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Re-Ranking Roubaix: Where Does 2021 Go?

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118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s Eilte Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Thanks to all in the forum yesterday as we shared that time-honored experience of watching the most tense drama cycling can offer in the form of a muddy Paris-Roubaix. The race delivered all sorts of excitement, and the entire weekend was an unmitigated success. There is a lot to say about the race, and so many others have covered a lot of the bigger points, so I will go with where my mind naturally wants to go — how does this edition and Bahrain’s Sonny Colbrelli’s victory stack up against the history of Hells of the North?

Last year I did a post, in lieu of getting to watch Paris-Roubaix, where I ranked all 20 editions that had taken place in the new millennium, which kinda-sorta corresponds with a changing of the guard or two and nicely separates out from the 90s and earlier. I don’t think you could rank the race’s entire 126-year history in anything without a jacket on it, and in a perfect world I would happily try to write that, even posing for an author photo with a blazer on and my dog by my feet. But just the 2000s, that makes for a good blog post. You can read the whole thing, but basically it took each edition and asked:

  1. Was het een drama? For the few people who don’t already know this, this is a nod to Michel Wuyts, the Sporza announcer known for some memorable Flemenglish moments. If memory serves me, “dit is een drama” was a response to Frank Schleck falling off a bridge (again), and the most memorable Wuyts-ism from Paris-Roubaix may be him observing Cancellara’s winning attack from long range in 2006 with “Balen, we have a problem!” upon finding the Belgian rocket known as Tom Boonen was having trouble lifting off. Anyway, this category is about the story of the race and how dramatic it may have seemed at the time.
  2. Greatness-ness? Not greatness, as in the race, but greatness-ness, as in whether the race was one by someone who possesses greatness. Drama is fun, but tends to be more so when the guy who wins is something of a legend in the making. I probably should have spent more time on the greatness of the guys who came in top five, really, because beating the greats is equally if not more confirming of the race’s quality. Anyway, my top ten ended up as follows:

10: 2003, PVP breaks through

9: 2004, Museeuw falters Maggie profits

8: 2009, Chaos and crashes

7: 2012, Boonen rides to history

6: 2000, Museeuw and Domo sweep out the rot

5: 2010, Cancellara in clash of titans

4: 2011, Vansummeren shocker

3: 2002, The Last Lion

2: 2001, Knaven in the muddy chaos

1: 2006, I still can’t believe what happened.

You will be surprised if not genuinely horrified to know that there was not unanimous agreement with these rankings, even after I insisted on people rewatching the 2006 race in lieu of the covid-canceled event itself. I don’t want to do another round of defending the 2006 race (actually that is exactly what I want to do, but let’s move on), but I do want to ask, where does the 2021 race fit into this list? Let’s break it down.

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s Eilte
Maybe this is why they call him the Cobra?
Photo by Etienne Garnier - Pool/Getty Images

Was Het Een Drama?

Just so you guys know, as much as I enjoy fumbling around in fake Flemish, this is an actual translation of the intended text! So if you were hoping to mangle Flemish on purpose, don’t use this. It is not exactly op de hoek.

Yesterday’s race was pretty dramatic, but I don’t want to overrate it on recency bias or without checking ourselves by remembering what a “normal” Paris-Roubaix looks like. If it weren’t muddy, I might be able to convince myself that this was pretty standard fare — a guy from the early break hung out there longer than expected, the favorites group slowly splintered, and the break either was or wasn’t caught, with the former leading to a velodrome sprint. Seriously, that is about what happened, right?

Nope. Emotionally it was on a whole other level. First, there’s the Moscon problem, which I am guessing we pretty much all were hoping would get solved before it was too late. The guy’s nickname is il Trattore, the Tractor, which is exactly what you want to be called if you are planning to try to win a race like Paris-Roubaix. And which is an upgrade over what most people are calling you, il deplorable racist. I have slightly mixed feelings about taking one incident and pinning it on a guy forever and ever, sometimes things are not as simple as they seem. But Moscon has had a few other outbursts that should make us fans not rush to rehabilitate his reputation. And Jens Debusschere has a quote out there that says basically all the riders hate him, which means something since they actually know the guy. So, with all that, I am and will continue to be all the way out on Moscon. Watching him saunter away from the dregs of the breakaway, seemingly about to win this beautiful, memorable mess of a race, it hurt to watch.

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s Eilte Photo by Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo/Getty Images

That ramped up the drama substantially. But even more so was the mud. Sure, without it we might not have much to debate, but so what, it was there, and in copious quantities, especially as the race wore on. They don’t run cars through Arenberg, so that was clean, but the later, uglier secteurs get driven over, and also sit next to farmers’ fields, which means the mud rivulets get flowing whenever it rains. Adding to the mess was the day before, when both the women’s race and the sportive had been run. So Orchies, Mons, Carrefour... all pretty much a total mess.

Moscon had been handling the muddy cobbles pretty well and not losing any time to Mathieu van der Poel, who was leading (and I mean leading, like the whole time) the chase from behind. Van der Poel is a crosser, MTBer and a proven quantity on the cobbles, so it was no surprise that his was the wheel to follow when searching for a good line and a confident attacking ride over the infernal pavé. But with only 30km remaining and the pavé secteurs running out, van der Poel was making hardly a dent in the Tractor’s body armor.

This was high drama enough, these two factors, but when suddenly Moscon’s rear tire started looking a bit soft, and then really soft, on the Templeuve stones, it felt like divine intervention. Moscon lost a bit of time as his tire dragged, then maybe 20 seconds more on a bike change once he and his car were off the cobbles, leaving him with roughly a 40 second lead. It wasn’t over, and suddenly the upcoming four-pack of secteurs — Cysoing, Bourghelles, Camphin and Carrefour — all looming extra large. A minute-plus gives you a buffer against a small mistake or three, but with only 40 seconds, any slip and your dreams could die.

Instantly, that is what happened. Moscon had not merely acquired a new nice clean bike with a non-flat tire, he had picked up one with much higher tire pressure than he was used to. You could see it immediately. First he wobbled off the crown of the Cysoing stones when that hard tire began slipping sideways, then he slid out entirely and crashed. When he got going again, it was clear that he lacked the ability to ride the cobbles with conviction anymore. It wasn’t over yet, but basically it was. When the catch happened on the Carrefour de l’Arbe secteur, Moscon’s chances dropped to zero, thanks to the presence of both van der Poel and the much sprintier Colbrelli on hand. More than that, Moscon was broken, like riders who get caught close to victory on a long, hard day usually are. Buh bye. Don’t let the door hit ya.

The remaining 15km came with very little sense of inevitability as to who would win, and a few accelerations happened like you would expect. The sprint itself was fantastic. All in all, this was some two hours of constant, medium-high tension, against the backdrop of cycling’s wildest scenery. Dit was een drama.

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s Eilte
Colbrelli behind van der Poel — as usual
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Greatness-ness

If this category is to retain any meaning, then I cannot help but mark down the 2021 race for this reason. Not a lot, but for now at least it cannot be rated along with the wins by past world and Olympic champions, to say nothing of the legendary Boonen-Cancellara battles.

Colbrelli’s victory is about as unlikely as they come, for a rider prone to winning races. Maybe less unlikely than Johan Vansummeren’s, given Summie’s profile as a support rider; Colbrelli is a guy who wins races. And maybe not unlikely from the run-of-form perspective; Colbrelli is now up to fifth in the Podium Cafe Rider Rankings, thanks to the tear he is on now that started with his win at the BeNeLux Tour (ENECO!) and continued through the European Championships. Colbrelli on the winners’ stand at a major race is generally no surprise.

But this one?? Thoroughly shocking. As great as he may be in general, it barely extended to the cobbles and certainly not to the cobbled monuments. He didn’t take the Belgian spring races seriously before 2016, just riding Driedaagse de Panne and maybe Brabantse Pijl, which I wouldn’t call easy races but are not among the top cobbled classics. The former has tough cobbled stretches but modest competition; the latter is a strenuous race but the cobbles are a bit too polite for me. Starting in 2016, though, Colbrelli tried his hand at Gent-Wevelgem, and while he took a DNF that day, perhaps he enjoyed it regardless — which is roughly the experience most amateur cyclosportive types like me have had in Flanders. That sucked and I can’t wait to go back.

Cycling : 57th Brabantse Pijl 2017
Colbrelli wins Brabantse Pijl in 2017
Photo by LC/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

In 2017, he came to Flanders for a full slate of Flemish cobbled classics, meaning everything except Paris-Roubaix. He even won Brabantse Pijl, which may explain the choice to skip L’Enfer du Nord three days earlier. Notably, he was seventh in his first crack at E3, second in the bunch sprint a minute behind the winning trio of Van Avermaet, Gilbert and Naesen. Then he finished in the peloton at Gent-Wevelgem (big bunch sprint for third that year), and was again in the bunch at Flanders, taking 10th place. That is a big step up. But it was also in Flanders, and as I recall from being on hand, the weather was nothing short of lovely.

Since then he has ridden the same programs (and the 2020 version of it), with no further breakthroughs. He never rode Paris-Roubaix, apparently not at any level as far as I can tell. He has never ridden the cobbles in a deluge, and in the last five years when he’s been in Belgium there has been barely any rain at all. Dry Flemish stones are as good a prep for Paris-Roubaix as you can get, I guess, but as I am sure you have heard a million times, it’s not the same. It’snotit’snotit’sNOT!!

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s Eilte
Men of the Mud
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Obviously that lack of experience didn’t disqualify Colbrelli — or runner-up Florian Vermeersch, with one Espoirs P-R to his name, or van der Poel, with no past races here — it just means that he is an exceptionally fast learner and a truly outstanding bike handler. And a guy with a steady nerve. It also tends to support the idea, commonly accepted as recently as the 1980s, that as unusual a race as this is, it still favors guys who are just plain strong, regardless of body type or specialized experience... as long as they can stay upright. Paris-Roubaix used to be contested by guys who won Tours de France. Maybe it will be again.

And lastly, there is the nervy strategy that defines so many races, not just Paris-Roubaix. Colbrelli won this race by sitting on van der Poel’s wheel for a good chunk of the final hour including most of the cobbled secteurs. Van der Poel was visibly spent in the last 20km, and said as much at the end that he had truly emptied his tank. The Dutch star has previously come under some criticism for pulling too much, but if the only race he ever won were 2019 Amstel Gold, we would still all thank him for his approach to racing. So hats off... but if you think his strategy of doing basically all of the work in the last 40km was a good one, well, that’s tough to swallow. He seemed to have no choice, by dint of being van der Poel, when it came to who would track down Moscon. He’s so strong, and he’s also willing to play the role that is expected of him... but when he attacked and Colbrelli hunted him down, that was his signal that Colbrelli was strong enough to contribute more. Could van der Poel have taken his foot off the gas and dared Colbrelli into chasing more? Maybe. In hindsight he probably should have done that? But at the time maybe he liked his sprint regardless, or at least didn’t think the other two would be any less shattered than he was.

So I get van der Poel’s approach, even if it’s maybe unwise. Colbrelli’s was brilliant, if devious, given how much help he got eliminating the Moscon threat and being handed a sprint he could win. This is the permanent realpolitik of cycling, and I think Italians are born knowing that they should try to get someone else to pull for as long as possible if they ever find themselves in a bike race. Is it part of the baptism ceremony? Can a priest recite the basics of G2 chasing behavior in Latin? Probably. Certainly the man from Lake Garda knew what to do. They call him the Cobra, presumably because he sneaks up and bites you to death all of a sudden. That’s basically how his race played out.

[Yes, I remember Ricardo Ricco calling himself that, but Ricco stated in 2010 that “the Cobra is dead,” so I guess the name was available.]

CYCLING-ROUBAIX-BALLERINI PODIUM-2
RIP Ballerini
Photo credit should read OLIVIER MORIN/AFP via Getty Images

Finally, Colbrelli ends a 21 year run where few Italians had anything to say about the Hell of the North. The most prominent classics riders since the 1999 victory of il Gladiatore Andrea Tafi (which was the third Italian win in five years after Franco Ballerini’s two wins) were Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan. Pozzato, one of the smoothest pedaling riders you will ever see, was on his very best form in the dramatic 2009 race, where Hushovd slid out in Carrefour de l’Arbe, but could not close the gap on Boonen. [Thanks partly to a fan jumping into his way.] Ballan fared about as well, taking a sprint for third place another 1.39 behind that Boonen guy again, his second time on the podium if you count the result he inherited in 2006 after the disqualifications were done with. The only other Italian winners are both Coppis, Bevilacqua, Gimondi, and Moser (three times). So for Colbrelli to join this illustrious company is a wonderful thing. For him to take the spot from Moscon, even better.

Ranking? I will place this fourth, ahead of Vansummeren, who won a great, nervy race of his own but on a lovely afternoon, not a monsoon. I can’t put this one ahead of Museeuw winning a race of very similar character, and I will leave 2001 — the all Mapei affair — and 2006 — TrainGateGate — where they are, even if they are acquired tastes for some. This one scores on drama and doesn’t totally suffer for greatness, with the European champion beating a heroic figure like van der Poel. And that is even before we know what to really make of the 22-year-old Vermeersch, who looks like he has a glittering future. What do you guys think?

CYCLING-FRA-PARIS-ROUBAIX-PODIUM Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images