All images: Justin Britton

It was the day that cycling desperately needed, and deserved. It was the day we didn’t dare hope for, because we’d suffered enough to be quite frank, in a week fraught with trauma, and of questioning whether we could even bear to watch the dangers of Roubaix unfold. Yet the hope remained, and of course, we tuned in. Paris-Roubaix Femmes arrived, and with it, the healing could begin.

It may only be four years old, but the gravity of Paris-Roubaix Femmes’ short history belies its youth. Like its male counterpart, the Hell of the North for women is a Serious Race. With 17 sectors of pave to contend with along its 148.5km route, it’s no easy task to complete the course, let alone to be one of the chosen few who will last into the final stages and be able to compete for the win, the lauded cobblestone trophy, and a place in history. Four short years have produced four completely different races, and I’m here to argue that today’s was the best one yet, because it provided precisely what was needed, at the time it was needed most: unpredictable racing, a clean run for almost everyone, some gutsy performances, a few surprises, and rainbow jersey raising their arms in the Roubaix velodrome.

A change is gonna come

It’s been four years of waiting when it comes to Paris-Roubaix Femmes, and TV coverage. Waiting for equal coverage – the long game; plus the annual frustrating  wait for the coverage to start. We should not that it’s gotten better – for the past two years, the broadcast has dropped in just in time for us to witness the women’s peloton hit the cobbles for the first time, and that’s the bare minimum we need, yet today there was something almost poetic about the delayed gratification of the (still non-sensical) restricted coverage.

After a week of gradually building tension, as crash after crash frayed nerves and built worry from a vague background emotion to a full-blown stomach churning nervousness, reading the updates from the official race account did nothing to ease the stress, with successive posts about early crashes. It seemed everyone was OK though and actually, on reflection, I’m happy not to have witnessed these – it would have set the day off on a sour note – and it was the last thing anyone needed.

And so, once again, the footage kicked in just in time for the first sector – Hornaing à Wandingies – the longest of them all, and something about this fact, and the subsequent fact that we were able to watch all the women ride through safely, enabled the global audience to draw a collective breath, and settle in for an afternoon of action.

With women’s racing coverage lagging behind, we are almost always treated to a spectacle from the moment coverage begins, and this was no different. Though the bunch were tightly packed together just before the cobbles began, once the arrived, the game was afoot – and it was Team dsm-firmenich who were the first team visibly on the attack, Rachele Barbieri charging ahead on the pave, with the fully white-clad figure (apart from the rainbow stripes) of Lotte Kopecky taking control of her own destiny, never far behind, and not letting anything go.

A small group of four found some space just after the cobbles, instigated by Barbieri, and already the peloton was split into pieces. It was Canyon//SRAM’s Zoe Backstedt who brought the rest back, 20 years after her father won the men’s version, expending some of her considerable power, before Kopecky tested her legs, or maybe more accurately those of her competitors, moving to the front on sector 15.

It all came back together after the cobbles and in the shake-out from the first few sectors, we had two main groups on the road, separated by just a few seconds. The race was still was wide open.

Beast-mode engage

Step in Ellen van Dijk. A rider who has stated that Paris-Roubaix is the race she'd like to win the most, the Dutch time trial specialist returned to work following her maternity leave just four weeks ago, and far from being off the pace, she came back with a bang, winning two time trials in her first two races back. She was a key player in Paris-Roubaix Femmes from the moment the race kicked into gear, steaming ahead on sector 14 with a group of top riders clinging on as she engaged attack mode, putting her big engine into gear and dragging the race along by the scruff of its neck. To watch van Dijk at Roubaix yesterday, was to watch an elite athlete in their natural habitat. Rip-roaring and magnificent.

The sectors ticked down one by one and Lotte Kopecky chose arguably the most opportune moment to suffer a mechanical – nevertheless let the record state that in adherence with UCI rules, she fixed her own bike, on the move, before working alone to get back before the next cobble sector – luckily during a time of calm between the cobbled storms; lucky timing for the World Champion, but some energy expended that she’d have preferred to keep in the bank.

Another attack from the irrepressible Rachele Barbieri on sector 12 and not only has Kopecky made it back on, she once again decides to take matters into her own hands, attacking again, with the likes of Pfeiffer Georgi, Marianne Vos, and Christina Schweinberger going with her. Last year’s winner Alison Jackson began to lose touch at the back – it would not be her year, this year. Kopecky pushed the pace so hard she even managed to drop her teammate Lorena Wiebes for a time, and moved clear with Georgi, Vos and Schweinberger, gaining a ten-second gap as behind, riders continue to struggle – Lauretta Hansen and Audrey Cordon Ragot the next to suffer mechanical issues.

Mons-en-Pévèle: Ellen van Dijk charges back with the rest of the leading group, closing the gap, and moves straight to the front, shelling those who can’t hack the pace out the back one by one, a long, hapless line stretching across the pavé. But it’s the tarmac where Kopecky chooses to launch her next attack, on an uphill section – one of the only pitches in the entire race. She looks back to see what damage she has inflicted, and though the leading group numbers just 11 riders for a time, 12 more behind manage to close the gap once more. The race does not relent, and the winner is not yet clear, though more fall by the wayside – Romy Kasper (Human Powered Health) crashing into a ditch, one of only a few incidents, thankfully – sending her all the best.

Further attacks came and went, but no-one was able to break the leading group down any further, and though van Dijk tried again and again, she was deemed too great of a threat and was chased down every time. It was FDJ-SUEZ’s Jade Wiel who was the only rider to make a difference for a while. Pressing ahead solo, she achieved a few seconds’ gap, which built to almost half a minute, the chasers regrouping as FDJ protected their rider, working in defensive mode. It took the combined efforts of some huge names to bring back Wiel with 22.6km to go, and guess who finally made the difference – Ellen van Dijk, of course. She moved clear alongside FDJ’s Amber Kraak – a breakaway winner at UAE, the former rower was not one to be taken lightly. Behind, the feisty dsm pair of Pfeiffer Georgi and Rachele Barbieri suffered an issue which caused them both to have to stop and restart, in a case of seriously bad timing.

The Kopecky attack that stuck came on sector 5, Camphin-en-Pévèle. Elisa Balsamo and Vos formed a formidable trio alongside her, with Georgi in pursuit. They closed the gap to van Dijk and Kraak to form a lead group of absolute hitters heading to the toughest sector of them all, Carrefour de l’Arbre. It was looking good for Lidl-Trek, a team who have won two of the last three editions of the race, but Balsamo dropped off, with Georgi charging her down in pursuit of the front group – it was still anyone’s guess who would win.

With the chasing duo of Georgi and Balsamo closing the gap, the next set of chasers on the road 38 seconds back became a potential threat – a group of very strong riders, including Lorena Wiebes who would give SD Worx a second option if it were necessary. And with the gap falling to 25 seconds and closing, a cagey game of tactics was playing out up front, with the group composed of all different riders, with a range of skills – Vos and Balsamo relying on their sprint, van Dijk and Georgi needing to go long. Kopecky? She could handle either outcome, perhaps an indication of the way this race was headed.

Closing in on the velodrome the gap held steady, van Dijk driving at the front, putting distance into the gap once more to ensure that Lidl-Trek held the advantage and the chasers saw their opportunity evaporate.

The final act

Into the velodrome, and the spectacle, the atmosphere, the noise from the crowd, lifted the hairs from my arms once again – there’s no race finish like Roubaix to give you proper chills – as the race would come down to a reduced bunch sprint involving some of the best in the business.

And what a sprint it was. It was long. LONG. Track style, Balsamo launched first, and tried to go over the top of Vos who was shoulder-to-shoulder with the Italian, pressed onto the inside line, and drawn into matching her. Let’s not forget who else is a track cyclist though – it’s double World Champion Lotte Kopecky. Oh yes. While Vos and Balsamo duked it out neck-and-neck, Kopecky came absolutely flying over the top, her track chops paying dividends as she sling-shotted past them to power over the line and raise her arms – a rainbow jersey win, in the most iconic race of them all.

And so the aftermath of one of the most amazing races of the year quickly unfolded. Elisa Balsamo’s bitter disappointment after her team were in the strongest position, still heading over to congratulate Kopecky despite fighting back the tears. Pfeiffer Georgi battling into third place, beating Vos into fourth but not even realising, and her joyful reaction as she heard the news over the radio – the pure euphoria of that moment in itself was a salve on the many wounds the season has inflicted so far.

The top ten – with French representation, including the current national champion and local girl Victoire Berteau (Cofidis), and representation for one of the smallest nations, Mauritius through the ebullient Kim Le Court, who has proven herself a huge asset to Fenix-Deceuninck, achieving some excellent results in her first classics season on the road after transferring her considerable talents from mountain biking.

It was the race we’ve hoped for, and though it was played to perfection by Kopecky, the valiant comebacks of Georgi and Balsamo from mechanicals later in the day are not to be underestimated, nor the beast-mode of Ellen van Dijk, bouncing back from maternity leave like a boss, nor the gutsy efforts of all the rest of the challengers, including a late surge from Zoe Backstedt, who looked to be done with a few kilometres remaining, but could be seen charging into the velodrome leading what remained of the chasing group, and though she was beaten to the line, her 16th place finish on her second appearance promises much for the future.

A moment of appreciation for the World Champion, though. She is the master of her own destiny, a force to be reckoned with, a true champion. She was able to prove her strength, speed, style, and endurance in the toughest race of them all, in a year in which she is underscoring her exceptional ability, and it's a pleasure to witness her flourishing.

As for the race as a whole, the women are mastering the Roubaix cobbles. And while last year’s edition will be remembered for years to come for the audacious way in which it was ridden and won by the breakaway and Alison Jackson, this year’s edition was almost poetic in its adherence to the script, yet provided joy and satisfaction in equal measure, a finish that was unknown until the last moment, a worthy winner, and a set of performances that will give confidence to many going forward into future years. It was everything we needed, all wrapped up in a cobble-shaped package. Thanks ladies - looking forward to doing it all again next year. Maybe finally then, we'll be able to watch the whole fabulous spectacle unfold in all its technicolour glory. That really would be the icing on an already very tasty cake.

2023 Paris-Roubaix Femmes 

Femmes in Hell: the least expected day

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