No British man has ever won Paris-Roubaix in the 125 years the race has been in existence. Yorkshire’s Lizzie Deignan managed it at the first attempt on Saturday, writing her name into cycling’s history books with a truly astonishing performance to triumph in the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
Deignan, who was not even leading her Trek-Segafredo team, attacked at the first cobbled sector of the race, opening up a small advantage over the field.
She then figured, with her team leaders Ellen van Dijk and Elisa Longo Borghini behind, it would at least force their rivals to chase if she stayed out in front.
But they never reeled her in. With riders struggling to organise a concerted chase, many of them slithering over on the greasy, muddy cobbles, former world champion Deignan powered into a commanding lead and then held off a powerful late surge by Dutch great Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma).
Deignan had the luxury of being able to lap the famous Roubaix velodrome at her leisure, eventually triumphing by one minute and 17 seconds. In total she had spent 82.5km of the 116.4km route on her own.
“It was surreal,” she admitted afterwards of claiming the first ever ‘Hell of the North’ for women. “I have been watching men do it for years and to say that I am the first woman to do it is pretty special.”
Deignan admitted it had not at all been the plan to ride away solo. “Absolutely not, who makes that plan?” she laughed. “I think the plan really was there was no rulebook today. We came in with Ellen and Elisa as leaders and I was the third person to be around and look after them, but I could feel they were not in a great position coming into the first cobbled section. I was there and when I looked behind I had a gap.
“It was really painful,” she added of her solo ride. “I felt in control and I knew I needed to be in control because you couldn’t go over the limit. If you blow on the cobbles you really stand still and that was my fear.”
Deignan, who won Olympic silver in the road race at London 2012, said her heart was in her mouth when she heard over the team radio that Vos, who beat her to gold that year and is generally considered to be the greatest female rider of all time, was chasing towards the end.
“It’s never nice to have Marianne Vos chasing you,” Deignan said. “But I knew that I had just enough time.” Vos ended up finishing more than a minute behind, with Longo Borghini third.
“I just feel so incredibly proud,” Deignan concluded. “Women’s cycling is at this turning point and today is part of history.
“We’re so grateful to everyone behind the scenes and all the viewers watching because every fan who is watching this is also making history. It’s proving there is an appetite for women’s cycling.”
There is still some way to go before the women have full equality. Deignan won just €1,535 for her efforts while the winner of Sunday’s men’s race will trouser €30,000.
But in a nice postscript, American bike manufacturer Trek said it would match the prize money for their men and women riders.