Despite possessing an envious palmarès that already included the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, the 36-year-old Belgian arrived on the start line relatively unfancied.
However, five hours 58 minutes and two seconds after setting off from Compiègne it was Gilbert who prevailed, winning from a select six-man group that featured not only the defending champion, but also cobbled classics specialist Sep Vanmarcke. And all this on only his third outing at the race nicknamed the Hell of the North.
But how did Gilbert win? Who made the decisive moves? How did his Deceuninck-Quick Step team set up the win?
Telegraph Sport analyses the race to highlight how Gilbert won his fourth different monument with his maiden victory at Paris-Roubaix.
Playing the numbers game perfectly
Similarly to the previous weekend’s Tour of Flanders, the latest edition of Paris-Roubaix was possibly one of the most open races in years. Indeed, while listing their potential winners L’Equipe, the French daily sports paper, not only refused to name any five-star picks, but also left their four-star selections blank. However, while this may be perceived as a damning indictment on the quality of the field, the harsh reality was that none of the cobbled specialists were in their very best form.
While in previous years riders such as Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, John Degenkolb, Greg Van Avermaet or Peter Sagan have arrived in their absolute top form, on Sunday there was no one rider able to claim this. There was, though, one team with more potential winners than any other: Deceuninck-Quick Step. Once again the Belgian super-team arrived with numbers on their side and once again the team made those numbers work in their favour. Having numbers per se mean little, unless you know what to do with them. In their preferred terrain – the gnarly, cobbled one-day classics – Patrick Lefevere and his posse of backroom staff knew exactly how to play their cards.
Declercq the diesel is again the engine room
Anybody who has watched a bike race in the last few years will be familiar with the sight of Tim Declercq sat on the front of the bunch. Pulling hard with the peloton sheltered behind his considerable frame, Declercq is the engine room of Deceuninck-Quick Step and so he proved again on Sunday, particularly during the opening 100km or so.
The opening half of Sunday’s race was a frenetic affair, though with a rider like Declercq at their disposal Deceuninck-Quick Step were able to both control the pace of the main peloton while also monitor who managed to get in the breakaway and how much time they were allowed to gain on the bunch. Admittedly, the conditions may have helped when it came to monitoring any breakaways – the head / head-crosswinds were a big enough deterrent for most – but Declercq is a rider who laughs in the face of hard work and was the ideal man to sit, nose into the wind, keeping an eye on things before the race ‘proper’ got under way. It says much about the effort the 30-year-old put in that despite being hailed as ‘fantastic’ by Lefevere, Declercq failed to finish the race. Not quite a man-of-the-match performance, but close.
Nils gives peloton food for thought
With just over 20 kilometres of cobbles remaining and 67km from the finish line a lone rider – Wesley Kreder of the Wanty-Groupe Gobert squad – led the way by a handful of seconds. With the field of possible contenders having been whittled down following a typically attritional race, it was the 25-year-old Katusha Alpecin rider Nils Politt who put the cat among the pigeons at the least expected time. As the bunch passed through the feed zone Politt attacked after riding beyond a team-mate who had just collected a musette from a roadside helper.
While most were caught off guard, Gilbert was alert to the move and wasted little time in chasing down the German who within the blink of an eye had put a handful of bike lengths between himself and the pack.
Gilbert took with him Rüdiger Selig of the Bora-Hansgrohe squad (fourth wheel, light green helmet) before the trio closed the gap on Kreder. With three team-mates in the main group Deceuninck-Quick Step were in the perfect position to take advantage of those numbers.
With one rider in the leading group, Lampaert, Sénéchal and Stybar did none of the chasing – that honour fell to Trek-Segafredo – allowing them to save vital reserves of energy for the remainder of the race.
Lampaert and Gilbert one-two softens up Sagan
With 17.5km remaining and with just five riders in with a genuine shout of winning Paris-Roubaix, the smart money may have been on defending champion Peter Sagan. The Bora-Hansgrohe rider, though, had been struggling with form in the countdown to the race and also had the small matter of having two Deceuninck-Quick Step riders to contend with on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the final five-star sector of cobbles. And a dogged young German out to make his mark on this race.
Leading from the front, Belgian national champion Lampaert (above) applied a little more pressure on his pedals to put the slightest of gaps between himself and Sagan who, for the first time in the race, appeared to struggle holding any wheels. Sensing a weakness, perhaps, or more likely looking for a smoother ride Lampaert darted down the right-hand gulley (below) to extend his lead further still.
Following a brief cessation of hostilities during which time Sagan got back on the wheel of Lampaert, it was the turn of Gilbert to attack.
The vicious injection of pace that saw the 36-year-old fly past team-mate Lampaert forced Sagan into, once again, using vital energy.
Shortly after navigating their way over the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the quintet hit the Gruson section of cobbles. It was here where the final knockout blow to Sagan was dealt and it came from Politt. The German rode a canny race from start to finish before first blowing things up in the feed zone and then here, with this attack on the fatigued Sagan. It was cruel, it was decisive. It was where the race was (almost) won.
Politt who had looked to be struggling on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, wasted little time in putting space between himself and Sagan once he attacked. Only Gilbert was able to respond (below). The final part of the whittling down process had taken place. And then there were two.
Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill
After almost six hour of racing and the leading pair of Gilbert and Politt arrived in the open-air Vélodrome André-Pétrieux in Roubaix. Gilbert made sure he entered the famous old track in the perfect position: on the wheel of his younger rival ahead of one-and-a-half laps.
As the bell rang to let the pair know there was one lap to go, Gilbert sat patiently behind Politt . . .
. . . with the two riders watching each other closely.
With under half a lap remaining, Gilbert made the final move of the day.
The 36-year-old darted beneath Politt and down towards the Côte d’Azur – the blue strip on the lower part of the track – as the wily old Belgian took the shortest route to the finishing line.
Moments later Gilbert sat up, lifted his arms and celebrated. The Belgian had won Paris-Roubaix. He had written his name into the history books on what was a perfect day for Deceuninck-Quick Step who had finished with four riders in the final top 10. Not bad for a team that was supposedly under pressure.
A clever ride from Gilbert who used all of his many years of experience – and firepower in the form of his Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mates – when it mattered most. Though tactically enthralling, the race itself lacked some of the drama and excitement that we have enjoyed in recent years, but nonetheless another decent day of racing.
The WorldTour resumes at the Presidential Tour of Turkey which gets under way on Tuesday.
All screengrabs from the race courtesy of Eurosport.