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Paris-Roubaix: Conquering the Hell of the North

A look back on a frenetic day of racing over the cobbles where Dylan van Baarle emerged victorious inside the famed Roubaix velodrome.

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The men lined up at Compiegne for the start of Paris-Roubaix, and luckily for them, it wasn’t raining.

In fact, it was dry. They could feel it in their throats. Or perhaps that was just nervousness. Most likely, dryness and nervousness mingled together as the commissaire’s flag was waved, initiating a dance with fate that would unfurl for the next 250 kilometers.

Ivo Andrić once quipped in Bosnian Chronicle: “God preserve us from others’ glory, important visitors, and major events.” The prayers in the team cars probably sounded somewhat similar.

Paris-Roubaix is a race where so much happens, as the commentators say, thick and fast. If we zoom into the individual details, we reveal so many potentialities activated and squandered, so many threads splitting and reforming, being spun into the wool of narrative.

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The weather is a character, as is luck, and both were up to their mischievous tricks on Easter Sunday. Perhaps of all the characters present in this grand pageant, one could argue that the main character in Paris-Roubaix is the pavé, the gnarled, bulbous cobblestones that inflict an almost medieval torture on those who ride over them.

Nothing shapes the direction of where things are going more than those infernal rocks.

But this time, in 2022, the story didn’t start at Troisvilles, the first cobbled sector. It began a mere 40 kilometers into the race, when Ineos Grenadiers caught a whiff of crosswind.

Crosswinds play a role in this race, though usually not as decisive a role as they do in, say, Gent-Wevelgem, or elsewhere on the open fields of Flanders. Forty kilometers was also remarkably early for instigating one of the most important moves of the day, a move that wouldn’t be pulled back until 170 kilometers later.

This was a bit of tactical genius, defying all norms of Paris-Roubaix, the staid storyline that the race is won and lost only on the cobbles. Within a certain framework of analysis, one could claim it was won here, with 210 kilometers still remaining.

For most of the day, everyone missing from that front group had to work, play politics, and fuss about among themselves. They had to tend to their various wounds and hope that their cohesion proved fruitful enough to bridge either before or after the infamous Arenberg Trench, the most painful — and often most decisive — part of the whole hellish Sunday. Of the 73 riders in the first peloton, seven — the full squad — were from Ineos Grenadiers. This wasn’t just opportunism – it was a heist.

Also read: Startt Gallery: The beauty of Paris-Roubaix

In early March, Richie Porte told the press that “Ineos Grenadiers is still the best team in cycling.” This came when they did not appear to be so, temporarily eclipsed by Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates in the early stage races.

Porte has been around a while, and he wasn’t bluffing. Typically, the “superteam” rhetoric that gets tacked on to Ineos — and has since its Team Sky days — applied to the stage races, particularly the grand tours. The classics, not so much. In the classics, it’d been trying for 13 years — half of my lifetime to secure that same dominance. This year, after so many clicks of the lighter, something sparked and caught flame.

Ineos wasn’t the only one worth noticing here: Matej Mohorič slipped in, as did Yves Lampaert and a complement of riders from a flagging Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl. Others would emerge later as well, unlikely heroes and underdogs. But for now, they rode ever closer to the torture.

For most of the race, it appeared that it was over for many. The bunch was split and Ineos was charging at the front of it. Caught in this split were most of the favorites, most notably Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, who were chatting at the back, expecting anything other than this.

At Troisvilles, the inevitable rupture: Mads Pedersen and Kasper Asgreen crashed (Pedersen would crash two more times and then eventually quit). Filippo Ganna and Florian Vermeersch had bike issues — the former giving some hope to those trying to bridge behind.

The gap slipped back to 45 seconds down from a minute without Ganna on rouleur duty at the front. In the cobbled sectors that served as a prelude to the Arenberg, small dramas erupted: crashes of various sizes, mechanicals, and attacks that proved fruitless.

These are all of the things that make Paris-Roubaix worth watching, and for those riding it, painful to do. However, it wasn’t until the 111 kilometers to go mark that the race composition changed dramatically.

Mohorič, on the smooth roads ahead of the Wallers sector, knew that things would disintegrate there or thereabouts. He took one of his famous gambles, earlier than usual, and rolled off the front as Quick-Step disrupted things in the first group and Alpecin-Fenix chased relentlessly behind.

Also read: Paris-Roubaix: How Trek-Segafredo’s ‘soigneurs’ keep everyone moving

Perhaps Mohorič, like so many others, didn’t want to have to wait until the Arenberg and wanted to get ahead of the bunch, which is often the safest place to be on the cobbles. Regardless, four others went with him: Casper Pedersen, Davide Ballerini, Laurent Pichon, and Tom Devriendt.

Meanwhile on the Wallers sector, followed by the holy site of martyrdom, the Arenberg Trench, there were attacks – Nils Politt and Connor Swift kicked them off. It was not abundantly clear exactly what happened beyond that – who was in what group and where. The dust kicked up, and the men were pounded by relentless, bone-shattering pain.

Whatever transpired was probably unclear to them, too, eyes blurred as they were by the jolting of their bikes. At some point, a group of Ganna, Stefan Küng, and Van der Poel appeared to be bridging. Moments later, Van Aert appeared with them. Groups merged, people flatted and crashed. Riders attacked and were brought back, as though the whole peloton shouted to each escapee through the dust, “Come to your senses, man!” At the end of the Arenberg, three faces emerged from the dirt and the grime ahead of the others: Mohorič, Pichon, and Devriendt.

There are days in cycling, blessed days, where supporting characters who have spent years toiling in obscurity, become protagonists whose names become known to us. These days make us journalists feel like fools because we end up scrambling to come up with something to say about strangers.

Laurent Pichon, of Arkéa-Samsic, is 35 years old. His most notable recent win was a stage in Coppi e Bartali in 2017, along with some minor French races. Tom Devriendt, of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert is thirty. His last won in 2019, taking a stage at the Tour of Austria.

These two men are the epitome of underdogs, but Mohorič is willing to work with underdogs. So, this motley crew worked. They pulled out two minutes. Behind, it all came back together – but, as was the case the entire day, peace eluded everyone.

Also read: The making of a modern monument: The growth of Paris-Roubaix Femmes

It seemed for a moment that Ineos had lost the plot. It’d overthought things and its full-team advantage had been dusted up in the carnage of the cobbles. Still, after the Arenberg, it regrouped.

With 50km left in the race, the team had options and it didn’t panic. Mohorič, of course, was a danger, but look at who he was with: two nobodies! All they had to do was keep their payload in check. That payload was Dylan van Baarle.

Van Baarle has been seeking glory in these races since 2016 — he’s gotten close, too. Just recently he placed second in both the Tour of Flanders and the world championships in Flanders. He won Dwars door Vlaanderen last season from a long-range attack. He is profoundly smart, with a hawklike instinct, able to discern what attacks are worth instigating and which are worth going with.

He is a quiet, almost curt man who keeps his cards close to his chest. In his spare time, he is remarkably talented at darts, which is fitting for a rider with an eye for precision.

It could be said that Van Baarle has spent a lot of his time waiting patiently knowing his moment of glory would come. So, it was on that “Sunday in Hell,” where he sat tucked within a regrouped peloton. He is among bike racing’s most adroit riders, so subtle that even with his palmarès, he almost always shows up as a second choice, a four- not five-star favorite.

On Orchies, where, quite famously, Tom Boonen set off for glory over a decade ago, Nathan van Hooydonck of Jumbo-Visma injected a bit of pace. Mohorič et al’s two minutes shrunk to 1:35 just like that. Van Aert took control when Van Hooydonck extinguished himself and thus, a split was born.

Van der Poel was there, so was Van Baarle, Stuyven, Lampaert, and others. Mons-en-Pévèle loomed. Van Baarle took his first dig, not wanting to stick it out with the favorites during such a brutal interlude. He would spend some time here in no man’s land. On the cobbles, the bikes shook and rattled with visible violence. Each sector in Paris Roubaix is somehow worse than the last simply because it exists, Mons-en-Pévèle being one of the most terrible.

Pichon, one of our erstwhile heroes up front, dropped, unable to withstand the wind and the effort and the horror of Mons-en-Pévèle. On the smooth tarmac afterward: Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Küng, popped off and bridged to Van Baarle and Pichon. Turner, Lampaert, Stuyven, and Devriendt’s teammate Adrien Petit caught up, forming the latest iteration of a “peloton.” Thus, the end game formed. Nothing that happened behind these men would make any real difference.

Also read: The winning bike of Paris-Roubaix: Dylan van Baarle’s Pinarello Dogma F

Mohorič, always a talker, turned to Devriendt. Who knew what they were saying, but some smiles were exchanged. The Belgian had not much left to give in service to the Slovenian, and the same could be said of the Slovenian for the Belgian. It was abundantly clear that they would soon be caught. For Van Aert behind, tragedy struck – a rear wheel puncture. He’d get back on, but at what cost? The bad luck continued, this time for the Slovenian. He punctured, too, leaving Devriendt alone.

The sectors ticked down. Ineos once more had the advantage here: it was the only team with two members in the front. But it was Mohorič again who attacked and Lampaert went with him. They bridged to Devriendt, who was probably quite happy to see them. In time, Van Baarle, too, arrived at the front.

After sector 6, Van Aert had had enough of Van der Poel. Van der Poel had been flagging a bit all day — visibly tired, he struggled and fought against the terrain valiantly, but to no avail. Turner, and Petit dropped with the Dutchman. Devriendt was finally, after so long, swallowed up. If it was not already clear, by this point, the race became a war of pure attrition. It always, in some way, comes down to that.

Also read: Dylan van Baarle and his journey from worst to first at Paris-Roubaix

This edition perhaps more so – it was an unusually messy day for such dry weather, with punctures, mechanicals, dropped chains, flats, and crashes appearing regularly like markers in the road, creating a dynamism that made this race almost impossible to chronicle. Each of these important events created effort, and there was no one in that front group, with the exception of Pichon and Devriendt, who hadn’t been touched by misfortune.

Mohorič clawed onto the front for dear life, hoping that his endurance was just that much stronger than the others. Stuyven tried next, but luck was not done wreaking her havoc and his bike began to wobble with the sure sign of a flat.

Then the decisive moment, the final moment. Van Baarle chose Camphin-en-Pévèle to attack instead of the more famous Carrefour de l’Arbre. Perhaps it was because everyone was expecting a move on the Carrefour, a notorious sector, rather than on the Camphin, which, albeit being a four-star sector, was just one of many tries to get through unscathed.

While all of this erstwhile mayhem unfolded around him, Van Baarle observed shrewdly how spent his opponents seemed and how plausible it was to break free of them. Away from Van Aert and Küng, the two strongest rivals, Van Baarle knew he could easily dispose of a hitherto anonymous Lampaert and an exhausted Mohorič and Devriendt. He had to do so before Van Aert and Küng got back on, which they would. The Camphin was the only opportunity. When Van Baarle rolled off the front – almost casually, with a certain grace – all the other three could do was watch.

As I wrote earlier, the strategy leading up to this moment began 40 kilometers into the race when Ineos split the peloton in the crosswinds on the asphalt, before the first wheel ever graced the cobblestones at Troisvilles. It continued as careful management throughout the day, keeping enough pressure on to force the recruits of Van Aert and Van der Poel to chase.

Even when misfortune befell Ineos, the team recovered swiftly and efficiently. During that time before the Arenberg, all eyes were on the two Vans in the chasing group, enabling the Van up front to rest easy and bide his time.

The Mohorič breakaway made it so other teams would work alongside Ineos to chase – no one wanted Mohorič to win from 111 kilometers out. Had Mohorič been replaced with someone less threatening, perhaps the result would have been different, but regardless the motivation was there.

Selectiveness was key. Van Baarle never followed unthreatening attacks, like those of Politt and Swift on the Arenberg, and in the finale, he was careful to follow moves like Mohorič’s last dig, moves that didn’t include Van Aert. He knew that ending up in a group with Van Aert would poison his chances in a sprint, even if that meant having to go solo with 20 kilometers left.

Van Baarle’s plan was a carefully laid tactical masterclass with so many different threads woven through this race, it made the whole thing come together and make sense, despite all the luck that came into play. In the end, Mohorič, with one last effort, tried to bridge to van Baarle, but there was nothing left.

To return to the Andrić quote: “God preserve us from others’ glory, important visitors, and major events.” This prayer now rested upon the shoulders of Van Baarle.

The major events, however, happened behind. In a baffling incident, Lampaert hit a spectator and was knocked out of contention. Mohorič, after so long, was finally caught for the last time with only six kilometers left in the race. Ultimately, Van Baarle would receive no important visitors. On his long run in, he only looked back once or twice. When he looked back, he saw no one.

Slowly, the road evened out, and the cobbles became more of a formality, albeit torturous – every hill, every bump in the road felt like torture to these men at this point. Soon, the curve into the Roubaix Velodrome, where, covered with dust and all alone, the reality hit Van Baarle. The crowds screamed. The Dutchman slowed down. He covered his face with his hands in disbelief.

He had conquered the Hell of the North.

Behind, the sprint. Van Aert took second – which was perhaps the best he could hope for post-Covid, and Kung, who had ridden quietly and steadfastly, took third. As for our heroes of the day, Devriendt took fourth, Mohorič, fifth, and Pichon, eighth. Despite the narrative of the Ineos superteam, it was, in fact, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, who came up on top, with five of their men finishing in the top 20.

However, despite such disparities, every finisher in Paris-Roubaix shared a single commonality, from the first to the last: they were cooked, exhausted, filthy, battered, bloody, and bruised. The “Hell of the North,” though tamed this time by Van Baarle, remained, for yet another year, the real winner of the fight.

As would be the case the next year, and the next, into eternity.