'It is something that I will definitely never forget, it was the hardest race I've ever done' — The first dry Paris-Roubaix Femmes

In the race's second edition, everyone was having a 'completely different' experience, whether they were a veteran or a neo-pro

Paris-Roubaix Femmes
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Denain, where Paris-Roubaix Femmes began on Saturday, like seemingly all French towns, has some wonderfully named streets. There's a Rue Édouard Vaillant, named after a socialist who was part of the Paris Commune, a Rue Émile Zola, after the novelist, and a Rue Charles Fourier, after the socialist philosopher. There might be a left-wing theme here.

However, another stands out, the Rue Barbusse. Barbusse, Henri Barbusse, was a French novelist (and a communist, those reds again). His most famous work, although not particularly well known in English, is Le Feu, translated as Under Fire. The novel, one of the great books about the First World War, describes war in gritty and brutal realism, and is celebrated for its authenticity, which was based off some of Barbusse's own experiences. 

The women's peloton were certainly under fire on Saturday, as they tackled the pavé in the dry for the first time, in just the second edition of the race. October's affair was raced in the rain and mud, conditions that seemed more redolent of popular memories of the First World War battlefields of northern France, which are close to the course. 

However, this year's dusty version seemed just as brutal and attritional. Crucially, it was also a brand new experience for every rider in the bunch, whether they were lining up in Denain for the first or second time.

Speaking at the start, Lorena Wiebes of DSM one of the fastest women in the peloton, explained to Cycling Weekly that it was going to be a "completely different" race.

"Last year it was way more slippery on the cobbled sections," she said. "It was more about staying on your bike last year, and today it will be completely different. There will be more dust, maybe  a little bit easier but you never know in this race, and the luck has to be on your side."

Christine Majerus, a key member of the powerful SD Worx squad, echoed these thoughts.

"It's a completely different race now with the weather being really different," she said. "I think the racing will also be different. I liked it better when it's wet, but I also like it now. We did all the recons in the dry and I enjoyed it very much. I'm just looking forward to discovering how it goes.

"I hope I'll be riding in front so I don't get the dust."

For Alison Jackson, the day on the pavé was actually about spending as little time as possible in the middle of the road.

"I'm going to ride as little of the stones as possible," she said. "Normally I'm good on the cobbles, but really by the end it really roughs up the body. 

"This race is unpredictable, as a rule for the men, and on top of that for the women because we have so few editions. I think everyone will have learned something from last year to improve how they're going to prepare. I think we'll see an increase in professionalism."

Over three hours later in the Roubaix velodrome, Jackson was clearly exhausted, sitting on the ground in the middle of the track. The Canadian had come in 2:54 behind Saturday's winner Elisa Longo Borghini, but still enjoyed her day out there.

"It's so cool to finish in the velodrome, with all the people and fans," she told Cycling Weekly. "No race is like this.

"It's better when you're in the front, when you're following the wheels it gets a little more dusty, but man it's a much smoother ride when you can ride the gutters and it's not just mud and stuff. I like it."

Alison Jackson

Alison Jackson, followed by eventual winning Elisa Longo Borghini, and Christine Majerus

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For debutants in the race, it was a real baptism of fire in racing over cobbles. 69 out of the 141 starters were riding Roubaix for the first time, 49%. For some, this was one of, if not their first WorldTour race of any flavour, let alone a brutal one.

Katie Clouse of Human Powered Health was riding just her second race in Europe ever, after Amstel Gold Race last weekend. Quite some start. Sadly for her, she finished outside the time limit, but she still rode round the velodrome in Roubaix.

The American was part of the early breakaway that developed on the opening circuits around Denain, close to Rue Barbusse.

"I threw myself in there," Clouse said. "I definitely maybe went a little bit too hard. I put myself into the deep end pretty quickly, but that was my job. It's one of the hardest races in the world, so I didn't have much on the cobbles. It was fun, a really cool experience.

"I was definitely cracked still with 50km to go, but I still wanted to finish it. I'm pretty proud just to cross the line, but it was pretty hard.

"I've never experienced this kind of race, so it was pretty cool just to see it all. Definitely a day to remember, now I'm going to take a nap."

Her teammate Makayla MacPherson, the second youngest rider in the race at 18, crashed before the first sector of cobbles, so was off the back on the opening pavé.

"I got hit in the back pretty hard, I thought I was gonna escape but I didn't," she explained.

"This bike is not really made for the cobbles, I wish I had my bigger tyres. I was being thrown around, but I pushed through to the end.

"It is something that I will definitely never forget, it was the hardest race I've ever done, so I'm glad to say I've done it. I'm glad my team had faith in me to bring me here."

Being off the back in the first sector, MacPherson was one of the first riders to really experience the problems of a dry Roubaix. "The cars were blowing dust, and I was barely able to see," she said.

20-year old Abi Smith, riding for EF Education-TIBCO-SVB admitted to closing her eyes at points to avoid the dust.

"I'm really glad it wasn't wet though," she said. "It was pretty sketchy as it was. I've got contact lenses, so I was closing my eyes a lot, especially on the cobbles."

"I'm really pleased to have finished," Smith continued. "Obviously, luck does play a part, and I was caught in a crash before the cobbles. It was madness, really. The main thing is to make it home, keep fighting, because you never know what happens in front of you. You have to keep fighting to the end.

"It was so special [coming into the velodrome], it was awesome. Next time, if I want to do it again, I'm not sure. It's all very well being strong on the cobbles, but if you're a 100 riders back, your day is over."

Flora Perkins of Le Col-Wahoo, the third-youngest rider, was racing her first WorldTour race: "That's quite a start." The 18 year-old will return to sixth-form after she races Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, incredibly.

As these riders race more editions of Roubaix, the will gain experience of how to ride the cobbles, and there will be a growing number of specialists at the pavé as time goes on. The first dry Hell of the North for the women was one to remember however, where the racing was just as hard as in the wet.

In total, 13 riders failed to finish, 27 finished outside the time limit, and one was disqualified. A 29% dropout rate is huge for a one-day race, but it shows how brutal the day was. Paris-Roubaix Femmes has already established itself as one of the races in the year, in just six months. Some will hope they are not quite as under fire in the future, however. Sadly we have to wait almost a year to witness it again.

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