World champion Peter Sagan left his rivals in the dust on Sunday after a break from 55km out saw him clinch a jaw dropping victory in the 257km Paris-Roubaix classic.
The 28-year-old Slovak outsprinted Swiss champion Silvan Dillier, the last survivor from an earlier break, in the iconic outdoor velodrome in Roubaix after 5hrs 54mins 06sec in the saddle.
Last week’s Tour of Flanders winner Niki Terpstra was third at 57sec and 2017 champion Greg Van Avermaet fourth at 1:34.
Victory in the ‘Hell of the North’ was a second prestigious ‘Monument’ one-day classic success for Sagan, who won the Tour of Flanders in 2016 and has three consecutive world titles.
“I feel amazing, I’m so tired, but I was involved in no crashes, had no flat tyres and I just kept going,” said Sagan, who at one point was caught on camera using an Allen key to make some on board repairs as he cycled along at more than 40km/h.
Known for his rapid finishing, Sagan has often paid for his reputation as rivals have sought to neutralise his famed kick for the line by leaving him behind with their own daring long-range bids for glory.
But this time, he had no intention of playing to the sound of anyone else’s drum and launched his victory bid with a blistering attack from 55km out on one of the 29 cobbled sections totalling more than 54km in length.
He soon stretched out a lead of more than 30-seconds over his main rivals for victory as he bounced over the cobbles.
Sagan latched onto an earlier break and soon made up a three-man group alongside Belgian Jelle Wallays and Dillier.
With 20km to go Wallays had dropped off as Sagan upped the pace and the breakaway duo pushed their lead out to 1:30.
Van Avermaet and Tersptra were slow to react and when they did they dragged the gap back down to under a minute with 13km to go.
But the chase stalled there as Sagan and Dillier dug in to ensure they had enough leeway to contest a two-up sprint finish, that Sagan was always likely to win.
Typically, the cobbles played havoc with the peloton as a number of crashes brought down riders despite the race setting off on a glorious, dry spring morning.
Belgian Michael Goolaerts was airlifted to hospital in Lille in a serious condition after being knocked unconscious in a heavy crash, according to French emergency services.
Froome’s participation at July’s Tour is in doubt due to an adverse analytical finding in a doping test during last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
If Froome is banned and misses the Tour, Thomas would likely become the Sky leader for the race.
“Where I sit in that team, I don’t know yet. I’m just concentrated on making sure I get to the starting line,” Thomas said on Saturday, ahead of Sunday’s prestigious Paris-Roubaix one-day classic.
Thomas wore yellow for four days at last year’s Tour after winning the opening prologue but he lost it to Froome after Stage 5 and crashed out of the race four days later while still sitting second overall.
The first nine stages in this year’s Tour are either flat or hilly – rather than mountainous – with the ninth stage finishing at Roubaix after taking in some bone-crunching cobbles.
It’s terrain that suits all-rounder Thomas, who has aspirations of wearing yellow again.
“That would be very nice,” he said, blushing slightly. “I wouldn’t turn that down, if it did happen that would be great.”
The Welshman has turned himself into a stage racer having previously excelled in the one-day cobbled classics.
In 2014, he finished seventh in Paris-Roubaix and eighth at the Tour of Flanders – the two major ‘Monument’ cobbled classics.
He won’t be among the favourites for Sunday’s 257km ‘Hell of the North’, which he says is tougher than the Tour of Flanders due to the state of the cobbles in northern France.
“It’s totally different to Belgium,” he said of the 54km of cobbles. “This is a lot rougher. In Roubaix, it’s like someone’s just gone along and chucked a load of stones out of the back of a truck.”
Still, the 31-year-old is looking forward to it and believes in Sky’s chances.
“You need a bit of luck and it’s fun because it’s not as controlled as the Grand Tours,” he said.
“There’s a good feeling in the team – we went out Thursday and it was pretty muddy but with the sun it’ll be dried out mainly now.
“There’s going to be a tailwind which will help, and we have a strong team, and if we trust each other we can get a good result.”
Who do you want to win the Paris-Roubaix?
We’ve rounded up the top cyclists to keep a close eye on for Sunday’s gruelling race in northern France.
The three-time world champion may have yet to stand on a podium at Paris-Roubaix but is arguably the biggest star in world cycling at the moment.
The Slovak has failed to scale the same heights as the previous two years, but Sunday could be the day when the cards finally fall into place.
The 28-year-old comes into the race after securing victory at Gent-Wevelgem, as well as achieving sixth-place finishes at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.
Races on instinct and is capable of winning on any given day.
The 2014 champion has been in stunning form this year winning the E3 Harelbeke, Le Samyn and Tour of Flanders in recent weeks.
Aside from Sagan, the Dutchman comes into the race as the favourite based on his sparkling displays in March. With other riders eager to finish the cobble classics on a high, the 33-year-old will also be hungry for victory having been forced to abandon each of the past two editions due to crashes.
Momentum is in Terpstra’s favour to win for a second time.
GREG VAN AVERMAET
The defending champion is well off the pace of last season where he won three of the four cobble classics, but may not be as far off as some results suggest.
The Belgian finished third in E3 Harelkbebe, eighth in Dwars door Vlaanderen and fifth at the Tour of the Flanders – and if he can avoid being outshone by Quick-Step’s immense strength then he has a genuine chance to finish on the podium again.
Has the confidence and experience to storm to another victory in northern France.
Two wins at the Challenge Mallorca got the season off to a lightning start, but the German has failed to finish inside the top-15 in any of the four cobble classics so far.
An illness ruled him out of the latter stages of Paris-Nice last month, but the 29-year-old still possesses the turn of speed to push for a podium position.
As a winner in 2015, Degenkolb will be bidding to use his experience in Paris to get his season back on track.
The Belgian always puts himself in a position to win and as one of Quick-Step’s key decision makers, he is a serious contender to collect a first win of the season.
Despite finishing second behind team-mate Terpstra at both Le Samyn and E3 Harelbeke, his characteristics perfectly suit the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and it would not be a surprise to see him collect another podium this spring.
At 35, his glittering career shows no signs of slowing yet.