Triumphant Deignan delivers epic ride worthy of the occasion
A historic race was won by a fittingly heroic ride, as Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) embarked on a stunning 85km solo ride to take victory on the first-ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
There’s maybe something ironic about a race so famous for its fearsome cobblestones being ultimately won by an attack launched before any of them had even featured. But this was also the genius of Deignan’s move — by striking out alone, she managed to avoid the treachery of riding in close proximity to other rides over the cobbles. While several big names saw their hopes go up in smoke when other riders fell ahead of them, Deignan’s fate was in her own hands.
Even riding alone, she still had some heart-stopping moments. She nearly came down on Mons-en-Pevele, then later slipped and slid on the mud on Camphin-en-Pevele, but remained calm, and deployed some expert bike-handling skills to ensure she remained upright.
Technique and avoiding crashes weren’t enough alone for Deignan to triumph — she also had to dig extremely deep to withhold a charging Marianne Vos in the finale. The extremity of the effort was clear from the expression of pain etched on her face, as well as the blood from her gloveless hands, a consequence of gripping the bars over the cobblestones. But even when Vos was giving it her all on the pivotal Carrefour de l’Arbre section, she still barely ate into Deignan’s lead, demonstrating just how strong her legs were today.
By the finish, Deignan’s victory margin was over one minute, a truly huge margin for such a competitive race. She’s won everything from the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to the World Championships in the past, but this might just be the greatest moment of her esteemed career.
Vos steps up to the occasion with a brilliant ride for second place
On such a historic occasion in women’s cycling, it was inevitable that the greatest rider the sport has ever seen, Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), would have a big part to play.
The 34-year-old remained right up towards the front of the group chasing Deignan, avoiding all the crashes and never being distanced.
With about 20km to go, on the Camphin-en-Pevele cobbled, she made her move, and left every other rider remaining in that group for dust.
From the intense, pained expression on her face, it was clear Vos was on a mission. Watching her eat up the cobbles at such speed and with such apparent ease (at least in comparison to the other riders) was a thing of beauty, and a stark reminder of Vos’ enduring greatness.
Still, as impressive as she was, Vos once again has to settle for second place, having also taken silver at the World Championships last weekend. But unlike that day, where she was in tears at the finish, here she was happy enough to lift her arm up and greet the crowd upon crossing the finish line, and was all-smiles celebrating with her long-time rival Deignan at the finish.
As a rider who has for years been so vocal advocating for the growth of women’s cycling, she’ll no doubt recognise that however she fared, this was a triumphant day for the sport.
Some prosper, others flounder on the cobbles
It was difficult to predict who would prosper and who would flounder over the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, given how none of the women had ever raced here before, and many surprises were thrown up.
Ultimately, bike-handling turned out to be much more important than straightforward power in determining who handled the cobbled the best, as many of the lighter riders posted very good results, while many of the highly tipped rouleurs struggled.
The rain and wet cobbles exacerbated this, and there were crashes galore as riders found it impossible to stay upright on the slippery surfaces. Within seconds of the live TV coverage beginning, Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) fell, before Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing) lost her balance after being struck by a puncture to cause another crash.
Van Dijk was among the riders to most visibly struggle with the cobbles, and, having had to make her way back up on the tarmac after being distanced on an earlier section, went down hard on Camphin-en-Pevele in the race’s most shocking moment. That she eventually got back on her bike showed just how much it means to finish a race and occasion as momentous as this.
Whereas Van Dijk and other crash victims (including new world champion Elisa Balsamo (Valcar-Travel&Service)), others took to the cobbles like ducks to water. Christine Majerus (SD Worx) was very impressive early on, and led the chasing group during the early sections of pavé, and would surely have finished higher than eleventh had she not been taken down by Van Dijk’s crash.
Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) also stood out, leading the peloton on an earlier section, before making a late attack to nearly make the podium. And less tipped riders who we don’t usually see up there in the biggest races, such as 21-year-old Franziska Koch (DSM), Lauretta Hanson (Trek-Segafredo) and Aude Biannic (Movistar) also made the key early selections, suggesting that they might have found the race for them.
A Trek-Segafredo tactical masterclass
Despite her individual solo effort, victory today wasn’t just Lizzie Deignan’s, but one that her whole team will celebrate after a brilliant tactical performance.
Deignan said at the end of the race that early attack had not actually been the plan, but a consequence of her attempt to move to the front of the peloton and set a fast pace for her teammates Ellen van Dijk and Elisa Longo Borghini. After deciding to push on once she’d opened up a gap, she and the team adapted to the situation perfectly, and put all the other teams on the back foot and in difficult situations for the rest of the race.
Every time a selection formed on the cobbled sections in the chasing group behind, Trek-Segafredo had numbers, with Van Dijk, Borghini, Audrey Cordon-Ragot and Lauretta Hansen all providing the team with strength in numbers. Their presence made it very difficult for the other teams to organise a coherent chase, and made it all the more difficult to bring Deignan back.
The only time Trek-Segafredo didn’t appear to have the upper hand was when Borghini couldn’t quite follow the wheel of Vos following her attack on Camphin-en-Pevele. Had she done so, she’d have been able to sit there and force Vos to do all the work, while Deignan remained out front — a perfect scenario for the team.
But even without this luxury, Deignan had the legs to hold on, while Longo Borghini persisted with her own ride and managed to hold off the chasers to finish third, putting two Trek-Segafredo riders on the podiums. From their ecstatic celebrations together at the finish, it was clear what a collective triumph this was.
Brilliant race leaves us longing for more live pictures
Lizzie Deignan’s bold early attacks made for a fantastic race almost right from the start, and it was a thrill-fest from that moment on, featuring the spectacle of the muddy cobbles, the drama of crashes, and the tension as Marianne Vos bore down on Deignan in the closing stages.
Given how early the action kicked off, it’s really disappointing that live coverage only began after half the race had already been completed. Almost half of Deignan’s epic solo ride was not caught live, while her attack that ultimately turned out to be the race-winning move was missed altogether.
Other star riders, such as Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Marlen Reusser (Ale BTC Ljubljana) were already out of contention by the time the live broadcast began, and we’ll have to wait to hear from them what happened; it would have been much more dramatic to watch their fates unfold live.
As we know from a century of men’s races, Paris-Roubaix is as much about the build-up as it is the famous cobbled sections, and the race for positioning on the tarmac in anticipation of the pavé is often just as pivotal.
The very existence of a women’s Paris-Roubaix is a huge step in itself, but for the spectacle to be done justice to, we need to be able to see the race from start to finish.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.