Just call it a cobblestone milestone.
The spring classics have clicked into gear, and anticipation is building toward one standout date on the 2021 calendar — the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
Every rider and every team wants to be the first to etch their names in the history books and claim the first pavé trophy inside Roubaix’s mythical velodrome on April 11.
Everyone knows that being the first to endure the cobbles and sprinting first across the finish line in the velodrome will put them into the history books.
“The first winner will be writing a new page in history,” said Stephen Delcourt, manager of FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope. “If you win Paris-Roubaix, you can become a legend. These are the races that everyone in the world recognizes, and that it is why it is so important that women can race these races.”
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That sentiment echoes across the peloton. There are a few races in cycling that reach beyond the sport and enter the wider conversation of the wider public. One of them is the Tour de France and the yellow jersey, which will see a highly anticipated women’s edition expected in 2022.
The other is Paris-Roubaix, and the famous (or infamous) cobblestones of the “Hell of the North.”
No singular one-day race evokes such awe and respect as Roubaix.
“The girls are really pumped up for it,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Georgia Bronzini. “They’ve been asking every time every time we have time for recons to do a bit of Roubaix.”
The race was supposed to be contested last spring, but COVID-19 put an end to that. The date was moved to October, only to see the pandemic shut things down again. Everyone’s fingers are crossed that the health situation will allow the race to be held as scheduled on April 11.
“I’m so excited and really looking forward, so I want to be on the best level I can be,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Lucinda Brand. “I was really excited to start the race, so of course I was very disappointed it was canceled. I rather like to ride a real Roubaix that is safe and well organized. It’s a race I don’t want to do bad in.”
The peloton is no stranger to cobblestones. Several races every year rattle over sectors of pavé across France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Paris-Roubaix cobbles, as anyone knows who’s ridden across them, are something entirely in a class of their own. They’re rougher, sharper, bumpier, and generally much more demanding than the cobbles the peloton sees at such races as Tour of Flanders.
The women’s race will trace over several key sectors of pavé featured in the men’s race, including the infamous Arenberg sector.
“The cobblestones are terrible,” said Brand after previewing parts of the course. “It’s nothing compared to Belgium cobbles, it’s so different. We started at Arenberg, and for fun, we started to do the full section. I hit the first holes — I should say hole and not cobblestones — and I was really thinking my bike might break. It’s like what the hell is this?
“It’s actually incredible that there aren’t that many crashes,” Brand said of the Arenberg. “Everybody knows it’s the most important part of the race. It’s not that wide. It’s full gas into that section and the first part is going downhill. It’s incredible to think that there aren’t that many crashes there. If you see it in real life, it’s like how do they not crash every single year here?”
Teams have been rescheduling training sessions into their calendars to inspect key sectors in the build-up to the race. Trek-Segafredo returned last week, and everyone came away impressed with what lies in store.
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“The biggest takeaway for me was physically it’s just so difficult. Skillfully, I am comfortable on the cobbles. Physically, it’s going to be one of the most demanding races,” said Lizzie Deignan. “It’s different than what I expected. Physically, it’s more demanding to ride on the cobbles for that long. Skillful wise, I feel like I am skillful enough to handle those cobbles, which I was a little bit worried about.”
With Roubaix taking such center stage in the calendar, and that goes without mentioning it’s also an Olympic year, riders like Deignan are adjusting their schedules. Deignan, who fell ill and missed out on Strade Bianche, is adjusting her schedule to make sure she is in top shape for a run a Roubaix.
“I’m shifting my focus to the cobbled classics with Flanders and Roubaix, rather than the Ardennes week,” Deignan said. “You used to combine Flanders with the Ardennes week, now with Roubaix there you need to be more of a specialist instead of thinking about climbing at your best. It’s a bit more of a specialist for those couple of weeks now. I’m trying to be in form at the beginning of that period. It’s a lofty ambition.”
For insiders in the sport, the addition of a women’s Roubaix also is confirmation of just how far women’s racing has come. Organizers, sponsors, and fans are all clamoring for more women’s racing across the board, so the extension of a women’s Roubaix means a lot.
“It’s going to be a revelation on the calendar,” said SD Worx sport director Danny Stam. “Some riders will love it, some will hate it. We can be very proud that the monuments are jumping into women’s cycling like this. Roubaix is a special race for the men, and now it’s the same for the women. It’s going to be something new and exciting. And it’s going to be heavy racing as well. In races like these, only the strongest can win.”