Images: Justin Britton
It’s sometimes hard to believe that Paris-Roubaix Femmes is just three years old. The racing is so epic and the stories it produces so many and varied that each edition of the race feels like several days’ worth of action. The first two editions saw victories for Trek-Segafredo, both incredible to witness for different reasons. This year, something entirely unexpected came to pass, writing yet another indelible page into the history books, as the 2023 edition of the race made its bid for ‘best ever.’
Some things never change, though. The first section of Paris-Roubaix Femmes day has been characterised in the exact same way for all three editions – exasperated fans taking to social media to express their frustrations over the lack of coverage. It’s upsetting throughout the season missing so much of the action from women’s races, but it’s somehow more injurious when it’s the Hell of the North: a race so iconic that each of its cobbled sectors is named and rated, and the build-up to the cobbles itself constitutes some of the most high pressure racing of the year, in and of itself. It’s still not entirely clear why ASO deem it impossible to provide coverage from kilometre zero for the women – after this year’s race, perhaps they will see the error of their ways.
Time was running out to see the women hit the first cobbled sector at Hornaing, but finally the live broadcast began just as the peloton hit the cobbles. They trailed an 18-strong breakaway group by five and a half minutes, a significant gap considering the kind of talent contained within the leading cohort of riders.
A flat tyre for Marianne Vos meant the Jumbo-Visma rider was on the back foot, trying to pace back to the main bunch which was being driven on by Trek-Segafredo, the team who have dominated the Hell of the North winning both previous editions. Ellen van Dijk would be a big miss for them, and as the kilometres ticked away the gap came down agonisingly slowly, with Elisa Balsamo taking over the duties on the front of the bunch from Elynor Backstedt as Daniek Hengeveld of Team DSM pulled clear of the breakaway group to ride into the solo lead of the race.
With Vos still trying to make contact with the main group, and the peloton carving the breakaway’s lead down slice by slice, Lotte Kopecky dug in and attacked on sector 12, Auchy-lez-Orchies to Bersée, with just over 50km remaining in the race as behind her, a crash further contributed to shredding the bunch and smashing the race apart. A small group set off in pursuit and were soon able to join Kopecky, including last year’s champion Elisa Longo Borghini, while at the front of the race the original breakaway caught up with their lone attacker Hengeveld, as the gap now hovered around 2.30.
Hanging in the Balance
It's a stretch to call any single event a ‘race-defining moment’ when so many factors come into play over the course of any individual race day, but when Elisa Longo Borghini slid out on sector 9, taking out most of the race favourites, it may in hindsight have laid claim to that name. The accident left Romy Kasper of AG Insurance-Soudal Quickstep the sole upright member of the chase group, and with just over two minutes to the breakaway, the rest would have to regroup fast if they hoped to reel in the leaders.
After that the race was in pieces, and with the broadcast shifting from group to group to try and piece together the story of the race, the outcome hung in the balance. With the break still a couple of minutes up the road and the chasing pack scattered, would there be enough firepower to reel them back in? Jumbo-Visma led what remained of the peloton as they tried to pilot Marianne Vos back to the pointy end, but they were still a minute down on the chase group which included Pfeiffer Georgi and Lucinda Brand, with Kopecky, Longo Borghini and Balsamo all seemingly out of the race, somewhere in no-man’s land between the groups that the cameras were focusing on.
The lead group were possessed of a singular determination though, with a number of strong riders driving the pace. Katia Ragusa (Liv Racing-TeqFind) attacked with 27km to go, animating the front group one again, while further down the road Kopecky and the rest were back with the peloton, a group that also included debutante Zoe Backstedt, the Welsh first year pro riding with the pedals that her father Magnus used to win the race in 2004. A truly impressive debut, as she rode just ahead of Vos, who was hanging off of the back yet again having done an enormous amount of work to be there at all, suffering under the renewed pressure from Kopecky and co.
Up front, Alison Jackson was the next instigator, pulling out an attack on the tarmac with 21.5km to go, distancing five of her break mates, effectively ending their day and winnowing down the competition. The peloton were closing in on the chasers, and the gap to the break had diminished to just over a minute, Pfeiffer Georgi exerting her power, and pulling them back in with Brand hot on her wheel.
The infamous cobbled stretch of Carrefour de l’Arbre lived up to its billing, with Marta Lach attacking from the breakaway, as Laura Tomasi (UAE Team ADQ) crashed, further thinning the group. Thankfully she was later seen back up and on her bike. We were heading to the sharp end and it was still impossible to guess how the race would play out.
In the chasing group Marianne Vos proved her class, having made up her deficit and riding herself into contention as the favourites once again bridged to the chasing group, which was making serious in-roads into the gap to the break. Georgi attacked yet again, clearly feeling great, but as the gap dipped under 30 seconds for the first time Lach struck out again, and the breakaway’s future hung in the balance as the superior power of the chasing group carved further still into the deficit. Just 10 seconds separated them with less than 9km remaining. Alison Jackson dug in, grimacing as she powered everything into staying clear, maintaining the slender margin as there was a brief stilling of hostilities in the chase group, and suddenly, the gap was growing again. 15 seconds, Jackson drilling it on the front, talking to her break mates – perhaps encouraging them to dig in and fight. And fight they did – the gap opened to 20 seconds, as Lucinda Brand attacked in the next group followed by her teammate Longo Borghini, with Kopecky on her wheel, slicing 9 seconds into the gap in mere moments.
The final cobbled sector came and went and the gap was frozen at 10 seconds. It was hard not to stare at the clock as Alison Jackson and Marta Lach pulled monster turn after monster turn to maintain their tiny advantage, but as they entered the velodrome there was no sign of the chasing group and the most unexpected winner was now guaranteed. So to the business of deciding the winner – perhaps the favourite from the bunch was the SD Worx rider Femke Markus, simply given her team’s exemplary record for winning classics this season, but she was ruled out of contention part way through the first lap, crashing to the ground and miraculously not taking out any of the rest.
The track was running out and Marion Borras of St Michel-Mavic-Auber 93 set out her stall, pushing to the front, perhaps too early, as Jackson was yet to hit full power. She engaged a huge gear and powered into the lead, and with the finish line in sight, had clear space either side of her as she sat up and raised her arms. The collective breath that had been held by the countless viewers around the world was released and wild celebrations broke out for a winner few would have predicted, from a team few would have tipped, from a country that has never before won in the Hell of the North. Pure poetry.
The podium was completed by another one of the day’s main aggressors, Katia Ragusa of Liv-Racing TeqFind, and Marthe Truyen of Fenix-Deceuninck, with the first of the race favourites Lotte Kopecky in seventh, narrowly winning the sprint for the line from Pfeiffer Georgi. Marianne Vos came in tenth, defying the odds after a day of endless fighting.
The Underdog Overcomes
In a season defined so far by dominance, solo wins and powerful 'super' teams shutting out the rest, Paris-Roubaix Femmes brought the unexpected, the romance, the pure exhilaration and the utter shock and joy of the underdog winner. It defied expectation in the most delightful and joyous way. If the scales had been tipped ever so slightly in the other direction, the spectacle could so easily have ended with a predictable winner, and still have retained the excitement; yet the outcome was the cherry on top of an already pretty sublime cake.
The ubiquitous outpouring of euphoria on social media was testament to the size of the achievement. It felt like witnessing something truly special – akin to Anna Kiesenhofer’s Olympic victory in Tokyo, yet somehow more raw, more visceral, given the number of competitors still in the frame as the tenacious remains of the break entered the velodrome.
As riders rolled in, commiserations were shared and wounds were compared, Jackson danced, celebrated, and finally faced journalists after the race. When she was reminded she had just won arguably the most iconic race on the WWT calendar she acknowledged ‘I sure did!'
'When we did the pre-ride I dreamed of winning, but a lot of the time those dreams just stay dreams. It’s unreal to make it happen,’ Jackson said, articulating the true underdog spirit, and giving hope to countless others out there, wondering if they could ever have a chance at success.
On how she went out and attacked the race, Jackson was clear: ‘I wanted to be part of the action, I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to be ahead of the race.’ This was supported by the unambiguous sticker attached to her stem, which stated simply: ‘Don’t think. Just do.’
By attacking from the front, throwing caution to the wind, using power, aggression and pure determination, and enjoying a smattering of the requisite dose of good luck that makes winning Paris-Roubaix so fiendishly difficult to win, Alison Jackson made a dream a reality, and delivered one of the most memorable races in recent cycling history, and one which will remain in the hearts of all who witnessed it for a very long time.
As the decidedly unexpected strains of ‘O Canada’ rang out across the velodrome, Jackson raised the lauded cobble aloft, before lowering it into a loving embrace, bringing yet more smiles to the faces of the viewing public. A much-needed ray of hope in a women's season that at times feels almost preordained in its predictability, wins like this will not come often, but knowing that they can - sometimes - is for now, enough.
Paris-Roubaix Femmes Gallery
Image credits: Justin Britton