Niki Terpstra claimed a solo victory in a superb edition of Paris-Roubaix as Sir Bradley Wiggins and fellow Briton Geraint Thomas both finished in the top 10.
An action-packed and enthralling race reached its crux when all of the favourites entered the final 8km together in an elite lead group of 11 riders.
Wiggins, Thomas, defending champion Fabian Cancellara, four-time winner Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan were all there, but it was 29-year-old Dutchman Terpstra who made the decisive move with an attack 6.3km out.
He quickly pulled away from his tiring rivals and rode into the famous Roubaix Velodrome with an unassailable advantage, eventually crossing the line covered in dust and close to tears 20 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
John Degenkolb won the sprint for second place, with Cancellara snatching third to take his run of consecutive podiums in Monuments to 12. A fine display saw Thomas follow in seventh, while his Team Sky team-mate Wiggins took an impressive ninth.
Terpstra, of Omega Pharma - Quick-Step, said afterwards: “Of my career, it’s the best day. I had some nice results, especially this year, and then to take the win in the biggest Classic of all is a dream come true. It’s a race that suits me well. My shape this year was really good. I attacked and it was a good attack.”
Wiggins's efforts were particularly eye-catching given that his last Paris-Roubaix appearance had been three years ago. He told teamsky.com afterwards: "There’s a tinge of disappointment because I really had the legs. Even in the final I felt strong. There was a part of it where I was pinching myself a bit. I don’t mind admitting that. It was a real honour to be there in the final."
Paris-Roubaix is the third of the season’s five Monuments, but is widely recognised as the hardest one-day race in cycling due to its brutal cobbled sections. This year’s 257km route contained no fewer than 51.1km of pave, as the cobbles are known, split up into 28 bone-jarring sections.
The race was initially ignited by Boonen (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step), who attacked 64km out to form a strong lead group also containing Thomas, but they were later caught first by Sagan (Cannondale) and then another clutch of chasers including the likes of Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
A new five-man lead group made up of Sagan, Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) later formed after an attack from Sagan 21km out and it looked like that quintet would contest the victory between themselves.
However, a six-man chase driven on by Wiggins and Thomas, but also containing Boonen and Terpstra, managed to latch back on with 8.5km to go to create a leading 11. Sagan and Degenkolb, the two fastest sprinters, appeared the favourites at that point, but Terpstra had other ideas and those he left behind simply didn’t have the energy to respond.
Thomas told teamsky.com afterwards: "It’s nice to get a top 10 again. The way I rode it wasn’t the easy way. We were out front for a lot of the time. It’s satisfying, but at the same time we wanted to get a podium."
1 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, 6:09:01
2 John Degenkolb (Ger) Giant-Shimano, +20secs
3 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing, same time
4 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Belkin, st
5 Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, st
6 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale, st
7 Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky, st
8 Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Gamin-Sharp, st
9 Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky, st
10 Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, st