Six months can make a world of difference, as the Ineos Grenadiers rider showed on the mighty cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Last October, when the Dutchman reached the André Pétrieux velodrome, he was out of the time limit, defeated by the Hell of the North and its brutal challenges. Last Sunday, he had all the time to celebrate success on the iconic track and still set the fastest ever average speed for a winner of the French classic: 45.8km/h, over 257.2km of relentless battling, to become a Monument winner a month before celebrating his 30th birthday.
“I know how it feels to be last in Roubaix…”, he reflected as the dust settled on his path to glory. “This year, I had goosebumps, especially when I saw Dave [Brailsford, Director of Sport at Ineos]. He was cheering full on and it almost seemed like we were alone in the velodrome.”
In their 13th season, the Ineos Grenadiers project (born as Team Sky at the turn of the 2010s) has tamed the Hell of the North, adding another one-day Classic victory to their list of achievements alongside their countless triumphs in stage races.
And the British powerhouse did it with a special talent, who has steadily risen through the ranks of Elite cycling since turning professional in 2014. A powerful all-rounder, Van Baarle only took a few months to claim his first victory among the pros, in the 2014 Tour of Britain, but he had to wait four more years to win again, in the individual time trial (ITT) at the 2018 Dutch National Championships.
Still, performance experts around him were convinced the Voorburg-born rider had all the abilities to claim glory at the highest level. Van Baarle has now acknowledged his potential, and the whole world can admire his elegant pedal strokes, even on the treacherous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.
From Leuven to Roubaix
“Last year’s World Championships were an important moment, it just made a click for me”, Van Baarle explained as a fresh winner of Paris-Roubaix ahead of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ).
“The national coach gave me so much confidence into that race,” the silver medalist of the Men Elite road race in Flanders described. “And afterwards, he told me I just needed to believe in myself more than I did before. I listened to his words, and you see what happens.”
What happened was a brilliant attack on the cobbles of Camphin-en-Pévèle, 20km from the finish, to eventually seal the win with a significant margin of 1’47’’. In the previous 235km, Van Baarle and Ineos Grenadiers had done everything they could to launch towards victory, already splitting the race before the peloton even hit the cobbles and then making sure they’d always stay in a good position to battle it out.
“Wout [van Aert] had some mechanicals I think,” Van Baarle recalled. Mathieu [Van der Poel, 9th] also had to come back from a bit further. You just focus on your own race, to be in the right position at the right time. And then you have to find your moment.”
“Get everyone on their knees before the big moment”
At last year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, Van Baarle’s first UCI WorldTour Classic victory, the right moment was 52km from the finish, and he held off his chasers with an impressive solo ride. This time, the Dutchman had to wait for his rivals to be absolutely worn out before striking the final blow.
“Cycling has changed a lot in the past couple years,” Van Baarle explains. “Guys attack earlier and earlier, and that’s also what I tried to do, to get everyone on their knees before the big moment. I know I’m not the best in terms of peak power, but I can do long efforts. That’s basically my strong point.”
His endurance makes him a reliable teammate in Grand Tours, to control the bunch on any kind of terrain, and it’s no surprise then that his most impressive performances came in the most demanding Classics, especially the Ronde van Vlaanderen where he has claimed five top-10 finishes: 6th in 2016, 4th n 2017, 8th in 2020, 10th in 2021 and 2nd in 2022. Honorable mentions now turned into victory.
“I always had trust in myself, but all of a sudden, you’re up on the final of the World Championships”, Van Baarle explained. “If you can build on that the whole winter, you have confidence you can race for the win. Flanders was confirmation I’m on the right path.”
Roubaix now calls for follow up triumphs.