‘It was just agony’: Inside the Paris-Roubaix debuts of four young Brits

Josh Tarling, Zoe Bäckstedt, Sam Watson and Alice Towers lived very different days at the Hell of the North

Collage of Josh Tarling, Zoe Bäckstedt, Sam Watson and Alice Towers at Paris-Roubaix 2023
(Image credit: Getty)

Ask any rider about Paris-Roubaix, and they'll tell you it's a race like no other. 

Some fear the cobbled Monument, namely the narrow, rugged farm tracks on which it takes place. For others, the unpredictability brings great joy.

Across this year's men's and women's editions, 20 British riders set out to conquer the Hell of the North. Here are the stories of four of them, all debutants, and what they had to endure to reach the velodrome.

Josh Tarling - Outside time limit

Josh Tarling stood inside Roubaix Velodrome

(Image credit: Future / Peter Stuart)

There was one statistic on everyone’s lips at the start line of the men's Paris-Roubaix in Compiègne. Josh Tarling, just 19 years and 53 days old, was set to become the youngest male rider since 1937 to compete in the race. 

The day turned out to be a baptism of fire for the Welshman. With 150km to go, Tarling crashed with his Ineos Grenadiers team-mate Luke Rowe, bloodying his knee and tearing through his kit. He ended up riding over 100km alone to Roubaix Velodrome, where he finished six and a half minutes adrift of the time cut. 

How did he find the race? “Long,” he smiled, standing proudly under the sun. “[I had] a crash and two punctures, so I’ve done Paris-Roubaix right, no?” 

For Tarling, abandoning the race was never an option. “My girlfriend would shout at me if I didn’t make it here," he said. "It’s just Paris-Roubaix, isn’t it? You have to finish.” 

Speaking to Cycling Weekly by the team bus, the teenager’s girlfriend Grace concurred. “I knew that he wouldn’t be happy with himself truly if he didn’t get to the finish line,” she said. “He’s very determined. If he wanted to get to the line he would, and he did.”

Grace travelled to Roubaix with Tarling’s family, who cheered from the stands of the velodrome as he rode a solitary lap and a half. The sight brought his mother Dawn to tears. 

“He’s that kind of rider,” Dawn said. “He’ll always finish, so we waited because we knew he’d come. When we saw him, it was just awesome.”

Though Sunday’s race marked Tarling’s senior Roubaix debut, he had already completed the junior event twice. His father Michael explained that bad luck has been a constant across his experiences. 

“In the youth race, he was in a breakaway and there was a level crossing that came down and they didn’t give them the time back again," he said. "Then last year, I think he crashed. He deserves a good ride here one day.” 

Zoe Bäckstedt - 46th

Zoe Bäckstedt riding in Roubaix Velodrome

(Image credit: Getty)

Zoe Bäckstedt came into her first Paris-Roubaix with a simple goal in mind. “If I can finish it,” she told Cycling Weekly ahead of the race, “then that’s a great day for me.” 

The 18-year-old cut a relaxed figure at the team presentation in Denain. Like Tarling, she would be the youngest rider in the race, but with a lifetime’s worth of advice from her father Magnus - winner of the 2004 edition - and his old Speedplay pedals, she felt better prepared than anyone. 

In the end, the day was everything she had expected. “It was carnage, it was fast,” she said afterwards. “My legs were struggling, and it was just [about] trying to hold it [the bike] upright. There were a tonne of people crashing on the small parts that were slippery.”

Alongside her, in the race convoy with Canyon-Sram, her father kept a watchful eye. “He drove past me at one point when I was at the back and stuck his hand out the window and just gave me a thumbs up,” she said. “I know he’s in a different car, but he still looks out for me, which is really nice.” 

As for Bäckstedt’s team, EF Education-Tibco-SVB, the race played out like a dream. While the teenager spent the day in the peloton, her team-mate Alison Jackson was up the road in the breakaway, crafting a career-defining victory. Bäckstedt knew nothing of it. 

“I couldn’t hear anything on the radio for the last 50km,” she said. “I came into the velodrome and looked up at the big screen, because I knew the winner would be up there and I just saw AJ sprinting and then celebrating. 

“I think I just screamed for that whole lap and a half round the velodrome. When I saw my soigneur, I was like ‘AJ won! AJ won!’ I kid you not, I just cried.” 

Sam Watson - 121st

Sam Watson Paris-Roubaix 2023

(Image credit: Getty)

Twenty-one-year-old Sam Watson swung into Roubaix Velodrome wincing. He held his bars loosely - one hand on the hoods, the other in the drops - and gritted his teeth as he rounded the final bend. When he stepped off his bike, he stood, dazed, and stared down at his bare, blistered palms. 

“My body’s in pieces,” he told Cycling Weekly. “My hands, all the skin’s come off. That hurt more than my legs today.” 

The Groupama-FDJ rider began the race wearing gloves, but as the cobbled sectors clocked up, and the attrition bedded in, the friction grew unbearable. The only option was to take them off.

“I just had to ride the sectors without trying to put my palms on the handlebars,” he said. “Everything hurts. I’ve got blisters on my feet, no skin on my hands, back hurts. Luckily I’ve got a few days off now.” 

Asked to recount his day, Watson began at Haveluy, the sector before the Forest of Arenberg, where the winning move went. “That’s where it really kicked off,” he said. “I took Stefan [Küng] into it, just behind [Mathieu] Van der Poel and Wout [van Aert]. I was going as hard as I could already, I couldn’t follow them. And then from there really it was just a battle to the finish.

“Of course, I would’ve liked to have been there a bit more at the end, but I couldn’t hold my handlebars. Over the sectors, it was just agony.” 

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Alice Towers - 23rd

Alice Towers at Paris-Roubaix 2023

(Image credit: Getty)

Initially a reserve, British road champion Alice Towers only got the call-up to this year’s Paris-Roubaix two weeks before the race. “I was really nervous,” she said afterwards, which is why she chose to escape up the road. 

There, safe from the perilous proximity of the bunch, she rode for 100km as part of the breakaway group from which Alison Jackson eventually won. 

“I’d been on one recon, and I just sort of dived in,” Towers told Cycling Weekly. “The plan was to be vigilant. I was more of a support rider for the first bit of the race, and then the break actually went quite a long way, and I was there at the very end. So I’m pleased about that.”

On her Roubaix debut, the 20-year-old crossed the line in 23rd place, half a minute down on the winner. When she found out her companions stayed away, she rued the moment she lost contact, which came on an unsuspecting motorway bridge between the final sectors. “It just caught me by surprise,” she said. “But I was gone. I was pretty cooked anyway, so I don’t know what I could have done.”

Face muddied, Towers stood in the velodrome and shook out her arms, sore from the bone-shaking terrain. “I think they’ll be bruised tomorrow,” she laughed, before reflecting once more on the race she had just finished.

“I’m happy to have ticked it off,” she said. “[Beforehand], everyone was just like, ‘Oh my god, the Hell of the North, it’s crazy there. It’s horrible.’ But actually, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.”

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Tom Davidson
News and Features Writer

Tom joined Cycling Weekly as a news and features writer in the summer of 2022, having previously contributed as a freelancer. He is the host of The TT Podcast, which covers both the men's and women's pelotons and has featured a number of prominent British riders. 

An enthusiastic cyclist himself, Tom likes it most when the road goes uphill and actively seeks out double-figure gradients on his rides. 

He's also fluent in French and Spanish and holds a master's degree in International Journalism.