Tom Boonen, without a big classic win since his Tour of Flanders victory in 2006, set the record straight when he won Paris-Roubaix for the second time at the end of a brilliant 106th edition.
The Queen of Classics could not have dreamt of a grander finale as the three leading favourites at the start were left to battle it out for victory in the last 35 kilometres.
Each of the 28 cobbled section had broken the hopes of the other contenders and 2006 winner Cancellara was the one to bear the fatal blow in Templeuve, followed his predecessor on the winners list, Boonen, and Italyâs Alessandro Ballan, the 2007 Tour of Flanders champion.
The big three remained together until the velodrome and former world champion Boonen was far too strong for his two rivals in the final sprint. He surged 200 metres from the line to collect the laurels and give his Quick Step team their second classic win in succession after the Tour of Flanders won by Stijn Devolder last week.
Paris â Roubaix. 259.5 kms
Cobbled sections: 52.8 kms
198 riders at the start
THREE IN THE LEAD
The beginning of the race was animated with several attacks, all rapidly quashed. The most significant move was led by Franceâs Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ) between kilometres 11 and 20.
Shortly before the first cobbled section in Troisvilles, three riders broke clear: Dutchman Matthe Pronk (Collstrop), Belgian Jan Kuyckx (Landbouwkrediet) and Russian Alexander Serov (Tinkoff). Belgiumâs Pieter Ghyllebert (Topsport Vlanderen) chased on his own before being caught.
The peloton were 3:05 behind on the first âpavesâ. The lead of the three topped at 5:30 at the end of cobbled section 24 (km 121.5).
The first cobbles claimed their first serious scalp in Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), who quit in the feeding zone (km 114.5).
FLECHA AND POZZATO CRASH
The peloton, led by teams Cofidis and CSC reduced the margin to 3:30 before the Arenberg trench. Two favourites, Juan Antonio Flecha and Filippo Pozzato were held back by a crash shortly before Arenberg and forced to chase.
As the peloton slimmed down to some 30 riders, the gap had gone down to 2:30 after Arenberg.
Behind the three leaders were the following riders: OâGrady, Breschel, Cancellara, Johansen, Ljungqvist (CSC), Langeveld (Rabobank), Wesemann (Collstrop), De Vocht, Roelandts, Van Summeren (Silence Lotto), Fischer (Liquigas), Boonen, De Jongh, Devolder, Hulsmans,Weylandt (Quick Step), Hincapie, Eisel, Hammond (High Road), Ballan (Lampre), Krauss (Gerolsteiner), Grabsch (Milram), Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Mengin (FDJ), Clerc, Martias (Bouygues Telecom), Cooke (Barloworld) and Maaskant (Slipstream).
As Serov and Kuyckx, who punctured, were caught, Pronk continued on his own and was brought back after cobbled section 15 in Brillon (km 186).
Shortly before section 13, Flecha, followed by Pozzato, Servais Knaven and Tom Veelers returned into the leading bunch.
After section 12 in Orchies, Sebastian Langeveld (CSC) crashed in spectacular fashion, and three other riders followed him in the ditch, including Hincapie.
After a strong move by Van Summeren in section 11, a group of eight favourites took shape with 51 kms to go.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE
The eight were Van Summeren and Leif Hoste, Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder, Stuart OâGrady and Fabian Cancellara, Alessandro Ballan and Dutchman Martijn Maaskant.
In the infamous Mons-en-Pevele cobbled zone (km 211), Devolder parted company with his companions. Last yearâs winner OâGrady was the only one to react and he caught Devolder with 44 kms to go. The Tour of Flanders winner and the Paris-Roubaix holder were reined in six kms later as Hoste led the chase.
OâGrady, Devolder and Hoste paid fort their efforts and were unable to move when Cancellara moved up a gear in with 35 kms to go in Templeuve, followed by Boonen and Ballan.
The big three were left on their own to battle it out for victory. Their lead steadily increased and they kept together until the finale on the Roubaix cycling track.
Ballan led the way but Boonen surged with 200 metres to go and was far too strong for his two rivals. The Belgian won the Queen of Classics for the second time after his initial 2005 success.
You were the stronger in the sprint?
âAfter such a long race and at that pace, you know anything can happen in the sprint, but when we reached the velodrome, I surged and it turned out I was the fresher. I didnât look back but I think the gap was big with them.
It must be especially sweet after all the criticism you faced?
"I never lost confidence but when you win just a little fewer races, people say âheâs not as strong as he used to beâ. I already won six races this season and tell me how many other riders have done that much?â
Is it special compared to 2005?
"It is because it was a long time since I last won a race of this calibre. Everybody knows that the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are the races I love and dream of winning. I had thought about this race for the past three months, even reviewing the cobbled sectors in my mind. So obviously, winning it allows you to get rid of all the things that had been going through your mind for weeks.
Easy sprint victory by Boonen, ahead of Cancellara and Ballan.
Ballan leads on the track ahead of Cancellara and Boonen.
The velodrome is in sight. The three in the last kilometre.
If he wins, Cancellara would be only the third rider to win Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix the same year after Sean Kelly (1986) and Cyrille Van Hauwaert in 1908.
The three are 5 kms from the finish.