On Saturday, the women’s professional peloton will make history as the first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes gets underway, 118 years after the famous men’s race began.
The race known as ‘The Hell of The North’ begins in the Northern French town of Denain, and 116 riders from 22 teams will ride 116.4km across gruelling terrain to the Roubaix velodrome on the borders of Belgium.
Postponed from its usual spring start date due to the coronavirus pandemic, the route begins with three circuits around Denain, before following the final the same 85km route as the men over dusty tracks and 17 sections of cobbles (29.2km) to Roubaix. Though, just like in spring, the forecast is set for heavy rain and wind, potentially setting the stage for a Saturday in Hell.
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Though Dutch and Belgian riders are often favoured over the cobbles and challenging terrain, following last week’s world championships in Flanders, riders are in prime form and there is a hunger to be crowned the first winner of the inaugural race.
World road race champion, Elisa Balsamo of Italy, and world time trial champion Ellen van Dijk will both fend off the dirt and dust donning the rainbow jerseys for the first time and battle cycling heavyweights Marianne Vos, Annemiek Van Vleuten and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak for victory in Roubaix.
But riders to watch are Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky, and Poland’s Kasia Niewiadoma who isn’t afraid of launching solo attacks.
Marianne Vos, a seven-time world cyclo-cross champion and no stranger to fierce terrain, is expected to fly across the cobbles in Saturday’s race, while Annemiek Van Vleuten said she “enjoyed” the challenge of training on the cobbles in the build-up to the race.
Britain’s Lizzie Deignan, winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Tour of Flanders, and Strade-Bianche, who rode the route earlier this year said she was pleasantly surprised with it, but that it was going to be a demanding race. She said:
The biggest thing to take away from it for me was that physically it’s just so difficult. Skilfully I’m comfortable, I’m happy on the cobbles. But physically it’s going to be one of the most demanding races.
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, leader of SD Worx team, and a firm favourite who has team-mate Anna van der Breggen in the team car and on the race radio this weekend, said the cobbles of Flanders can’t be compared to those in Le Nord.
“You can’t compare the cobbles in Roubaix with any other race. I always take the example of Flanders, and in the Ronde, if you’re empty, you can always try to find a way out, but in Roubaix, it’s impossible. It’s flat and there is not much rest in between the sectors. And the cobbles are really hard, very bumpy.
“You need to go fast over the cobblestones otherwise you lose so much speed and power,” she added.
In the build-up to the week, riders have discussed how they have dreamed of riding in the race from as early as 2000, and have been inspired by watching the men tackle “A Sunday in Hell” on the television in their childhood. Elisa Longo Borghini said her brother Paolo rode the race as a domestique for Barloworld and Liquigas which served as her inspiration.
Meanwhile Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, at the age of 10, dreamed of riding the cobbles herself one day, and said it’s a dream come true: "The hype was real. The approach to the Trouée d'Arenberg is something I'll never forget. It was so brutal, so epic, that I would just go crazy when the peloton got there,” she said.
"I remember thinking: 'someday, maybe, there'll be a Paris-Roubaix for me too". And here we are!"
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