Van Aert’s doomed breakaway came after van der Poel accidentally nudged John Degenkolb (Team DSM) while trying to pass him, causing him to crash onto the grassy verge. At the time, Degenkolb – who won the race in 2015 – looked like a contender for the win.
The race, which covers 256.6km and includes 29 cobblestone sections totaling 54.4km, is widely known as “the hell of the North,” and it more than lived up to its reputation. In the first fifteen cobbled sections, there were crashes galore, as well as punctures, exploding tires and broken wheels. One of the crashes forced Peter Sagan (Team TotalEnergies) to abandon his last ever Paris-Roubaix. The seven-time Tour de France SKODA green jersey winner is retiring from road racing after this year and is suffering through a rude farewell tour, having also crashed and abandoned in the Tour of Flanders.
Though Paris-Roubaix does not have the stature of the Tour de France, and is ranked only 20th in road races in terms of startlist quality (the Tour is ranked first), it has a deep emotional value for riders because of the ordeal of riding it. According to Eurosport commentator Philippe Gilbert, who won Paris-Roubaix in 2019, some teams prepare special bikes for it, some of which resemble those used for cyclocross. And though the weather was ideal, with no rain and little wind, the cobblestones were as rough and uneven as always and previous storms had left puddles and mud at the sides of some cobbled sections that caught out many riders.
Van der Poel’s victory makes him only the second rider, with fellow Dutchman Roger De Vlaeminck, to win both the cyclocross world championship and Paris-Roubaix. Van der Poel’s teammate Jasper Philipsen finished second, 46 seconds behind, with van Aert a very dispirited third. It was a very bad day for Jumbo-Visma tires. Van Aert’s top lieutenant, Christophe Laporte, was riding in the lead group with his leader when he also punctured; he lost 40 seconds, was never able to catch up and finished tenth.
Van der Poel told Eurosport that his rival’s flat was “unfortunate because otherwise we could have raced together to the finish. You need a bit of luck and good legs to win [Paris-Roubaix], and I had both today.” And he was clearly delighted that Philipsen finished second, saying: “It can’t be better.”
The 120th edition of what many consider the hardest road race in the world was the fastest Paris-Roubaix ever run, at an average speed of 46.841 km/h. The previous top average speed of 45.79km/hwas recorded last year. As the winner put it: “It’s crazy how fast it went.” That pace – the first hour was run at an average of 51.4 km/h – prevented a successful breakaway from forming until 80km had been raced. The speed, the size of the peloton, the damp cobblestones and the constant jockeying for position within the peloton led to the astonishing number of crashes and mechanical failures. Paris-Roubaix has always been chaotic, but even veteran observers of the race said this was an unusual level of carnage.
🏆 2023 #ParisRoubaix pic.twitter.com/Zlnr9yjAU4
— Paris-Roubaix (@parisroubaix) April 10, 2023
Not only was Sagan forced to drop out of the race, but a heavy crash on the legendary Trouée d’Arenberg, an infamously cruel 2.3km stretch of rough cobblestones, also forced last year’s winner, Dylan van Baarle, to abandon. This was another blow to van Aert’s prospects, because the former Ineos Grenadiers rider had been regarded as an important element in Jumbo-Visma’s plans for the race.
But it was the 34-year-old Degenkolb who perhaps suffered the cruelest crash, which came with only 16.3km to go in the race and occurred when he, van der Poel and Pedersen were jockeying for position on another narrow stretch of cobblestones. “When you come so far and you are in a position to fight for the victory, this crash was obviously very disappointing,” Degenkolb said. “That’s racing.”
But it is van Aert who probably has the best reason to bemoan his luck. The despair etched on his face as he stood on the lowest step of the podium spoke volumes about how desperately he had wanted to win the race and how deep the disappointment was. “I’ve been through it before,” Van Aert told Sporza. “But at such a moment it is very sour. Roubaix remains cursed for me.”
He said he knew his chances for the victory had flown the moment it was clear that he would have to dismount. “I immediately knew it was over with that bike change,” he said. “I lost 20 to 25 seconds. You can’t make up for that on a Mathieu in top form.”
As for the winner, he was in seventh heaven. “I had one of [my] best days on the bike,” he told Eurosport. “It’s a dream.”
But for many other riders, Paris-Roubaix was a nightmare once again.