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A mud-caked Colbrelli outkicked Mathieu van der Poel and young star Florian Vermeersch in the Roubaix velodrome Sunday to score the biggest win of his career – all after thinking he wouldn’t even make it to the finish.
“This is my most beautiful moment, my dream was to win a monument,” Colbrelli said at the post-race press conference. “The first classic of my dreams was Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix was second … and I won Paris-Roubaix.”
Colbrelli, 31, became the first Italian winner of Paris-Roubaix since Andrea Tafi scored the cobblestone trophy in 1999 in what was his debut appearance at the “Hell of the North.”
With no previous experience of racing on the treacherous cobblestones, he hadn’t even thought he’d make it to the Roubaix velodrome when he rolled out of a rain-soaked Compiègne on Sunday morning.
“I didn’t race Paris-Roubaix before because my main goal was always Amstel Gold Race, and I was worried how I would recover after Roubaix and before Amstel,” he said. “My goal was always to take part in Paris-Roubaix, but this morning I didn’t even think that I would even manage to finish the race … so I started the race and started without pressure.”
All eyes had been on the peloton’s cross contingent to thrive in Sunday’s swampy conditions, but it was Roubaix rookie Colbrelli that stole the cobblestone trophy. Colbrelli credited his two pre-race recons and team directors Roger Hammond and Rolf Aldag – both who had raced Paris-Roubaix during their pro years – with making the difference.
Under Aldag and Hammond’s watch, Colbrelli rode his way from group to group through the mucky cobbles, pushing away from all the top favorites – except van der Poel and the tenacious Vermeersch.
When he emerged at the front of the race, Colbrelli knew the man he had to mark.
“My only tactic was to follow van der Poel,” he said. “I was a bit scared that the chase group would come across, but I followed van der Poel and kept attentive to not crash, and to avoid the mud and the puddles.”
Colbrelli attached himself to van der Poel’s wheel before punching past the Dutchman he had been dueling all season in the final 50 meters of the ancient velodrome. The Italian collapsed on the grass after the finish line in disbelief, and was still in shock some 45 minutes after when speaking to the press.
“This is my first Paris-Roubaix, I still don’t believe what I’ve achieved on the cobblestones,” Colbrelli said. “The mud was so difficult, I was close to crashing but I kept focussed and kept upright. I followed van der Poel and then beat him.”
A late bloomer
Victory in Roubaix has topped off an already standout summer for Colbrelli.
This season has seen the Italian transform himself from a pure sprinter struggling to match up to the fastest of fastmen to an all-terrain wrecking machine, scoring a swathe of top results from the Tour de Romandie all the way through to Sunday’s “Hell of the North.”
The burly Italian placed third on the Tignes summit finish at the Tour de France in July and won the hilly European road race championships last month. Colbrelli’s revelatory transformation all comes in his 12th pro season, putting a handbrake on the notion that the biggest wins are now coming from the youngest riders.
“We have seen other riders like Greg van Avermaet start to win monuments after 30 years old and that was the example I wanted to start to follow,” he said. “I have become mature as a rider at the age of 30, and that’s when I’ve reached my condition … I hope to keep this way for a few more years.”
Haussler: ‘Colbrelli’s a f**king machine’
Colbrelli wasn’t the only Bahrain-Victorious rider taking into the youngsters Sunday. Although the Italian stole the headlines with his surging sprint win, the veteran Aussie Heinrich Haussler surged home in 10th, his third-best result in 14 rides through Paris-Roubaix.
After riding with Colbrelli for four seasons, the 37-year-old Aussie was elated for his Italian teammate’s success.
“I’m almost crying because I’m that happy, but I’m just that completely f**ked I just I can’t show any happiness at the moment,” Haussler told reporters at the finish.
“I just can’t believe it …. Sonny’s a f***ing machine, his first Roubaix and he pulls it off. He kills it in a Roubaix like this …. it doesn’t get any harder than this. If the team’s smart, they will give him a contract for six years!”
Haussler spoke of how the difficult conditions stretched beyond staying upright in the mud and keeping filth out of the eyes. Finding a tire pressure fitting for both the dry fast tarmac sections and the swamped-out cobblestones made for a tricky balancing act.
“It was better for me once we started to hit the cobbles because before it was just very hectic [at the start],” he said. “I was riding super low pressure today and to be honest, the first 100kms I was suffering a lot just because they’re low pressure, but once I hit the cobbles I felt very comfortable. I had a bit of luck yeah and then once we get the cobbles you I felt pretty comfortable.”
Haussler wasn’t the only one feeling “pretty comfortable” Sunday afternoon. Colbrelli will be cuddling his cobblestone trophy all the way back to Brescia.