would end in a furious barrage of action as the peloton faced a bit of crosswinds in the first hours. A row of breakaway attempt formed and were neutralized as the peloton seemed intent on never letting anyone get away. It wasn't until the race almost hit the pavé sectors that a break consisting of Chavanel (Direct Energie), Hayman, Nielsen (Orica), Wallays (Lotto Soudal), Le Bon (FDJ), Kump (Lampre), Martinez (Delko), Declercq (Topsort), Puccio (Sky), Janse Van Reensburg (Dimension Data), Backaert (Wanty), Daniel (AG2R), Bozic (Cofidis) et Erviti (Movistar) was given any kind of leash as the peloton started focusing on bringing their leaders safely through the first sectors.
It was then a few sectors in that the seemingly innocuous crash took place that would come to set the agenda for the whole rest of the race. Caught behind the split were both Sagan and Cancellara as well as many other bigs including Alexander Kristoff. A few of Cancellara's Trek teammates also went down in the crash. Up front was a group with Tom Boonen and most notably his teammate Tony Martin and they kept applying pressure rapidly establishing a minute gap to the biggest favorites. The group soon grew with a number of Sky and LottoNL riders turning things into a drag race between groups of favorites long before the race had even reached the Arenberg forest, the traditional opening salvo in the race. The balance of power long looked fairly equal, with Cance and Sagan setting the pace on the cobbles of Arenberg and after. The gap held but Trek were massing forces with Stuyven and Popovich, in his last race as a pro, providing crucial assistance. As the front groups wound their way though the pavé sections a new lead group crystallized as the strongest from the Boonen group merged with the strongest from the break all the while the Sagan/Cance group crept ever closer making a bridge by the strongest of them look likely at any point.
And then disaster struck again at the first five star section of Mons en Pevele, the first section to provide some of the much promised mud. Fabian Cancellara, looking his usual powerful self suddenly slid off the crown of the road, taking out a handful of those closest behind. Peter Sagan through some unlikely mix of skill and pure dumb luck managed to escape the crash but lost momentum. The chase was now Sagan more or less alone with a handful of tired and/or not very cooperative riders and as the gap went out over the minute mark again it looked unlikely that a dejected Sagan would return to the front.
The group up front that looked to be in with a winning chance with 40 kms to go no consisted of Boonen, Hayman, Vanmarcke, Stannard, Erviti, Saramotins, Boasson Hagen, Rowe, Haussler and Sieberg. Sky's major advantage had been lost as they crashed twice losing Puccio and Moscon but they were lucky to have their two big names still there though. Coming into the final pavé sectors the normal attrition took place. Vanmarcke, Boonen, Boasson Hagen, Hayman and Stannard were the five strongest still standing as the race hit the dreaded Carrefour de l'Arbre sector with 17 kms to go. What followed after must go down as one of the most exciting and unpredictable big race finales we have seen in a long time. Everyone was clearly at their limit with very little reserves left at this point and that probably helped make the final kilometers as tight as they were.
Predictably it was Sep Vanmarcke. the eternal hammerer, who opened up the gas as soon as they hit Carrefour. Hayman got squeezed out in the entry corner and lost momentum and that looked like his race over. As Sep pulled away Boonen, Boasson Hagen both worked to stop the gap from opening up. Stannard looked at points to be falling behind but hang on. As they exited the sector Vanmarcke had 10 seconds and Hayman almost miraculously reappeared, latching on to the chasers. Vanmarcke tried to maintain his gap but unfortunately for him the chasers had enough cooperation to slowly pull the Belgian back and with 10 kms left it was once again a five man race. Attacks and counterattacks flew but with tired legs and riders alternating to chase no one managed to get away. The most promising dig came from Hayman, who despite having been in the original break looked to have saved up the most energy, just outside the velodrome. That attack looked to stick until Boonen mustered the last of his forces to close the gap. As he had done so and they rolled into the velodrome Vanmarcke and then also Stannard just managed to creep up from behind to contest the sprint. Only the Norwegian legs finally gave up and Boasson Hagen had to settle for fifth.
The sprint was every bit as ugly as you would expect from four riders who could barely stay upright but it was the strong Hayman who led out of the corner with a desperately fighting Boonen trying to come past but not quite finding the legspeed. Stannard outedged Vanmarcke for third as a stunned Matt Hayman crossed the line as the winner. It took the Australian a good minute or two before his team could convince him that he had actually won the Queen of the Classics in his fifteenth attempt. It was a Cinderella story that virtually no one had predicted befor the race started this morning. Hayman fractured his radius in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and hadn't raced since then, everyone was assuming he would miss all the classics. The race-rest clearly did him well though and through clever riding throughout the day he made sure he arrived in the finale with more surplus than anyone else.
The race in itself was one of the most memorable classics I have ever watched. Broadcast in its entirety it was almost non stop action and interesting developments. You wouldn't think six hours of racing could be riveting but in this case at least the experiment of showing the full race turned out to be a jackpot.
- Matt Hayman, Orica 5h 51 min 53 sec
- Tom Boonen, Etixx-Quickstep s.t.
- Ian Stannard , Team Sky s.t.
- Sep Vanmarcke, LottoNL-Jumbo s.t.
- Edvald Boasson Hagen , Dimension Data +3sec
- Heinrich Haussler, IAM, + 1 min
- Marcel Sieberg , Lotto Soudal s.st
- Aleksej Saramotins , IAM s.t.
- Imanol Erviti, Movistar s.t.
- Adrien Petit , Direct Energie + 1,07