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Degenkolb wins Paris-Roubaix from 7-rider sprint

German John Degenkolb of Giant-Alpecin won Paris-Roubaix Sunday with a courageous late-race move to bridge across to three leaders, followed by a brilliant finishing sprint from a group of seven riders.

Degenkolb won the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome ahead of Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).

It was the first Roubaix victory for Degenkolb, who won the bunch sprint in 2014 to finish second behind solo winner Niki Terpstra, banging his handlebar in frustration over what could have been.

In 2015, the popular German strongman turned that frustration into victory, winning the race with a combination of guile, power, speed, and team depth.

Early on, Degenkolb followed key moves, making it into critical echelons when the course turned into crosswinds. Late in the race, after the front group had successfully navigated the final five-star section of cobbles, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Degenkolb used his teammate, Bert De Backer, to bridge across to two leaders, Yves Lampaert (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Van Avermaet.

With Stybar in the first chase group, Lampaert refused to pull through, however, forcing Degenkolb to drag the group along. The situation grew even more stressful when Stybar finally bridged across to make a dangerous four-man lead group with 6km remaining.

However three more riders — Lars Boom (Astana), Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling), and Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEdge) — closed that gap inside the final 2km as the race entered the velodrome. After 253km of racing, seven tired riders would sprint for the cobblestone trophy.

“This win tops everything,” Degenkolb said. “This is the race I’ve always dreamed to win. It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe it. I had to work very hard for it. The team was all day there to hold the situation under control. We knew it was going to be hard, and when it looks like a big group will go to the finish, I was in a situation where I had to go — otherwise it would be the same situation as last year. I had to invest. I was not afraid to fail, and that was the key.”

With the win, Degenkolb became only the second German to win the “Queen of the Classics,” 119 years after Joesf Fischer won the inaugural edition.

Degenkolb also became only the third rider to win Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix in the same season; the last man was Sean Kelly, in 1986. Belgian Cyriel Van Hauwaert was the first to do it, in 1908.

“It’s been a long time since someone won Sanremo and Roubaix in the same season,” Degenkolb said. “This victory is for the whole team. They were amazing.”

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, winner of the Tour of Flanders last weekend, and Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, finished 10th, 31 seconds off the winning time. Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, in the final road race of his career, finished 18th, in the same group as Kristoff.

Warm winds at their back

Sunny, warm conditions greeted the peloton at the start in Compiegne, north of Paris — along with steady winds that both pushed the peloton, from behind, and also split the bunch as echelons formed in crosswinds.

Nine riders formed the day’s main breakaway 30km into the race: Gregory Rast (Trek Factory Racing), Adam Blythe (Orica-GreenEdge), Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale), Sean De Bie (Lotto-Soudal), Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling), Pierre-Luc Perichon (Bretagne-Seche Environnement), Tim Declercq (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Frederik Backaert (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Ralf Matzka (Bora-Argon 18).

Of the nine escapees, Rast was the biggest threat, having finished fourth in 2011, and 10th in 2010. The group reached a maximum advantage of about nine minutes, about 97km into the 253km race — and just before Troisvilles, the first of 27 sectors of pavé.

With no riders in the group, and a potential winner in the main bunch, Sky, BMC Racing, Giant, Katusha, and Tinkoff-Saxo all took turns manning the front of the chasing peloton.

On the second sector of cobbles, sector 26 at Viesly, a massive pile-up took out two of Trek Factory Racing’s main favorites, Stijn Devolder and Gert Steegmans.

Meanwhile, Sky captain Geraint Thomas suffered the first of two consecutive punctures. A subsequent crash, just after the decisive Arenberg Trench with about 85km remaining, would ruin Thomas’ chances of competing for the win as he did at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Thomas never made it back to the rapidly thinning peloton as the Etixx-Quick Step team of Stybar and Terpstra upped the pace.

As the race reached sector 22, Verchain-Maugré, the gap from the breakaway to the peloton had come down to seven minutes with 122km to go.

The Arenberg Trench — followed by a controversial train crossing

Due to the tailwind, and warm, dry conditions, the 2.5km, five-star sector of cobbles at the forest of Arenberg (sector 18) did not prove as decisive as it has in years past.

The peloton split in several groups on the Arenberg trench, 5:50 behind the leaders, with Wiggins gapped off into a second group. Bora-Argon 18 rider Shane Archbold crashed hard on the pavé, and was seen laying motionless, face first in the middle of the cobbles. Australian champion Heinrich Haussler (IAM) led the peloton out of the Arenberg trench with the peloton spread single file, however the group came back together quickly once back on the pavement.

The race encountered controversy — and nearly a disaster — when the main bunch came across an active train crossing with 90km remaining. Approximately 30 riders dangerously jumped the closing gates, while an even larger number of riders were stopped and forced to wait for it to cross. French champion Arnaud Demare (FDJ) nearly hit the gate, one of the last riders to get across before a high-speed TGV train passed.

It was a moment reminiscent of the 2006 Roubaix, when three top finishers — Leif Hoste, Peter Van Petegem, and Vladimir Gusev — were disqualified from second- to fourth-place after they slipped across a train crossing with 10km to go.

This time around, however, the incident took place much further from the finish, and no riders were disqualified; the race was neutralized in the moments after the crossing, allowing the second group to regain contact.

“It wasn’t possible for the leading riders to stop sufficiently safely,” said Guy Dobbelaere, president of the jury of race commissioners. “The peloton was 10 meters away when the barrier started to close. By neutralizing the race for a few moments to not penalize those who stopped, we respected the spirit of the rule. In theory, those who pass when the barrier is down are thrown out of the race. This time, that would have been unjust in respect of those riders who weren’t identified.”

Attacks, counterattacks, and more attacks

With 80km to go, the front group held a five-minute lead over the peloton, which had thinned to about 40 riders. Lotto-Soudal went on the offenseive, with German Andre Greipel attacking, prompting a reaction from Etixx on sector 16 at Hornaing.

A solid tailwind on sectors 16, 15, and 14 turned to a fierce crosswind at sectors 13 through 10, creating chaos and echelons.

Several big names made the front echelon on sector 13 at Beuvry-la-Forêt-Orchies — including five Etixx riders, as well as Degenkolb, Lars Boom (Astana), Daniel Oss (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-Jumbo), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), and Ian Stannard (Sky).

Others, including Wiggins, Van Avermaet, and Kristoff, missed the move, however the peloton regrouped at 65km to go, with Etixx riders Stijn Vandenbergh and Yves Lampaert driving the chase the breakaway, which was down to seven riders and a three-minute advantage.

After a few more attacks were nullified, first from Stig Broeckx (Lotto-Soudal) and then from Sagan, the main group swelled to over 50 riders.

Next to attack was Vandenbergh, who looked to bridge across to the remaining five breakaway riders — Backaert, Saramotins, Rast, Gougeard and Declercq — with 45km remaining.

Wiggins then tried his luck, 33km from the finish, catching Vandenbergh. But after Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal), and then Stybar, jumped on the Sky captain’s wheel, all four were brought back with Katusha driving the chase.

Another dangerous move came from Tepstra, with Van Avermaet, Degenkolb, and Vanmarcke quick to react. That move was also nullified before the breakaway was caught with 21km to go, with Gougeard the last of the original nine escapees to succumb.

Next, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) and Bozic (Astana) tried to strike out alone, opening a 20-second lead with 20km to go. Bozic could not match the pace, and Roelandts exited the five-star sector of Carrefour de l’Arbre with a 15-second lead and 15km to go.

There were no major attacks, or crashes, in the Carrefour, and with 12km remaining, the unheralded Lampaert made the decisive move; only Van Avermaet could join him.

It was then that Giant made an audacious decision. Sensing a repeat scenario of 2014, Degenkolb decided he wouldn’t wait for Etixx to employ its “strength in numbers” tactic. First to chase was Giant’s De Backer, with Degenkolb then bridging across, riding in his slipstream, and then going alone to catch the two leaders with 6km left.

“When you are probably the fastest, no one wants to pull, no one wants to bring you to finish,” Degenkolb said. “I decided to go by myself. It was the right decision. It was the right moment. It was really hard.”

The two Belgians let Degenkolb drive the group, but they were caught by four more riders — first Stybar, and then Boom, Keukeleire, and Elmiger.

Seven men into the velodrome

What had been a messy situation for Degenkolb, facing two Etixx riders from four in the final kilometers, became simpler once he eased off the pace, and the group became seven men with the Roubaix velodrome in sight.

Lampaert went to the front to lead out Stybar, with Degenkolb sitting third wheel. But the Belgian rider faded quickly, leaving Stybar out front with 200 meters to go. Once Degenkolb launched his lethal finishing sprint, the race quickly became a battle for second place. Stybar edged out Van Avermaet for third. Boom, who won last year’s Tour de France across some of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, finished fourth, with Elmiger in fifth.

“I had already used some energy earlier in the race closing gaps, including to the Wiggins group, and then to [the three leaders],” Stybar said. “Maybe I could have saved some energy if I went after the group at the same time [Degenkolb] did, but it is what it is. I had to recover a bit when I joined the leaders because I was really giving everything. I couldn’t attack in that moment, even if it was maybe the ideal tactic to beat John.

“Then Yves tried to jump, and he was very strong, but Degenkolb closed it down and we went into the velodrome together,” Stybar continued. “Lampaert led perfectly in the velodrome. I took second position going into the sprint. It was a difficult decision, because I knew Degenkolb was for sure one of the fastest guys in the bunch. So it’d be hard to beat him in a sprint. But in such a hard race, including with him having to use energy bridging gaps, you never know. So I was hoping he might be tired, but everyone was really at their knees, along with him. It was really down to who had anything left. He launched a very good sprint and I couldn’t beat him. He was very strong, and deserved the win.”

Van Avermaet, so often a bridesmaid in these major races, was left in tears at the finish after yet another near miss.

“You always want to win the race, but I knew it would be pretty hard against Degenkolb,” Van Avermaet said. “He is strong in these kinds of races and he was pretty strong when he came to us. He did a few good pulls and I was a little bit empty at the end. It was hard to come to the finish. I felt a little bit of energy going away in the last five kilometers and had to put out the maximum to get on the podium.

“I never really had a great feeling today,” Van Avemaet continued. “Last week, I was feeling good at Flanders. Today, I had to fight against myself on the cobbles. I think I did a good attack with Yves Lampaert in the end. But we could not hold off Degenkolb and Stybar and the others. In the end it was hard to beat them in the sprint.”

Degenkolb was also in tears in the velodrome, albeit for a very different reason.

“Emotion is the right word,” Degenkolb said. “It’s something that I cannot believe and imagine at the moment. I have to search for a place to put a cobblestone in my apartment. It’s not going to be easy. It’s a big one. This double with Sanremo and Roubaix is means so much to me. I am just running out of words to describe it. This is even greater because now the classics season is over, and I can really enjoy it. I can relax, lean back, and take a couple days to really believe it. You are the winner of Paris-Roubaix. Amazing.”

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