Meet the Knavens: The father and daughter to race in Paris-Roubaix

Twenty years after Servais Knaven won Paris-Roubaix, there will be another Knaven on the start line: his daughter, Britt.

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In 2001, in one of the last wet editions of Paris-Roubaix, a Domo-Farm Frites domestique called Servais Knaven ended up in the winning breakaway. The team had the numbers; with Johan Museeuw and Romans Vainsteins filling out the podium, it was a sweep for the Belgian squad, although Knaven wasn’t the winner many expected.

The Dutch rider’s solo into the Roubaix velodrome with his face caked with white dust and dried mud, twenty years ago, are part of cycling’s history – and the pinnacle of Knaven’s long career.

Servais Knaven’s oldest daughter Britt wasn’t even a year old when her dad won Paris-Roubaix. Twenty years later, she will line up for the very first women’s edition of the race and in the process follow in her father’s footsteps, in the process making history as the first father-daughter duo in the Hell of the North.

Update: Amy Pieters is also racing the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix where her father Peter Pieters came in 4th place in 1992.

Time to catch up with the two Knavens and look ahead to their favorite race – one they have both had success in before, although only one of them got the famous cobblestone trophy.

A disbelieving Servais Knaven crosses the line to win the 2001 Paris Roubaix.

“My daughter should have had a cobble too. We would have had two at home,” Servais remembers with a smile. “She finished as best girl in her own baby Paris-Roubaix when she was 13 but we didn’t know that she would get the award too. It was only the year after, with our second daughter Senne, that we found out.”

“I remember I could start on the first row because I was a girl,” Britt recalls. “I raced along with two boys and on the first sectors we raced full gas but after that I had to let them go and I was all alone.” 

“I was happy she could start at the front because there were 250 kids in her race alone.” Servais says, with a paternal warmth. “They joined the Paris-Roubaix course in Cysoing and rode over the Carrefour de l’Arbre to the finish line. She was still so small on those cobbles, but I remember how special the feeling of seeing her there was for me.” 

Britt is the oldest of four daughters to Servais and his wife Natascha den Ouden, who was a successful rider in her own right with four Dutch cyclocross titles and many podium places in road races and time trials. It took a while before their daughters picked up the cycling bug. Now Britt is one of the riders on the NXTG Racing team, a women’s U23 development team founded by Servais and Natascha that received a wildcard for Paris-Roubaix.

“When I was still riding none of the girls was interested in what I did,” Servais smiles. “They were just not impressed. I took Britt to a clinic I gave when she was seven but she didn’t care for it. That has changed a lot. Three of my girls are now into cycling and they watch many races on TV.” 

“I think we just played somewhere around the course where dad was racing that day. I remember just drawing stuff on the road with chalk,” Britt laughs. “He had already quit when I started racing because I first did gymnastics before cycling. There were hardly any tournaments in gymnastics though, and they were very strict, so in the end I did chose cycling.” 

“I didn’t care if they would pick up the bike or not. I do want them to do sports to enjoy themselves,” Servais says. It’s a sentiment his wife Natascha, who is listening to our conversation, echoes. 

“I always said to them that they should never start cycling because we told them so. It’s a tough sport and your heart must really be in it,” Natascha says. “If all four of them would not have started cycling we would have been able to get a swimming pool in the garden from all the money we would have saved,” she laughs.

Servais Knaven with Britt, Senne and Natascha at the 2005 Rotterdam Six Days.

“Britt was the first who asked me if she could do cycling,” Servais remembers. “That was around the 2012 Tour de France. I asked her if she was really sure she wanted it herself, and she said yes. Then the other girls followed as well. I remember Britt attacking in her first race and winning her third one.”

“I did ask some advice from mum and dad about attacking or how to take corners, but I never felt the pressure to do cycling because my parents are who they are,” Britt says.

Looking at results is a dangerous thing. There are many DNFs next to Britt’s name but there is always a story behind every result. The 21-year-old rider often serves as road captain in races for her NXTG Racing team or as the sprint lead-out but also encounters more than her fair share of bad luck with crashes, illness and mechanical issues. In the media, meanwhile, she is often referred to not in her own right as an athlete, but as ‘daughter of’. That’s not something that bothers her too much.

“I don’t experience the name Knaven as a burden. It’s the way you deal with it yourself. I am not too bothered what people might think of me. If you ride fast, you ride fast and if you have an off-day, so be it. I race for myself and want to do well for my team but I don’t ride for anyone else than those people. “ 

Britt was a very successful junior rider and among the best of her generation in the Netherlands. When she was 18, she chose the Belgian nationality – the country in which she grew up and feels most at home in. But despite her successes as a junior, the switch to the elite category has been difficult.

“I was an aggressive rider and jumped on every attack. I also finished in the top 5 to pick up the premiums every time,” Britt explains. “This is different now because at this level you can’t always follow every attack. The level is just too high and the races too long.” 

“We have to give these girls time,” Servais says about the young riders in the NXTG Racing team, a team established to allow its riders a chance to grow without pressure. “They won’t win a big race like Paris-Roubaix but the experience is invaluable. I am very proud we get to race it. It’s really special.” 

Britt is ambitious and says she wants to win Roubaix one day. “It’s special to follow my dad’s footsteps. In five years’ time his win will be 25 years ago so that might be a special moment.” 

Servais smiles and says: “It’s fantastic that you get to ride it. We really needed this for equality in cycling. It’s a really, really hard but great race. You want to quit all the time but you have to go on.”

Britt remembers how hard it was from riding it as a teen. The inherent difficulty of what lies ahead hasn’t changed, although being older and faster makes it a little more approachable.

“We did a recon last week to test bikes and tyres and it was the first time in a while I rode here. I think the last time was with the club as a kid and I only remember crying on the Carrefour de l’Arbre because it hurt so much. Now I was back, it still hurt but not as long because I was faster,” Britt smiles at the memory. 

“I expect the race to be all about positioning all the time, especially in the first part when everyone is still fresh,” Britt continues, looking ahead to Saturday. “If you are in the right place the cobbles might not be too bad. I know that Roubaix is all about giving everything, like my dad says – to keep giving everything and never quit. It’s just sector after sector, again and again.” 

The first edition of the race was postponed twice because of the COVID pandemic that hit hard in the urban area around Lille and Roubaix in the north of France. The anticipation for this historic moment is high and every team wants to be on the start line. The WorldTour teams and UCI ranking top 15 were automatically invited which meant only a few coveted spots remained. Knaven lobbied hard for his team. 

“I am happy that ASO invited us and I know my victory plays a role in that but it won’t be a disadvantage. We are one of the small teams but I know this gives these young girls such a huge boost. We give them the best equipment and the best preparation but it will be a steep learning curve for all of them. I think the women’s race can’t be compared to the men’s race. It will be more of an elimination race for the women.” 

“I vividly remember my first Roubaix,” Servais reflects. “I was quite nervous to start it but made it into the early breakaway. We didn’t even make it to Arenberg but I wanted to finish the race no matter what. It’s a race you need to learn to ride. You need to learn to withstand the pain. It’s a special feeling Britt will be one of the first women racing Paris-Roubaix.” 

As for Britt, she’s just counting down the days until she lines up and makes her Paris-Roubaix debut, following in the footsteps of her father. “The flow of riding full-speed on cobbles gives you such a thrill,” she enthuses. “Naturally, dad gave me some advice and I really hope to make it to the velodrome. That is my main object and that will feel so special. I just can’t wait to start. ”

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