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PARIS, France (CT) – The town of Roubaix, sleepy this week beneath a string of light rain showers, awaits history. It will not be so quiet on Saturday when the first rider makes the right hand turn onto the cracked concrete velodrome, takes their laps on tired legs, and hits the first-ever finish line of a women’s Paris-Roubaix.
Only one can win the first, and “everyone’s dreaming of being that person,” said Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine-Futuroscope).
Nobody is fully sure who that will be, or who will even be in contention. The blank slate adds an element of tension to Saturday’s contest rarely found in modern racing. There are no defending champions, no proven specialists in the discipline. We can draw some conclusions from success elsewhere, from skillsets and body types, but the lines drawn between Roubaix and any other race on the calendar are anything but straight.
Flanders specialists tend to do well, but not all of them. Time trialists, too, tend to be physiologically suited. But Roubaix is about far more than physiology. We know from the men’s race that the TT skillset doesn’t always translate – Tony Martin was the dominant male time trialist for years and gave Roubaix a shot with minimal success. Filippo Gonna isn’t even slated to race it this year.
“There’s no denying that the men who do well in Roubaix are big and strong and crank out some serious wattage,” Uttrup Ludwig said. “True, I’m nothing like that. But I hope I’ll still be able to produce enough watts and, even more importantly, to be astute enough. In a race like this, you need to stay at the front and be well-positioned at the entrance to each sector.”
Teams have been riding key sectors this week, and those eyeing victory have mostly been here multiple times in the last year. They’ve hit the cobbles at speed, they know what’s coming, but an entire peloton full of Roubaix rookies isn’t something bike racing has seen since 1896.
“You can’t compare the cobbles in Roubaix with any other race,” said SD-Worx’s Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, who can certainly be counted amongst the favorites.
That fact tends to define Roubaix. The nature of the stones themselves – larger than in Flanders, with deeper and wider gaps between – means that the effect of any drop in power is multiplied into an even more significant loss in speed. Lose enough momentum and tires start to drop between the cobbles rather than skimming at the top. That is the point of no return. Riders will surely find it Saturday.
“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,” Van den Broek-Blaak said. “It’s flat and there is not much rest in between the sectors. And the cobbles are really hard, very bumpy. So when you’re empty, you really lose a lot of speed.”
The intensity of the first women’s event will be magnified by the early entry into cobbled sectors. While the course skips the famed Arenberg Forest, it drops into the 3.7 km-long Hornaing sector after just 33 km of racing. Arenberg may get all the press for but Hornaing, which comes shortly after in the men’s route, is more often where true splits are made. The race will well-and-truly be on from that point onward, with 85 km still to go.
The peloton knows what’s at stake. This line of the sport’s history can only be written once.