When Greg Van Avermaet on Sunday evening was told that he had just won the fastest-ever edition of Paris–Roubaix, the Belgian displayed his usual aplomb. “That’s not too important for me,” he said. “I was first, whether it was the fastest or the least fastest.” And it’s true that his breaking a record that had stood for 53 years made no difference to his brilliant result, and his first monument, but the 45.204 kilometers per hour (28.088 miles per hour) average for the 257-kilometer cobbled classic certainly played a part in determining the outcome. The constantly high speeds meant that all the riders were always riding at their limit. That made it tough for breakaways to get established, while those who fell, flatted or had other mechanicals had to work extra-hard to regain their place in the group—or simply didn’t make it. Those who finished the race made comments such as “there weren’t too many dead spots” or “there was never a time to relax.” That constant pressure eventually saw 78 of the 199 starters abandon, another 19 riders finish outside the official half-hour time limit, and only 40 men cross the line within nine minutes of the winner.

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada

Bad luck is a given in a classic that is raced on such rough road surfaces, and it nearly always plays a part in deciding who doesn’t win the Hell of the North. Van Avermaet, for example, entered the infamous Forest of Arenberg cobbled section on his own, a half-minute behind the main group of favorites. He’d been stopped by problems with his handlebar stem and derailleur, changed bikes and then got back his original bike a kilometer before the forest. He only caught back to the lead group after his BMC teammate Jempy Drucker waited back and then pulled his leader’s small chase group for the best part of 20 kilometers. So Van Avermaet was back where he needed to be before the decisive moves began happening.

BMC domestique Jumpy Drucker pulled his leader Greg Van Avermaet in a 20km chase after mechanicals and bike changes put the eventual winner off the back with 95km to go.
BMC domestique Jumpy Drucker pulled his leader Greg Van Avermaet in a 20km chase after mechanicals and bike changes put the eventual winner off the back with 95km to go.

Van Avermaet’s chief rival, Peter Sagan, had opposite luck. Twice he made decisive attacks with strong riders, with 77 kilometers and 34 kilometers to go. But each time that his group was going clear he had flats that thwarted his efforts and forced him to make long chases at a time when the speed was at its height. It’s at times like this that races are lost and on a day when a record pace was being set, that bad luck was a killer for Sagan.

After decisive attacks, with 77km and 34km to go, Peter Sagan suffered flat tires that killed his chances of victory.
After decisive attacks, with 77km and 34km to go, Peter Sagan suffered flat tires that killed his chances of victory.

This was only the second time that Paris–Roubaix saw an average speed higher than 45 kilometers per hour. And over the past seven decades only nine editions have been faster than 43 kilometers per hour. Here are the stories of the five fastest:

5. Rik Van Steenbergen (1948): 246km in 5:35:31 (43.612 kph)
It seems almost unfathomable that almost 70 years ago, Paris–Roubaix saw what is still the classic’s fifth fastest edition. Like this year, there was a strong tailwind from the south, and the pace was high from the start, with a strong eight-man breakaway never allowed more than a three-minute lead. The course was different back then, starting from the edge of Paris and keeping to main roads through the towns of Amiens and Arras before reaching the almost continuous length of cobblestone streets through the industrial region of the North. Six riders were together approaching Roubaix when Frenchman Emile Idée jumped clear—but turned to see Belgium’s race favorite Rik Van Steenbergen of the famed Mercier team on his wheel. The Belgian easily took the two-man sprint on the velodrome to set what was then the fastest average speed in any of the classics.

4. Mat Hayman (2016): 257.5km in 5:51:53 (43.907 kph)
Last year’s race had a strong tailwind for most of the day, which caused the organizers to start the race 10 minutes later than scheduled. The speed was high throughout, with the peloton constantly splitting as the favorites’ teams chased after the day’s early breakaway. When it was caught, attacks and counterattacks continued until just five riders came together with 10 kilometers remaining. After more attacks and chases, it came down to a sprint on the velodrome, where Tom Boonen tried for a record fifth victory but couldn’t match the sprint of Orica’s Australian veteran Mat Hayman—who was in the day’s early breakaway and stayed at the front until the end.

3. Fabian Cancellara (2013): 254.5km in 5:45:33 (44.190 kph)
After the Paris–Roubaix course was given a complete facelift in 1966—starting an hour north of Paris and taking in the nasty narrow farm roads that distinguish the race today—most editions averaged less than 40 kilometers per hour. In the 20th century, only two editions were faster than 43 kilometers per hour on the new course: Francesco Moser in 1980 and Johan Museeuw in 1996. Tom Boonen also hit that average in 2008 and 2012, but the “new course” record wouldn’t top 44 kilometers per hour until 2013. On a day of bright sunshine, cool temperatures and virtually no wind, Fabian Cancellara’s RadioShack team kept the early breaks on a very short leash before it became a race of attrition. The lead group went from 20 to 12 to four; and when two riders separately clipped spectators, only Belgian Sep Vanmarcke remained with Cancellara at the end, with the Swiss taking the sprint and his third Paris–Roubaix.

2. Peter Post (1964): 265km in 5:52:19 (45.129 kph)
As in the record-setting 1948 edition, the race started from the northern suburbs of Paris; but by 1964, with many of the North’s old cobbled streets paved with tarmac, the organizers had already diverted the course to some lesser roads in the countryside south of Roubaix—but even some of these “new” cobblestone sectors were disappearing. As a result, this edition (and the following year’s) probably had the least amount of pavé in the race’s history. It was still a hard race, with heavy rain showers through the day and strong winds from the southwest. Several of the favorites didn’t make it to a large breakaway and just four riders from two Belgian teams came into the velodrome together: Peter Post and Willy Bocklandt from Flandria and Benoni Beheyt and Yvo Molenaers from Wiel’s-Groene-Leeuw. Post, whose strong sprint was honed in six-day track racing, was the easy winner.

Greg Van Avermaet made the winning attack on the Carrefour de l'Arbre cobbles, followed by Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld in the fastest-ever edition of Paris–Roubaix.
Greg Van Avermaet made the winning attack on the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbles, followed by Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld in the fastest-ever edition of Paris–Roubaix.

1. Greg Van Avermaet (2017): 257km in 5:41:07 (45.204 kph)
The organizers knew this was going to be a fast race, because of a strong tailwind from the south and on a course that hadn’t seen rain for more than a week. They even delayed the start by 15 minutes so that this 115th edition of Paris–Roubaix wouldn’t finish too early for the live broadcast. The race proved so fast—almost 51 kilometers were raced in the first hour and the first three hours averaged 47.5 kilometers per hour—that the usual breakaways had a hard time getting established. With constant changes of direction in the final part of the course where it jumps from one section of cobblestones to another, the pace slowed, but the combination of speed, distance and difficulties (along with crashes and punctures) did their usual part of dissecting the peloton, eventual leaving five riders to sprint for the victory—taken commandingly by BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet from Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld