Three of cycling’s five one-day Monuments have been raced so far in 2023 and in each of them – Milan-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix – the record average speed has been set. Twice it has been by the same rider: the irrepressible Dutch superstar, Mathieu van der Poel.

Here is a gallery from the day MVDP added the ‘Hell of the North’ to his impressive curriculum vitae.

Photos by Stefano Sirotti

On Sunday 9 April 2023 the opening hour of the 119th edition of Paris-Roubaix was raced at an average speed of 51.5km/h! And the pace remained high all the way to the finish on the velodrome in Roubaix.

Of course, there were no cobbled sectors in that fast first hour but even when the peloton also had to consider the rough pavé of northern France the speed was incredibly quick.

There were attacks and counter-attacks, with hopefuls attempting to establish a breakaway… while others just clung on trying to survive as long as possible. The cobblestones and all the associated woes of the brutal terrain would eventually begin to wreak havoc and thin out the bunch but even before that happened, the pace was extremely rapid.

Left to right: Jasper Philipsen (2nd), Mathieu van der Poel (1st), Wout van Aert (3rd).

After two hours, there was little let-up, and the average speed was 50.8km/h. By then, the riders had tackled the first of the 30 sectors of pavé, near Troisville (which came after 99km of racing), but the worst was yet to come.

It is a flat race with only a few mild rises on the long road leading to the velodrome finish but, as every cycling fan knows, it’s not the climbs that make Paris-Roubaix special, it’s the cobblestones… and the legend that’s associated with the race. If there wasn’t such prestige attached to winning this event, why would anyone even consider taking on the challenge?

And yet, despite the certainty of pain, Paris-Roubaix lures in a special breed of racer: men and women who dare themselves to endure the risks involved in racing over roads that are best left ignored by bike riders. It’s a race that has myriad nicknames and few of them suggest anything but a rotten experience.

L’Enfer du Nord’ isn’t exactly an enticing title but even when the prospect of hours in ‘hell’ is on the menu, there is a long list of riders willing to take their chance in a quest to write their name in cycling’s history books.

Van Aert, van der Poel and the 2015 winner of Paris-Roubaix, John Degenkolb of Team DSM… of this elite selection that formed early, only MVDP would reach the finish without any major hiccups. Punctures for the Belgian and an unfortunate late crash for the German hindered their challenge.

They would strap up in ways you won’t see for any other bike race: fingers wrapped in bandages, even before the competition begins, and extra handlebar tape added in the hope of dulling the pain that inevitably strikes from hour after hour in the saddle and sector after sector of cobblestones.

And yet, no matter what is done to prepare themselves for what’s to come, there are always surprises in the final major cobbled Classic of the season, a Monument that captivates fans and riders alike. The sheer unpredictability of Paris-Roubaix is what makes it so appealing.

Eventually a champion will be crowned but it might take years of adjustment before one finds the winning recipe for a contest like no other.

Filippo Ganna and Stefan Küng both had impressive rides in Paris-Roubaix 2023, finishing sixth and fifth, respectively.

Peter Sagan, the winner of Paris-Roubaix in 2018, crashed out of his farewell to the race…

Geoffrey Soupe wrestles his bike over the pavé while riding with a punctured rear tyre.

For Mathieu van der Poel, the winner of the first of cycling’s five Monuments of the season – Milan-Sanremo, the 294km Classic in Italy this March, raced at an average of 45.773km/h – victory in Paris-Roubaix seemed somewhat inevitable. But it wasn’t until the age of 26 that he got a taste of the urgency on the pavé in this gladiatorial contest.

He made his debut in 2021, when Paris-Roubaix was postponed to autumn and raced on the first Sunday of October. He finished third. In that delayed event, he was eclipsed by two others in a sprint on the velodrome: Sonny Colbrelli created his bit of cycling history, beating Florian Vermeersch and the Dutch maestro in a three-up sprint.

The next year, MVDP squeezed inside the top 10, finishing ninth on the day his compatriot Dylan van Baarle set a new record for the average speed (45.792km/h).

But this year, nothing seemed to get in the way of van der Poel. While others faltered for one reason or another, the leader of the Alpecin-Deceuninck team – wearing a jersey that was rebranded as Alpecin-Elegant for this one race – scored the coup he always seemed capable of.

Kaden Groves was one of six Australians in Paris-Roubaix 2023. He finished 31st, 5:36 behind his winning team-mate.

John Degenkolb, the winner in 2015, was in the thick of the action but a crash inside the final 20km put him out of contention for the win this year.

Punctures, crashes and misfortune are inevitable consequences of racing on these kind of roads. And although the riders enjoyed the benefit of a tailwind that allowed them to keep the pace fast or faster, it was still a brutal contest which demanded diligence from start to finish.

MVDP managed it better than anyone else. He triumphed in sensational style. He went fast at the start, bided his time and waited for the right moments to make his moves.

Of course, he had the benefit of a team committed to his cause, one so strong that Alpecin-Elegant/Deceuninck managed first and second place thanks to a flawless performance by Jasper Philipsen. And of course, MVDP was more fortunate than others – including his traditional rival, Wout van Aert. The Belgian punctured at a crucial moment towards the end of the race while proving that he was likely to be the main challenger to the Dutchman…

But the victory on Sunday was not a coincidental one. It was inevitable and it was emphatic. It was a stunning display of bike handling, brute strength, clever tactics, and a commitment to achieve a win many expected.

Van der Poel celebrates his win while, in the background, Philipsen salutes his team-mate before preparing to sprint against van Aert for second place…

It’s not a surprise that Mathieu van der Poel has won Paris-Roubaix, but that doesn’t mean it was predictable race. It was fast. It was rough. It included myriad side-stories that will be told by everyone who lined up on Sunday; those who race this Monument understand what it’s all about and they all have their tales to tell.

For the winner, there’s a new trophy for his mantlepiece and a sense of accomplishment that will motivate him to continue doing what he does best: ride a bike with panache and win races in style… and do so while going fast – faster than anyone else before him has done.

The defending champion, Dylan van Baarle, on the presentation podium with van Aert before the start. The Dutchman crashed heavily early in the race and was never in the hunt for another win. He also lost his claim of being the fastest rider in Paris-Roubaix… his record average was eclipsed by van der Poel this year.

Van Aert leads Philipsen and Mads Pedersen…

In the second Monument of 2023, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, van der Poel was the runner-up. The champion – another superstar of this generation, Tadej Pogacar – set the fastest average speed (273.4km in six hours 12 minutes and seven seconds, which equates to 44.083km/h… up and over the ‘hellingen’ of Flanders on the cobbles which make that race special). But it wouldn’t be long before MVDP saluted another success.

A week after he was beaten by one of the best GC rider of his generation, Mathieu van der Poel demonstrated that he is one of the best one-day riders in history. That tag is open to debate, but for now he is certainly the fastest rider in the long history of Paris-Roubaix.

It is another victory in a Monument and another record average speed: 256.6km in five hours 28 minutes and 41 seconds… a race to hell at a pace of 46.841km/h!


– By Rob Arnold

Mathieu van der Poel (above) won Paris-Roubaix 30 years after his father, Adri (below) finished fifth…