It was won by a little-known Dutchman, Servais Knaven, but in reality the race was a triumph for an entire team, the Belgian squad Domo, who dominated the final 50 miles and took the first three places.
To the French, this race will always be L'Enfer du Nord the Hell of the North having earned the nickname when it resumed just after the first world war, and the journey from the French capital to the Belgian border took the cyclists through a devastated landscape of shell craters, trenches and broken trees.
Yesterday, all the 55 men who struggled to the finish on the velodrome at Roubaix looked as if they had been to the nether reaches of the earth and back, unrecognisable as each one was under a thick coating of mud from the fields of French Flanders.
These days, the landscape may be more orderly, but Paris-Roubaix remains a cycling version of hell, thanks to the inclusion in the course of about 30 miles of cobbled lanes, some dating back to Napoleonic times, and others boasting evocative names: Chemin des Abattoirs and Chemin des Prires. The late organiser Jacques Goddet called this race "cycling's last folly"; the 1980 winner Bernard Hinault was more blunt: "A piggery".
Criss-crossing the fields of sugar beet, the cobbled sections double up as drains in wet weather and at the end of the wettest winter since records began they have doubled up so efficiently that they became flooded and some sections had to be pumped out during the week merely so the race could pass. On Saturday night it rained again, there were torrential April showers yesterday and the pavs [cobbles] turned into a cyclist's nightmare.
In places it seemed impossible for anyone to keep their bike upright, so thick and slippery was the mud. Vast puddles hid deep potholes, where cobbles were missing, adding the risk of punctures to the ever-present danger of crashes. Any problem, if not terminal, meant at best a strength-sapping chase - assuming a support vehicle had fought its way through the mire to assist - and yesterday there were few who did not either crash or puncture.
A chill wind whipping through the poplars merely added to the agony and among those reduced to a hopeless chase after the early crash were former winners such as Andrei Tchmil of Belgium and the Italians Andrea Tafi and Franco Ballerini, who had postponed retirement solely in order to compete in Hell one more time, plus the Briton Max Sciandri, who was to finish 12th.
"Hell" is geared towards cycling's older men, with knowledge of the cobbled sections vital, as is a cool head when trouble strikes. It was one of the peloton's senior members, the 36-year-old Belgian Wilfried Peeters, who took a grip on the event at its heart, the dank Wallers-Arenberg forest.
The road through the wood is a dead-straight lane just outside Valenciennes with undulations caused by subsidence in the nearby coal mines, where Zola based his novel Germinal, and yesterday it was lined with Belgian fans brandishing the Lion of Flanders as they squelched in the verges.
Here, with over 50 miles and 12 cobbled sections remaining, the leaders had been cut down to a mere 16 when the Frenchman Philippe Gaumont, second in line behind Peeters, fell heavily and broke his right leg. The confusion, as Gaumont's companions tried to avoid him, favored the Belgian, whose usual role is as chief assistant to cycling's leading one-day specialist, last year's winner in "Hell" Johan Museeuw.
Yesterday, however, it was the turn of Museeuw to play the role of team man, and he marked what remained of the chasing group, led for much of the time by the American George Hincapie, winner on Wednesday of the Ghent-Wevelgem Classic, and a Belgian veteran, Ludo Dierckxsens.
Peeters' valiant effort came to an end in the final section of pav eight miles from the finish, where Dierckxsens and Hincapie made their final desperate attempts to dislodge Museeuw and his two other team-mates in the Domo squad, the world champion Romans Vainsteins of Latvia and Knaven.
The pair were helped in their task when Museeuw punctured early in the half-flooded lane. He has spent the last eight months recovering from a motorbike accident which left him in a coma, but it was barely noticeable from the way he fought his way back, his bike bucking under him like a pogo stick on two wheels.
Hincapie and Dierckxsens were thus left outnumbered. "What could we do?" asked a despairing Hincapie afterwards. "One of them was on to us whenever we moved."
Any of the four, bar the exhausted Peeters, could have won but it was Knaven who attacked seven-and-a -half miles from the finish to become the first Dutch victor since 1983, with Museeuw taking second from Vainsteins, who took over the lead in the World Cup.
Hell may have been murkier than usual but the result was all too clear-cut.
99th Paris-Roubaix 264. 5K
1. Servais Knaven (Ned) Domo 6hr 45:00, 2. Johan Museeuw (Bel) at 34sec, 3. Roman Vainsteins (Lat) 41, 4. George Hincapie (USA) 41, 5. Wilfried Peeters (Bel) 41, 6. Ludo Dierckxsens (Bel) 41, 7. Steffen Wesemann (Ger) 41, 8. Andrei Tchmil (Bel) 2:35, 9. Chris Peers (Bel) 2:35, 10. Rolf Soerensen (Den) 2:59, 11. Dario Pieri (Ita) 3:07, 12. Maximilian Sciandri (Gbr) 3:17, 13. Nico Mattan (Bel) 3:17, 14. Leon van Bon (Ned) 3:17, 15. Gianluca Bortolami (Ita) 7: 57, 16. Rolf Aldag (Ger) 7:57, 17. Christophe Mengin (Fra) 7:57, 18. Denis Zanette (Ita) 7:57, 19. Arvis Piziks (Lat) 7:57, 20. Enrico Cassani (Ita) 7:57
Overall World Cup standings (after three of ten events)
1. Romans Vainsteins (Lat) 116pts, 2. Gianluca Bortolami (Ita) 111, 3. Servais Knaven (Ned) 101, 4. Erik Zabel (Ger) 100, 5. Johan Museeuw (Bel) 80, 6. Erik Dekker (Ned) 75, 7. George Hincapie (USA) 73, 8. Rolf Soerensen (Den) 72, 9. Mario Cipollini (Ita) 70, 10. Denis Zanette (Ita) 58, 11. Ludo Dierckxsens (Bel) 56, 12. Chris Peers (Bel) 52, 13. Andrei Tchmil (Bel) 44, 14. Maximilian Sciandri (Gbr) 43, 15. Steffen Wesemann (Ger) 42, 16. Biagio Conte (Ita) 40, 17. Gabriele Balducci (Ita) 40, 18. Paolo Bettini (Ita) 39, 19. Wilfried Peeters (Bel) 36, 20. Daniele Nardello (Ita) 36
Overall Team standings
1. Cofidis (Fra) 21pts, 2. Domo (Bel) 18, 3. Lampre (Ita) 18, 4. Rabobank (Ned) 15, 5. Lotto (Bel) 14, 6. Mapei (Ita) 13, 7. Saeco (Ita) 12, 8. Tacconi (Ita) 10, 9. US Postal (USA) 10, 10. Telekom (Ger) 9, 11. CSC (Den) 9, 12. Cantina Tollo (Ita) 8, 13. Mercury (USA) 5, 14. Fassa Bortolo (Ita) 4, 15. BigMat (Fra) 2
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