Taken out of contention by Sagan and a rogue barrier last week in Flanders, Greg Van Avermaet was not to be denied this Sunday in Roubaix. On a day when the sun shined and the dust billowed over the cobbles of northern France, he proved the strongest, the luckiest and the canniest. Those who were not lucky today included anyone who tried to get in the early break, as war was declared against any group who tried to get away in the opening kilometres. Groups featuring Edward Theuns, Mads Wurtz, Michael Mørkøv, Meiyin Wang and dozens of others came and went, or rather went and came back, due to the pure number of people who wanted to get away, encouraged by the tailwind and the memory of Mat Hayman's win last year. The peloton was but ten kilometres from the first cobbled sector at Troisvilles when a group comprising Yannick Martinez, Mickael Delage and Jelle Wallays finally got away.
That group was of course doomed, and the following kilometres were mostly made up of the usual litany of crashes, mechanicals and attacks from some over-optimistic but beloved opportunists. Oliver Naesen suffered some terrible bad luck, suffering punctures and a fall or two, but so did Ian Stannard and Niki Terpstra, who was forced to abandon the race before the Arenberg forest having taken a heavy fall. Van Avermaet himself got into a bit of trouble, falling and suffering a mechanical on the Haveluy secteur, ensuring that he and Alexander Kristoff, who had a puncture at the same time, would have a gruelling chase through the Trouee.
The peloton reached the famous secteur only sixty-strong, the high speed having dealt with a high number of would-be hangers-on, and perhaps it was the small size of the group that contributed to its relatively panic-free passage. There were no crashes and no attacks, as Matteo Trentin set a quick pace for Quick-Step, Sagan on his wheel. Sylvain Chavanel saw an opportunity to make a move as the group slowed exiting the Trench, and shot off to catch the group in front, forming a duo with Wallays, around the same time Van Avermaet and Kristoff made their return.
With eighty kilometres to go, there was soon some action amongst the favourites, as a group of Trek riders at the front of the peloton let a gap open behind Peter Sagan and his partner-in-crime Maciej Bodnar, which was all the excuse they needed to make an attack. To make amends, Stuyven followed them accompanied by Daniel Oss. The quartet began to work, bringing back the lead group, but just as Stuyven started to push the pace, Sagan suffered a puncture, immediately falling back to the peloton, but Oss and Stuyven ploughed on in front.
As if in response to Sagan's antics, Tom Boonen immediately went to the front on the Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosiers secteur, putting in a small attack which came to nothing, and then another a few kilometres later. There were further attacks from Arnaud Démare, on his directeur sportif Marc Madiot's sector, and a group containing Gianni Moscon, Dmitri Claeys and Jurgen Roelandts. The former would be caught almost immediately, the latter caught up with Oss and Stuyven, making it a group of five up front.
The peloton then hit Mons-En-Pevele, where Stybar would attack and Sagan would follow through, forming a group on nine on the exit. Members of this group, with Stybar the instigator, would get away in the following kilometres, catching the Stuyven group. Sagan saw the danger and made an attempt to catch up, but another puncture again put paid to his chances. He was again forced to drop back, this time seeing his chances of a monument win this season ride away. Not so Van Avermaet, who had missed the move originally, put bridged brilliantly.
The peloton began to grow as Boonen and Sagan stayed there frustratedly. Lotto had a large team and a sprinter, but with Carrefour l'Arbre to come, they may not have expected Greipel to make it to the velodrome, and perhaps considered Roelandts a better gamble. He wasn't. It was very clear who the three strongest in the front group were, as Sebastian Langeveld, Greg Van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar started to form a gap on the Camphin-En-Pevele sector, making the split permanent on Carrefour a kilometre later.
It became clear pretty quickly that that trio were going to be contesting the finish, and for quite some kilometres they worked well, before the Hem secteur where Stybar started to miss turns because of tactics, and Langeveld because of inability. Van Avermaet was less than pleased about this, and when Stybar attacked he was chased down instantly, then forced to recapture Langeveld by the frustrated Belgian, but despite the games played among the trio they would reach the velodrome as just that. However, as the bell sounded, the dedicated pursuers Stuyven and Moscon arrived at the back of the group. Moscon wasn't waiting around, attacking and forcing the sprint to start, with Stybar screaming two bike lengths past him. He had gone too early however, and with twenty metres left Van Avermaet took the lead, the sprint, and the race. Behind them, Langeveld got third, Stuyven fourth and Moscon paid for his effort with fifth. French favourite Arnaud Démare beat Greipel in the sprint for sixth, with Boonen finishing his career in thirteenth.