Organisers of cycling's fabled Paris-Roubaix race have postponed the 2021 event through northern France due to health restrictions imposed as part of the government's effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 259-kilometre day-long ordeal was due to take place on 11 April but was pushed back to 2 October for the inaugural women's course and 3 October for the men as northern France reels under rocketing rates of coronavirus cases.
“The new dates have been set thanks to the quick and efficient collaboration of the International Cycling Union and the local authorities concerned,” said a statement from the race organisers ASO.
Last year's edition in April was ultimately cancelled after being rescheduled for October 2020.
Fears for this year's race rose last week when Michel Lalande, the region's top police officer, told France Bleu radio station that postponement was a possibility. “With the health situation … and the way things are going … the horizon doesn't look good,” he added.
In the wake of President Emmanuel Macron's decision to introduce tougher measures to stem the number of coronavirus infections, Lalande's gloomy prognosis came true for one of the cycling world's oldest races.
The Paris-Roubaix - first run in 1896 - has become notorious for its rough terrain and the 50-odd kilometres of cobblestones that cyclists must cover on their way to glory.
Nicknames such as 'Hell of the North', 'Sunday in Hell and 'Queen of the Classics' - have been attributed to the marathon gruel through the mud and stones of northern France towards the border with Belgium.
Only two world wars had stopped the slog before the coronavirus pandemic began last year.
“Paris-Roubaix is a source of pride for the whole Hauts de France region that welcomes it with fervour each year,” said ASO director Christian Prudhomme.
“It's part of the region. It's part of its history. It's why we are happy to announce that the 'Queen of the Classics' will be happening in 2021 and that the women's edition will be enjoyed for the first time by competitors and fans alike.”
Cyclist Wout van Aert said on social media: “I had hoped that Paris- Roubaix would go on. It is disappointing.”
The 26-year-old Belgian, who came 13th and 22nd in his previous appearances in 2018 and 2019, said he would take part in the Brabentse Pijl race on 14 April in Belgium and the Amstel Gold event in the Netherlands on 18 April to compensate for the lack of action.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep team, whose rider Philippe Gilbert won the 2019 Paris-Roubaix race, confirmed its presence in the autumn with a picture on social media of a deserted stretch of the route.
“It is not conceivable that this race will not take place for the second year in a row," Prudhomme told the sports newspaper L'Equipe.