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Last year, he was OTL — over the time limit — and on Sunday he was all alone in the photograph.
After capturing the silver medal at the 2021 road world championships last fall in Leuven, Belgium, he realized that he was capable of winning the biggest one-day races.
On Sunday he turned that into reality by riding away and holding off top favorites like Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, riding towards the biggest win of his career in a dusty and fast Paris-Roubaix at the age of 29.
“I’ve never experienced to be the first guy on the velodrome. I know how it is to be the last guy, because last year I finished outside the time limit,” van Baarle said. “This year I had goosebumps, also when I was seeing Dave [Brailsford] at the finish line. He was cheering full gas. It seemed like he was alone there. I can’t describe it with words what the feeling was. Servais [Knaven, DS and winner Paris-Roubaix in 2001] told me to enjoy it as much as possible and I tried to do it.”
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Van Baarle joined Team Sky in 2018 and knows very well that the now Ineos-Grenadiers team of Dave Brailsford has been dreaming about this win at Paris-Roubaix for a very long time.
“We’re chasing a big win in the cobbled classics,” he said. “Ian Stannard was third and Gianni Moscon came really close. All the staff and the riders put a lot of effort in this, with testing the materials. Now we’ve got such a good set-up that helped us to compete at the highest level. It’s been quite a week for the team and I hope they can extend it through the Flèche Wallonne and Liège, too.”
Second at Leuven worlds helped turn the ‘switch’
“I’m still buzzing. It’s amazing. This is one of the five monuments you know. I can’t be more proud,” Van Baarle said at the mixed zone on the velodrome in sunny Roubaix. “It was super hard to ride away from them but when you’re enjoying a good day then the pain disappears. Flanders and Roubaix are the races I dream about. I saw Boonen and Cancellara crossing the finish line here and that’s what I wanted as well. It worked out.
“Last year after the world championships was really important moment for me to make a ‘click’. Koos Moerenhout, the national coach, gave me so much confidence going into that race. Afterwards he told me that I should believe in myself more than I did before,” he said. “I listened to his words and you see what happens. Maybe I need to write a book about it. I always trust in myself but all of a sudden you’re out there in the finale of the world championships. Then I made the click. You can build on that the whole winter. You have confidence that you can race at those races for the win. Flanders was the confirmation that I was on the right path and I guess this one as well.”
Two weeks ago in Flanders he captured an unexpected and much debated second place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen when he bridged up to Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar in the final hectometers of the race and boxed in the Slovenian star. Today nobody argued that he was the strongest rider of the race. He even had time to celebrate as the chase group was more than a minute down on him.
“You know a little bit but you don’t get that much information. You don’t want to celebrate too early. When I came on the velodrome it was amazing. I checked just to make sure I was alone. That moment was super special, also when the team car came next to me; they celebrated a little bit.”
13 years in the making 🤩
The sweetest of victories – and the fastest ever #ParisRoubaix 🔥
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) April 17, 2022
When asked if the team tactics went according to plan, van Baarle had a quick response. “Most certainly not,” he said and pointed out that adapting was more important than sticking to the plan.
“First we wanted to be focused straight from the start because with the crosswinds you can find yourself at the back like van der Poel and van Aert. Then it’s about surviving until Arenberg and then see who’s there. We had some bad luck but we came back. Our plan was to make the race hard on the pavé sector just before the second feed zone. ‘Kwiato’ told me I was super strong and he would help me whatever it takes and that’s what he did.
“We managed to bring down the number in the group. From there it was a bit freestyling. You know that everybody is going to encounter bad luck. You have to deal with that, switch the button and move on. The strongest guys were in the group and then it was about finding the right moment.”
That moment came at 30km from the finish line when he escaped the favorites group and chased down the two riders up the road: Tadej Mohoric and Yves Lampaert. It was a signature van Baarle attack, in between pavé sectors when the race was tactical.
“When we were with that group with all the favorites they started attacking. Ben Turner told me that he was completely empty. I asked him to take a gel and asked him to go with the moves to make the race really hard because I could feel that guys were tired. I asked him to set a high pace and I attacked over it. That’s what he did and he set me up for an attack. Then they hesitated. When you have a good day it’s nice to ride away like this. It was quite painful to come back on Lampaert and Mohoric but then I could recover a little bit. Then I could feel that I was the strongest. I thought that I had to go before the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector and then just hope for the best and that’s what I did.”
Van Baarle explained that his strongest points are riding fast over the cobbles and being able to push high watts late in the race.
“Once I said that I really hate to ride on the cobbles. Everyone would prefer tarmac over cobbles. I just go quicker over them than others and that makes it fun. It’s not so much fun to ride over it but it’s just fun that you can hurt the other guys,” he said. “Cycling has changed a lot over the past couple of years. Guys start to attack earlier and earlier to make the race hard. That’s basically also what I try to do, that’s only in my favor to make the race super hard, to get everyone on their knees before the big moments, to top off their top power. I’m not the best in peak powers. I just can do that after 250km as well. That’s basically my strong point.”
After this massive victory van Baarle takes a break from racing. He is scheduled to race the Criterium du Dauphinée and the Tour de France. For now, he can focus on where he’s going to put the famous cobble trophy.
“Next up for me is holiday. The stone will get a really nice place,” he said. “In Flanders I didn’t get any trophy but otherwise I would’ve said it would stand next to that one. It will get a nice place next to my silver medal from worlds. I will need to get a strong enough table to hold it.”