The cobbles of the Trouée d’Arenberg could elicit anger in a rider for a multitude of reasons: the toothy relentlessness of the 2.3 kilometre stretch, the uneven gaps begging to take a wheel in their jaws, the slick paste of chalk and grime and mud across the surface eagerly waiting to punish a change in direction.
But it wasn’t the character of the stones that sucker punched my pride as I struggled to gain traction on the hardest sectors of the Hell of the North. It was the knowledge that whilst my peers in cycling are gearing up for the biggest race of the Classics season, there will be no race for my idols.
Riding sections of the route just days before the pros, challenging the cobbles to topple me and drinking in the history of one of cycling’s most iconic races, I was daring to play in a forbidden playground.
As I swooped into the Roubaix velodrome, hands rendered completely useless following four hours of pummelling under endless rain, I looked for memories of tension, goosebumps and tenterhooks and triumph. What I found was resentment. I wanted to feel thrilled and awed and bowled over by the history of the sport in all its beauty – but mostly I just knew I was excluded.
Not to say I can’t enjoy a men’s race. I still let my nails sink into the flesh of my palms in anticipation last year, as Peter Sagan tailgated Silvan Dillier to the final 250 metres, launching an attack that just for a second looked like it might fail. But without a women’s equivalent any celebration is followed by a thump back to reality: this isn’t for you.
Given the chance, could Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig have another happy dead fish moment this weekend? Could Marta Bastianelli win a fourth Classic (and still continue to be called an outside choice?) – or would the dominant force that is Annemiek van Vleuten prevail and find that extra ounce of power that evaded her in Flanders, and break the break before the finish line? We’ll never know.
The UCI appears to want a women’s Paris-Roubaix, to join the likes of the women’s Strade Bianche (launched in 2015), women’s Tour of Flanders (2004), women’s Amstel Gold Race (2001) – and more.
Last year, UCI president David Lappartient told L’Equipe: “I want every organiser to have a men’s and women’s race. I dream of a Paris-Roubaix Feminine.”
The race’s official sponsor, Specialized, has proclaimed in a video to support its new unisex Roubaix bike: “The Roubaix is no longer just for men. The race shouldn’t be either.”
The brand has done its due diligence too, and spoken to teams and riders – and yes, they want to race their bikes over the pavé and into the Roubaix velodrome as much as we want to watch it.
Cold, hard numbers support the fact that there’s an appetite for women’s racing, when it’s broadcast the audience comes: live coverage of the women’s Ghent-Wevelgem attracted 25 per cent more TV viewers in 2019 vs 2018, with 516k people tuning in, equalling 74 percent of the total viewers for the men’s race.
The UCI wants it, sponsors want it, riders want it and so does the audience. And yet still, somewhere, there is a blockade which hasn’t yet shifted.
This week, I rode the cobbles that are still off-limits for the women I most admire and take inspiration from. I reached the velodrome, rode a lap of honour, and headed to the historic stone shower blocks.
When enough feeling had returned to my fingers to undress, I stood under the hot water, and wondered how many more young girl’s dreams will be washed away before the sport we revere wakes up and accepts us.