A mud-spattered Sonny Colbrelli won a three-way cat-and-mouse struggle to claim victory in an epic Paris-Roubaix in dreadful conditions on Sunday.
After a 258km slog over cobbles and mud, European champion Colbrelli sped into the Roubaix velodrome alongside Florian Vermeersch and hot-favourite Mathieu van der Poel before edging them both right on the line.
Plucky 22-year-old Vermeersch launched the sprint late, but Colbrelli, a specialist in the discipline, overtook the Belgian on the line.
"Florian zipped past me when I was watching van der Poel, after 258km you don't know what anyone has left in the tank, but it was my day," said Colbrelli.
"My first Parigi-Roubaix!" he added, utilising the Italian translation for the French capital.
Already caked in mud, the trio had caught and overtaken lone escapee Gianni Moscon 15km from the line on one of the cobbled mining roads that make this race so special.
Ineos rider Moscon had looked good for the win before a flat tyre, followed swiftly by a fall, ended his brave effort.
"I was only following van der Poel," said Colbrelli, who threw himself down on the ground and rolled around howling loudly with joy.
He was swiftly shepherded to the showers and ushered onto the podium where he was awarded the mounted cobblestone trophy and cried as the national anthem was played.
Runner-up Vermeersch said he was both proud and disappointed.
"Right now it's really painful, but I'm hoping in a few days I'll feel better, I should be feeling proud after that," he said.
Even finishing such a treacherous race would be something to be proud of as only 94 of the 173 entrants made it to the finish line inside the time allowed, with 69 pulling out along the way and 10 ruled out for a tardy finish.
- Potholes and puddles -
Completing cycling's most feared endurance test in 6hr 01min 57sec, Colbrelli is the first Italian to win Paris-Roubaix since Andrea Taffi in 1999 and the first debutant to win since Noel Flore in 1959.
"I've never thought about winning this race, and to do it on my first Paris-Roubaix is amazing," admitted the winner.
"It was stressful and tiring and I was worried about an accident," said the 31-year-old Bahrain team rider who has had the best season of his career.
"I tried to remain focussed on not falling and keeping on van der Poel's wheel," he said.
Feared for its treacherous cobbles, the wet weather meant potholes were covered by puddles and some sections of the road, through potato and beetroot fields, were drenched in slush, sending luminaries such as Peter Sagan and Wout van Aert into nasty falls from which they never fully recovered.
Paris-Roubaix featured 30 paved sections for the 2021 edition, each given a 1-5 star difficulty rating for a total of 55km of cobbled-road, containing more than six million stones which are preserved by volunteers as part of local culture in the former mining region.
Heavy overnight storms gave rise to fears that the 'Hell of the North' would be even more difficult and unpredicable than usual and, even though the storm blew itself out by the time the race started, the route was in such poor condition there were falls galore along the way.
The race no longer actually starts in Paris but embarked into a storm at Compiegne with 173 riders at a site near where the WWI armistice was signed in driving rain and in a seasonally cool 12C.
Considering it ends near the France-Belgian border it is surprisingly the first wet edition for 20 years, meaning nobody at the start line had experienced the race in mud, which was so slippery even the television motorbikes were falling