Five things to look out for at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes

The women take on the Hell of the North for the first time on Saturday

SD Workx at the women's Paris-Roubaix recon
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Stars of women’s cycling ready for historic moment

Marianne Vos wins 2021 Amstel Gold Race

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Since being first announced back in May 2020, there has been huge buzz around the first-ever women’s Paris-Roubaix. The sense of anticipation has only augmented in the Covid-enforced delays that prevented its running first in October 2020 and springtime this year, and now, with the race just a matter of hours from taking place, it’s reached fever pitch. 

The reason this race has caused so much excitement compared to, say, the inaugural women’s editions of Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège a few years ago isn’t just because of the delays, but because of what Paris-Roubaix is. It’s a race like no other, posing unique tests of strength, technique, and willpower, the kind of which the women in the peloton have never before encountered.

At last, we’ll get to see how the world’s best women fare on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. Two of the very best of all time, Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), will be among those present for this historic race, and it will be fascinating to see how they ride. As a relatively light rider who is more accurately described as a puncheur than a rouleur, Vos doesn’t seem like a natural fit for Paris-Roubaix — but then again, Vos has excelled at pretty much every kind of race that there is in her all-conquering career. 

Van Vleuten has actively played down her chances, claiming that the lack of climbs means the race does not suit her, and that she might adopt more of a supporting role. But given the Dutchwoman’s enormous motor, and the fact that she managed to win bronze a week ago on the pan-flat Worlds time trial course, her comments should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

Given how Paris-Roubaix now becomes one of the very few races that both riders have yet to conquer, they will surely want to be in the mix for victory. 

A race that looks ideal of Van Dijk and Reusser

Ellen van Dijk

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One of the many fascinating factors of this Paris-Roubaix is that none of the women have ever ridden it before, and therefore we have no historical record to consult for an idea of who the favourite might be.

But from the 125 years that the men have competed here, we have a good idea of the kind of rider who excels on the Paris-Roubaix cobbles. It’s not enough to be strong on the other cobbled Classics, like the Tour of Flanders; here the heavier, more powerful riders tend to excel, while the lighter riders who have no problems over cobbled climbs often lack the raw strength necessary.

>>> Paris-Roubaix Femmes 2021: Everything you need to know about the inaugural cobbled Classic

With this in mind, two riders stand out as perfect candidates for Paris-Roubaix: Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) and Marlen Reusser (Ale BTC Ljubljana). Both are among the best in the peloton in terms of raw strength, with the ability to produce bursts of power on flat roads that can leave most riders for dust. 

Both riders also arrive at Paris-Roubaix with exceptional form. Van Dijk has just been crowned back-to-back European road race champion and World time trial champion, while Reusser was second at the Worlds, having also won silver at the Olympics time trial in Tokyo. 

Assuming they can translate the watts they produce in these time trials onto the cobblestones — which, taking into account what these road surfaces are like, is no guarantee — both will be difficult for anyone to keep up with once they lay the power down on the pavé.  

Anna van der Breggen’s begins new DS role for SD Worx  

Anna van der Breggen

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One week since beginning her brilliant racing career to an end at the World Championships, Anna van der Breggen begins her new job as sports director for SD Worx.

Although she’ll have more of a shadowing, support role among the directors, the chaotic nature of Paris-Roubaix will nevertheless be a baptism of fire, with crashes, punctures, and all manner of stresses a constant factor — especially so if, as forecasts are indicating, this is to be a wet Paris-Roubaix. 

SD Worx will surely miss Van der Breggen’s presence on the road, but they still have a strong roster in order to try and impose themselves as they do in most Classics. In particular, two riders who are set to join Van der Breggen in retirement after this race will likely form the backbone of their strategy: Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Jolien d’Hoore. 

Van den Broek-Blaak fancies her chances on the cobbles, and has an eagerness to attack as well as the nous to pick the right moment; d’Hoore, by contrast, will try to keep herself in contention in order to use her lethal sprint finish at the end. Fast finisher Amy Pieters also potentially provides another option, if she can keep herself in contention. 

Usually SD Worx like to ride Classics aggressively by firing riders up the road, but without key attackers Van der Breggen and Demi Vollering (who’s skipping this race), this approach might be more difficult than usual. No-one really knows how this unprecedented race is going to play out, and it could be that having team-mates on hand to help out in the likely event of a mechanical might be more useful than having them up the road in these circumstances.

There’s plenty for Van der Breggen and the other sports directors to mull over, and, considering that everyone else is likely to look to SD Worx to shape the race, the strategic decisions they make could make or break who ultimately wins. 

A very selective race likely on a route that makes no concessions

Emma Norsgaard

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Sometimes, the routes for women’s races can be overly diluted versions of their male equivalents, to the point when the unique characteristics of a race are lost in translation. 

Thankfully, that’s not going to be the case at Paris-Roubaix. Although, at 116.4km, the race will in total be less than half the distance of the men’s race, most of the kilometres that have been cut are the uneventful opening half of the race where the men travel northwards over mostly uncobbled roads from the beginning in Compiegne. 

The final 85km of the race will in fact be the same as the men’s, meaning the riders will tackle a whole seventeen cobbled sections, including the fabled Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. 

Consequently, this is likely to be a very selective race. This is almost always the case in the men's race, where on only one occasion in the last 23 years has a group larger than five made it together to the Roubaix velodrome to sprint for victory. If, as is being forecasted, the rain falls tomorrow, this will be an even more brutal race, and even more selective.

This means that sprint specialists will have to be on a flying day in order to be in contention for victory.

One such rider is Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal), who has been widely tipped as exactly the kind of strong rider and fast finisher who could be a perfect fit for Paris-Roubaix (in much the same way that it suited her male compatriot, four-time winner Tom Boonen). But the Belgian was also tipped as a hot contender for the World Championships last weekend, and her 16th place finish suggests the necessary form may be lacking.

Emma Norsgaard is another such rider, and her team-mate Annemiek van Vleuten has hinted that it may be she, rather than Van Vleuten herself, who leads Movistar on Saturday; Lorena Wiebes (DSM) will also be an intriguing sprinter to watch, given how she has shown great strength in other cobbled classics; and Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) has the winning combination of time trial speed and sprinting ability to be one to watch. 

But it will be more of a challenge for the lighter sprinter and new world champion Elisa Balsamo (Valvar-Travel & Service) to stay in contention, even as she debuts her new rainbow jersey. 

Do the lighter, punchier riders have a chance?

Elisa Longo Borghini on Paris-Roubaix 2021 recon

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Successfully negotiating the uniquely uneven cobblestones found at Paris-Roubaix requires an awful lot of power, and riders who aren’t among the heaviest in the peloton can be at a major disadvantage.

So a key question heading into the race on Saturday will be whether the lighter riders who are usually so impressive on short, punchy climbs can be genuine contenders at Paris-Roubaix.

Trek-Segafredo have two such riders in Elisa Longo Borghini and Lizzie Deignan, and Deignan hasn’t shied away from talking up her chances. But they both end up reversing roles with team-mate Ellen van Dijk, who has spent so much of her recent career doing fantastic domestique work for them during hillier Classics.

Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) is also in great form, having taken bronze at the Worlds, but her most impressive racing moments come via uphill accelerations, which she won't have an opportunity for on Saturday. Similarly, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) is one of the lighter stars of the peloton, so could find these cobbles difficult to cope with. 

However they get on, it will be great to see women’s cycling’s biggest stars dig in one of cycling’s great challenges, and they will surely relish this opportunity that has taken so long to come about.