The cobbled Classics campaign came to an end on Sunday, with the Queen of them all. After being successful in recent years in Paris-Roubaix, the Groupama-FDJ cycling hoped for the same this season. After 259 kilometres, including 55,7 on the cobbles, it definitely was, placing both Stefan Küng and Laurence Pithie in the top-10. On the velodrome, the Swiss rider took fifth place, his third top-5 in a row in the Hell of the North. For his first participation, the New Zealander grabbed an astonishing seventh place, while a crash took him out of the fight for the podium. Mathieu van der Poel won this 2024 edition, the fastest in history.

The riders were set to tackle the Hell of the North shortly after 11 a.m., this Sunday, April 7, for the 121st edition of the French Monument. Nearly 260 kilometers (without the neutral) but above all twenty-nine cobbled sectors including the legendary and terrifying Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre awaited them. Before that, almost a hundred kilometres on asphalt had to be covered, but they also proved quite intense. The breakaway struggled to establish while Clément Davy was caught in a crash after forty kilometres. Seven men eventually managed to get a head start on the peloton, but their gap was barely more than a minute when they tackled the first sector in Troisvilles. “With the tailwind, we knew that the start was going to be very fast and that the pace was going to be high all day,” said Frédéric Guesdon. “On the other hand, we were surprised to see many splits already in the first sectors. The race opened up very early.” After barely three sectors, a bunch of around forty riders broke away from the rest of the competition. “The guys did their work to position our leaders in the first sectors,” added Frédéric. “This is what allowed them to be in front. We had our three best cards with Stefan, Laurence, and Lewis. It was almost perfect. Then, we just had to safely reach Arenberg, then we knew it would come down to the legs”.

“I certainly left some energy,” Stefan Küng

The first group was even reduced to around thirty riders before reaching the famous Trouée d’Arenberg, 95 kilometres from the finish. Lewis Askey did his best to position his teammates before the chicane which was set up before the sector, allowing Stefan Küng and Laurence Pithie to start the Trouée in the very first positions. Mathieu van der Poel launched his first offensive right after, and the Groupama-FDJ leaders lost a few meters before bridging across in the following kilometers. Barely back, Laurence Pithie tried to accelerate. It proved unsuccessful, but Stefan Küng managed to take the lead with Nils Politt and Gianni Vermeersch just after. “The goal was to read the race as best as possible, which is never easy,” said Frédéric. “We had to follow the moves, without making the effort too soon. The ideal was to go with riders from Alpecin-Deceuninck and Lidl-Trek so that they wouldn’t pull behind. When Stefan went, it wasn’t a bad move, but there was no Lidl-Trek, and they were the ones who took control behind”. With the sole support of Politt in the front, the Swiss rider took a forty-second lead at best, but their attempt ended with 68 kilometres to go, after almost twenty kilometres of effort. “I went on the attack early, maybe too early, but you never know,” Stefan said. “I certainly left some energy there which I missed at the end.”

“A silly mistake ruined my race”, Laurence Pithie

However, the first group was only made of twenty men or so, including the two Groupama-FDJ’s riders, as they approached Orchies. After another selection from the back, things became clearer at the front with sixty kilometres from the finish, in the day’s sixteenth sector. The world champion made a strong attack and immediately got clear. “We weren’t far away with Pedersen when he accelerated, but we couldn’t follow, and then he continued to gain time while we were pulling,” Stefan testified. “There was nothing to do against him.” The gap with the Dutchman quickly became too big, and the fight for the podium started in the Mons-en-Pévèle sector, with 48 kilometres to go. Five men then managed to break away, including Pedersen, Philipsen, Politt… and Frédéric Guesdon’s two protégés. “When I saw Stefan and the three others in front in Mons-en-Pévèle, I knew I had to get there as soon as possible, so then we could play a little bit,” said Laurence Pithie. The five men worked together, with the exception of Philipsen, to stay away from the other chasers. The gap to the next group was clearly made with about thirty kilometres to go, but a few moments later, the situation completely changed for Groupama-FDJ.

Entering the Templeuve sector, Laurence Pithie crashed while leading the group. “I came too fast in a gravel corner,” he explained. “I misjudged it, and it took me out of the group. It was a silly mistake that ruined my race. I got back and went full gas trying to come back, but with Pedersen and Politt taking turns in front, it was hard. The plan was to have numbers in front, and we executed it. Unfortunately, we were never got to play our cards because of my crash.” Although quickly back in the saddle, the New Zealander couldn’t come back and was actually joined by Vermeersch a bit behind. “We believed in the podium, but we lost a good card when Laurence fell,” confirmed Frédéric. “Then, the podium was still doable, but with fast riders like Philipsen and Pedersen, Stefan had to drop them. Unfortunately, the opposite happened.” In the Carrefour de l’Arbre’s sector, eleven kilometres from the finish, the time trial specialist’s hopes disappeared. “I was completely empty in the end, I couldn’t follow anymore,” he confessed. “It is a bit of a shame. It was a hard blow, but I told myself I hadn’t done all that for nothing.” All alone in the last ten kilometres, Stefan Küng came back close to the trio as he approached the Roubaix velodrome, before securing a very solid fifth place. “It’s certainly not a podium, but it’s still a top-5 and I gave my best,” he added.

“It’s good to finish on a high note”, Frédéric Guesdon

A few seconds later, his young teammate Laurence Pithie finished in seventh position, just behind Vermeersch, with a bitter feeling. “When I look back on it, I will be happy with seventh, but I think I could have fought for the podium,” he explained. “I had very good legs, and for now, it’s just disappointing.”We were hoping for a very good result from Stefan because it’s a race that suits him, we knew he was in good shape and it was very open behind Van der Poel,” added Frédéric. “However, I wouldn’t have bet on Laurence’s seventh place. He amazes me from race to race. It was his first Roubaix among the pros, and he was there in the final. And if he hadn’t crashed, the podium was on the line. For us, it’s a satisfying Paris-Roubaix. Until then, we had a good Classics campaign without convincing results. It’s good to finish on a high note, especially on Paris-Roubaix, which is a Monument that really matters to us. Putting two men in the top-10 is perfect.”

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