There is nothing that comes close to Paris-Roubaix. It is like no other one-day bicycle race, an anachronism that if designed today would be dismissed as pure madness, a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.
It is a race loved and loathed in equal measure by those who have ridden it. “It’s b——-, this race,” Theo de Rooij said after abandoning in 1985. “You’re working like an animal; you don’t have time to p—; you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this; you’re slipping. It’s a piece of s—.” When asked if he would return, the Dutchman quipped: “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world.”
In 125 years no British cyclist had won the race known as the “The Queen of the Classics”; of course no woman had, until recently, been afforded the chance to race over the cobbles of northern France.
When Lizzie Deignan rolled into the open-air Vélodrome André-Pétrieux earlier last month the 32-year-old wrote a new chapter in British cycling history and in women’s sport by winning the inaugural edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Her tactic was simple: ride off the front on the first of 17 sectors of bone-rattling cobbles and go it alone for 81 long kilometres – including 29km of uneven cobbled lanes. It was a win that was so outrageous, so audacious, it left many wondering if it was the greatest ever solo victory at Paris-Roubaix.
In the glorious aftermath, Deignan said she had raced “with the power of generations of women who were denied the opportunity to battle for this monument” and how she felt the “strength of the history of women’s cycling behind me”. She would go on to say that she hoped her three-year-old daughter Orla would “never face the same barriers” those before her endured.
On the day of Deignan’s historic victory, social media fizzed and crackled with chatter about the race. It was unprecedented.
“I could feel the excitement of not only the riders, but also during the recon ride we had more journalists than ever before with us for this kind of race,” Anna van der Breggen, the former world champion and multiple classics winner who was in the SD Worx team car having recently retired from racing, told Telegraph Sport. “For everybody it was exciting.
“Paris-Roubaix was a new race in women’s cycling and came with high risks. The men knew what to expect, but I was afraid some of the girls did not know what to expect and there may be a big disaster.”
Van der Breggen was not wrong, there were indeed risks and many crashes, borne out by the long injury list including a fractured pubic bone for Annemiek van Vleuten. Of the 129 riders who set off from Denain for the 116.4km race to Roubaix, 24 failed to finish – an attritional rate of 18.6 per cent – while only 61 completed it within the time limit (47.28 per cent).
“I was super scared going into the race because I just knew it was going to be like a battlefield,” Emma Norsgaard who finished sixth, said. An apposite observation from the 22-year-old Movistar rider given the race courses through the fields of northern France, where some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War were fought.
Racing over cobbles is not uncommon in northern Europe. Unlike those found in Belgium, where Van der Breggen and her former team-mate Deignan prevailed at the Tour of Flanders, however, the roads that lead to Roubaix exist in a hellish world of their own. When in 1919 race organisers visited the battlefields of northern France to assess the damage done to the region and its roads, they returned to Paris before describing the region as “the hell of the north”, a term that has since become part of the lexicon of Paris-Roubaix.
There was little that Deignan – or any other rider – could do to prepare for the brutality of the uneven cobbles that line the old farming tracks that pepper the course. Each and every one horrible and an enemy just millimetres away from booking you a one-way ticket to hospital.
“The first time I rode the Roubaix cobbles the scariest thing was that my vision became blurred,” Van der Breggen said. “You cannot see straight. It was pretty scary to think that you may be riding in the bunch on the cobbles unable to see straight.
“It looks so much easier than it is when watching on TV. Holding your handlebars is difficult. You hold them tight because you feel like you are losing control, but then your hands end up looking like Lizzie’s with no skin left on them.”
Norsgaard adds: “Roubaix cobbles are awful. It’s like they have just thrown the cobblestones into the rain and mud without even trying to make a nice road for us. My neck and my back were in so much pain afterwards, I felt like I was 80 years old. A week later I could not sit in the saddle.”
To make matters worse, this year was the first wet Paris-Roubaix since 2002 with slippery mud and large pools of water adding an extra layer of danger to the race. According to Van der Breggen, Deignan’s audacious decision to ride off the front made perfect sense.
“The cobbles made this possible for Lizzie because she could ride her own lines, she could pace herself because she had quite a big advantage,” she said.
Fabian Cancellara, winner of three editions of the men’s race, added that mental strength is a key factor. “If you have the right equipment, the right tyre size, the right positioning, the form and, above all, the mental strength, then you are able to compete on the cobbles,” he said. “Of course you need other skills, physical strength, good bike handling and so on, but being mentally strong is very important.”
Deignan struck the right blend. Riding away to a win for the ages, a victory that ranks alongside Van Vleuten’s win at the 2019 world championships in Harrogate, or Anna Kiesenhofer’s gold-medal race at the recent Tokyo Olympics.
Impressive, inspiring and brave are just three adjectives used to describe the triumph by Norsgaard who, despite being in the race, like the rest of the watching world (broadcast of the race did not start until around 50km to go) missed the moment Deignan made her move. “I had no idea what was going on in front. I was just trying to not crash, trying to survive”.
Explaining the secrets behind Deignan’s success, Van der Breggen, said: “Lizzie is special. Sometimes she doesn’t care about herself and is there to help her team-mates, sometimes the opposite and it is difficult to recognise what she is thinking. Having those moments of intense focus, alongside the more relaxed approach, helps her.”
Having added to a palmarès that included Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, GP de Plouay-Bretagne and two editions of the Women’s Tour, Deignan matched the historic achievements of the great Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Looy as the only riders to also have Ghent-Wevelgem, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Flanders, and the Road World Championships on their list of career wins.
Deignan, it seems, really is the queen of the classics.
Anna van der Breggen, Fabian Cancellara and Emma Norsgaard will be at Rouleur Live, the world’s finest cycling exhibition, which takes place in London from Nov 4-6. More details at rouleur.cc/live