Belgian Johan Museeuw (Mapei) powered away from breakaway partner Frankie Andreu (USPS) with 55 kilometers to go in the Hell of the North and held on to win for the second time, following his victory in 1996.
Before the start in Compigne, France, 34-year-old Museeuw commented that he was ready, once again, to face the cobbles that make this the toughest one-day race of the year.
"Last year I was scared," he said. "It was the first time after my fall. But today I start with the intention to win. It isn't the first time I've ridden on stones this year. And it has gone well until now."
And go well it would. As an emotional Museeuw rode into the velodrome in Roubaix, France, tears running down his cheeks, he made a hugely symbolic gesture for the wildly cheering crowd: unclipping and raising his left leg from his bike, he pointed emphatically to his knee.
Museeuws point was clear. In the 1998 race he crashed heavily on the Forest of Arenburg cobbles and fractured his kneecap, and nearly died of gangrene when his knee was infected by the cobblestone slime. He seriously considered retiring.
It would be up to the 176-rider-strong peloton to match the strength of Museeuws powerhouse Mapei team, which had won four out of the last five Paris-Roubaix races.
Unseasonably warm and dry temperatures greeted racers at the start in Compigne. The first significant move came at 40K when a group of seven, including Mapeis Tom Steels and USPSs Marty Jemison, wearing his Stars and Stripes national champion jersey, went clear.
"I was one of three riders on the team whose job it was to cover any early breaks and make sure the team was represented. It went well and we came out of the Arenberg Forest still ahead of the chase group," said Jemison, who would retire to the showers after his work at the front was done.
Last years winner, Andrea Tafi (Mapei) led the peloton out of the Arenburg Forest at 171 kilometers pushing very hard to ride down the original break, followed by Museeuw, Peter van Petegem (Farm Frites) and USPSs favorite, George Hincapie, who had his father riding shotgun in a team car behind him.
Tafis acceleration was to break up the field for good, placing about 25 riders in the lead group. Of those, the U.S. Postal Service and Mapei, with four and five riders each, were able to dictate the remainder of the race.
By kilometer 220, nearly 5 1/2 hours into the race, Andreu attacked around a corner and into a cloud of dust. Museeuw jumped after the USPS rider, and the two quickly raced to a one-minute lead, aided by teammates who worked to neutralize the chase.
"Johan came up to me, I was surprised he came up to me so early. We rode together and I was staying with him, but it was a hard day, said Andreu about his move. I was helping George (Hincapie) early on and the wind was so strong. I knew there was only a few sections of pave remaining, and when he went, there was a crosswind, it was power against power, I couldn't hang with him.
It was perhaps too early to go, but Museeuw was clearly on a mission.
As he flew through the cobbled sections, his face a mask of dust, hundreds of frenzied Belgian fans screamed their support; overhead, flags flew stiff in the strong crosswind, signaling that it would be a tough solo ride to Roubaix.
With 20 kilometers remaining and Museeuws lead down to 1:20, pre-race favorite Hincapie made a strong acceleration, taking only Stephan Weseman (Telekom) with him. The attack would bring the chasers within sight of Museeuw, whose lead had steadily shrunk in the headwinds.
The nail-biting had begun: Could the tiring Museeuw hold on?
With 10 kilometers to go, Hincape suffered a front tire flat, losing all but 40 pounds of pressure; too late to stop for a spare, he had to ride conservatively to the line. Hincapie would finish the sprint in lame-duck fashion, sitting down, and very upset.
As Museeuw wheeled across the line, the seven chasers entered the velodrome 15 seconds back. Petegem would take the sprint for second, followed by Zabel, who solidified his World Cup lead.
Now with 10 classics wins among 81 career victories, Museeuw is rumored to be considering racing for at least two more years.
After the fall two years ago when I was almost lost to cycling, this is something extraordinary, Museeuw said.
"Im still at the best level, even though Im 34. Ive looked after myself. Cycling is all in the head. Winning Roubaix again isnt a dream for me my dream was coming back as a bike racer."
98th Paris-Roubaix April 9
174 racers started, 79 finished
name, country, team, time
1. Johan Museeuw (BEL), Mapei 6:47:00
2. Peter Van Petegem (BEL), Farm Frites at +0:15
3. Erik Zabel (GER), Telekom same time
4. Tristan Hoffman (NED), M.C.-J&J s.t.
5. Stefano Zanini (ITA), Mapei s.t.
6. George Hincapie (USA), USPS s.t.
7. Marc Wauters (BEL), Rabobank s.t.
8. Franco Ballerini (ITA), Lampre-Daikin s.t.
9. Steffen Wesemann (G), Telekom at +0:21
10. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step at +1:18