Belgian cyclist Tom Boonen, of the Quick Step team, won the 259.5km Paris-Roubaix one-day classic in Roubaix on Sunday.
The 2005 champion beat home Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara with Italy’s Alessandro Ballan in third.
One of the fastest ever starts to the race proved too much for outside favourite Thor Hushovd of Credit Agricole, who stepped off his bike at the first of two feed stops after less than 115km.
The big Norwegian was not however the only contender to fall victim to the vicious pace of the unforgiving 259.5km epic, which produced a dramatic three-man finale inside the last 30km.
With seven of the 28 cobblestoned sectors to race, 2005 champion Boonen, 2006 champion Cancellara and former Tour of Flanders winner Ballan were left on their own to go on and dispute the victory.
It was not until 53km from the finish that the big favourites really began to bare their teeth.
An acceleration by Silence-Lotto’s Johann Van Summeren prompted an eight-man lead group to form, leaving Juan Antonio Flecha, Fabio Baldato and France’s 2004 winner Frederic Guesdon trailing.
The Belgian’s effort eventually pushed the CSC team of Cancellara and Boonen’s Quick Step outfit into some late tactical racing, but it also indirectly led to his team leader Leif Hoste using precious energy and missing the crucial three-man break.
Quick Step’s Stijn Devolder, who won the Tour of Flanders last week with a long breakaway effort, had first tested his teammate Boonen’s rivals by peeling off the front on of the toughest cobblestone sectors at Mons-en-Peleve with around 46km to race.
He was allowed a few hundred metres on his own before O’Grady, the defending champion, got up out the saddle and began to give chase – more in a bid to protect Cancellara’s chances than his own.
The Australian champion soon had the Belgian on a tight leash after catching him before the ninth last sector, allowing Cancellara, Boonen, Hoste, Ballan and Dutchman Martijn Maaskant to catch them as they emerged from the eighth last sector.
Ballan then threw down the gauntlet with a quick burst which soon left him in front with only Boonen and Cancellara.
Trapped behind with O’Grady and Devolder was Hoste, the Silence team’s only remaining rider. Soon, Hoste’s bid for an elusive victory on the race would come to a virtual end.
With 20km remaining the lead trio held a lead of 1 minute, 20 seconds on their trailers, and after Cancellara put in a quick acceleration it was time for Boonen to push to the front as they rode through the yellow, Flemish flags covering all sight of the cobbles in the crucial Carrefour de l’Arbre sector.
Ballan led the trio into the velodrome, but the Italian’s strength as well as his natural disposition could not prevent the super-strong Boonen passing him easily inside the last curve. The Belgian won by 30 metres in front of Cancellara, who managed to pass Ballan in the final metres. Dutch prodigy Maaskant finished an outstanding fourth.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008