Belgium's Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet claimed his first 'Monument' title in the Paris-Roubaix classic, battling through early setbacks and keeping his cool in the velodrome finale to win a five-man sprint on Sunday.
Van Avermaet leapfrogged Zdenek Stybar on the final straight in the famed outdoor velodrome in Roubaix after 257km featuring 55km of cobbled sections.
Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale Drapac) finished third.
Four-time champion Tom Boonen, chasing a record-breaking fifth title, ended his glittering career in his beloved race in 13th after being in contention for most of the afternoon as the peloton rode through clouds of dust in northern France.
“I suffered a lot but when you win you forget everything. Stybar did not work with us in the finale but I felt strong,” said Van Avermaet, his face covered in dust and sweat.
It had been a hell of a day for Van Avermaet in the race famed as ‘The Hell of the North’ as he came close to dropping out of contention early on and looked far from likely to better his fourth place of 2013 and third place in 2015.
He was caught up behind a crash just ahead of the demanding Trouee d’Arenberg cobbled section 95km from the line and had to change bikes but he fought his way back to the main pack.
He then benefited from precious help from Italian team mate Daniel Oss, who rode himself into the ground as his leader and others broke clear some 35km from the finish.
Van Avermaet accelerated in the much feared Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbled sector to skim the leading pack down to three.
Van Avermaet, Langeveld and Stybar played mind games in the final lap in the Roubaux velodrome, so much that chasers Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) caught them with about 200 metres left.
Stybar launched the sprint a tad too early, allowing Van Avermaet, who finished last weekend’s Tour of Flanders in second position, to win with seeming ease.
Stybar started the race, also known as the ‘Queen of the Classics’, as one of former world champion Boonen’s lieutenants but he eventually proved the main challenger in his team.
“It’s disappointing because we did everything for Tom,” said Stybar. “At the end of the day I was in a position to win the race but we worked very early in the race with all these groups riding away.”
Boonen, the 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012 champion, as well as world champion Peter Sagan and 2014 champion John Degenkolb were not able to follow when Van Avermaet and others jumped away from the main group.
Sagan, who suffered two punctures, dropped out of contention when he cracked 30km from the finish.
Niki Terpstra, the 2014 champion, abandoned 106km from the line shortly after suffering a heavy tumble.
Paris-Roubaix is the third of five ‘Monument’ one-day races on the calendar after Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, before Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy.