AFP - Belgian star Tom Boonen joined an elite club of three-time Paris-Roubaix winners by surviving one-day cycling's toughest battle of the fittest here on Sunday.
In a race marked by a dramatic finale in which three big favourites hit the cobblestones one after the other, Boonen fought off a desperate challenge from Italian Filippo Pozzato to claim his third win here after 2005 and 2008.
Becoming the first rider since compatriot and former teammate Johan Museeuw in 2002 to win cycling's toughest one-day classic three times, Boonen admitted it had been his toughest ever Roubaix.
"Without a doubt this has been the hardest," said Boonen, who crashed early in the race and had to carry out a frantic change of bike with 29km to go as he and five other frontrunners drove for the finish line.
Katusha rider Pozzato, who had effectively stymied Boonen's bid to win a third Tour of Flanders last week, had an uneventful race and seemed happy, for the second week in a row, to follow wheels all day.
But despite surviving the late carnage which took down Juan Antonio Flecha, Leif Hoste and then Thor Hushovd, Pozzato's bid to stay with Boonen inside the final 15km came undone as the big Belgian gritted his teeth and powered his way to the outdoor velodrome finish here to leave the Italian runner-up at over 40secs.
Moments later Norwegian hope Hushovd took third in a sprint with Silence-Lotto rivals Hoste and Johan Vansummeren.
It was an incredibly tough result for Hushovd, like Boonen a former winner of the Tour de France green jersey for the race's points classification.
Cervelo's team leader for the day had done well to avoid Flecha's crash on a left hand band 17.5km from the finish which took down Hoste, and which Boonen narrowly avoided.
But as Hushovd fought to get back on Boonen's wheel, the Norwegian misjudged an even tighter left-hand bend before hitting the deck after a collision with the barriers.
That left Boonen on his own, with only Pozzato 100 metres back for company.
Boonen's crash had left him with abrasions on his left arm and leg, and with just 29km left his mechanical setback forced him into a two-kilometre chase of his fellow frontrunners.
As he later underlined, it takes more than good legs and strong tactics to win the cobblestone-riddled race known ominously as the 'Hell of the North'.
"Paris-Roubaix is just one long day. And the important thing is not to die, you must survive, survive, survive and save as much energy as possible," said the 29-year-old Boonen, who began the race super-motivated after seeing teammate Stijn Devolder fly to victory in Flanders last week.
"For me, I've already had a good season so far but this is really the cherry on the cake."
Hushovd had been given good support throughout the day from his Australian-born German teammate at Cervelo, Heinrich Haussler, who began as an outside bet for victory himself having placed second in Flanders and Milan-San Remo.
In the final third of the 259km race Haussler and Boonen took turns in upping the pace to try and shake off their rivals, which worked to an extent.
Saxo Bank trio Fabian Cancellara, the 2006 winner, Matti Breschel and Kasper Klostergaard had helped force a significant split in the peloton with 67km to race but they soon paid for that effort after Haussler forced another split, and Boonen, with 46km left, upped the pace yet again to leave the final six frontrunners on their own.
Top sprinter Hushovd's presence was a big worry for Boonen and without his later crash the race could have been decided in a two-man sprint.
"If I hadn't had this stupid crash I would have been with him (Boonen) into the velodrome and sprinted with him and either won or came second," said Hushovd.
"If I'd lost to Tom because he was strong in the sprint then its okay, but today I lost because I had a stupid crash and that's hard for me.
"I'm really disappointed. It's hard for me to forget this moment."