A mud-spattered Sonny Colbrelli won a three-way cat-and-mouse struggle to claim victory in the epic Paris-Roubaix bike race in dreadful conditions on Sunday.
After a 258km slog over cobbles and mud, the Italian and European champion Colbrelli sped into the Roubaix velodrome alongside Florian Vermeersch and hot-favourite Mathieu van der Poel before edging them both right on the line.
Plucky 22-year-old Vermeersch launched the sprint late, but Colbrelli, a specialist in the discipline, overtook the Belgian on the line.
Already caked in mud, the trio had caught and overtaken lone escapee Gianni Moscon 15km from the line on one of the cobbled mining roads that make this race so special.
Ineos rider Moscon had looked good for the win before a flat tyre followed swiftly by a fall ended his brave effort.
“I was only following van der Poel,” said Colbrelli, who threw himself down on the ground and rolled around howling loudly with joy.
He was swiftly shepherded to the showers and ushered onto the podium where he was awarded the mounted cobblestone trophy and cried as the national anthem was played.
Runner-up Vermeersch said he was both proud and disappointed.
“Right now it’s really painful, but I’m hoping in a few days I’ll feel better, I should be feeling proud after that,” he said.
Potholes and puddles
Finishing cycling’s most feared endurance test in 6hr 01min 57sec, Colbrelli is the first Italian to win Paris-Roubaix since Andrea Taffi in 1999.
“It was stressful and tiring and I was worried about an accident,” said the 31-year-old Bahrain team rider who has had the best season of his career.
Feared for its treacherous cobbles the wet weather meant potholes were covered by puddles and some sections of the road, through potato and beetroot fields, were drenched in slush, sending luminaries such as Peter Sagan and Wout van Aert into nasty falls they never fully recovered from.
Paris-Roubaix featured 30 paved sections for the 2021 edition, each given a 1-5 star difficulty rating for a total of 55km of cobbled-road, containing more than six million stones which are preserved by volunteers as part of local culture in the former mining region.
Heavy overnight storms gave rise to fears that the ‘Hell of the North’ would be even more difficult and unpredicable than usual and, even though the storm blew itself out by the time the race started, the route was in such poor condition there were falls galore along the way.