The cobbles of Paris-Rouabix.

Preview: What you need to know about the first women’s Paris-Roubaix

After over a year of waiting, Paris-Roubaix Femmes is finally here.

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The build-up to the inaugural women’s edition of Paris-Roubaix is, finally, almost over. After years and months of waiting, with two days to go until the race is on, it looks like we could actually see the women race across the French pavé.

It’s been more than 16 months since the ASO announced the first-ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes would take place, and after being cancelled in 2020 and postponed earlier this season, the iconic race is finally happening. First slated for October 25 of 2020, the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes looked to be a silver lining around the revised race calendar. But as cases rose all over Europe in the fall, both the men’s and women’s events were cancelled.

Again in 2021 the race was set to take place but was threatened by rising coronavirus numbers. Hopes were high but eventually, the race was pushed to the weekend after the World Championships.

Whether or not the change in season will benefit the race remains to be seen. At the very least, the weather looks like it’s going to make sure this first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes is one to remember.

It’s rare the women race an event that is 100 percent uncharted territory. Paris-Roubaix is a beast that the men have had years to tame. Years of testing equipment and learning how to ride the once-in-a-season terrain. The women have all reconned the course by now, they’ve all seen what awaits on Saturday, but it has probably not made them feel any more secure about what they are about to do.

Few women will feel confident going into Saturday’s race. The length and pressure of this season, thanks to the Olympics, has affected some riders more than others. For a race that is all about who is the strongest and who manages to have the least amount of bad luck, Paris-Roubaix Femmes will be a game of the mind as much as a test of legs.

Setting the scene

The women will line up in Denain on Saturday and before they experience any cobbles, they’ll ride 30 km worth of circuits around the start town. The first cobbled section is 33 km into the 116 km long race, and once it starts there’s no letting up.

Opportunities to regroup are scarce between the 17 sectors of cobbles along the course.

Each sector of cobbles ranges from one out of five to five out of five. With 49 km to go, the women hit the first of the 5/5 sections, Mons-en-Pévèle. But before that they have a few challenging sectors like Hornaing à Wandignies, Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières, and Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée.

Near the end of the race, the pavé becomes less of a challenge, but at that point, the course will have done its job and only the best will remain at the head of the race.

As if the first women’s Paris-Roubaix wasn’t going to be challenging enough, the weather on Saturday looks, in one word, horrific. With a 91% chance of rain, the likelihood of wet pave is real, and for those who don’t have the top equipment, it’s not looking good.

Rain isn’t the only atmospheric challenge. Crosswinds want to be a part of the madness as well, with 27 kph winds predicted from the southwest. On top of that, it is not going to be warm – although wearing gloves while riding over the brutal cobbles doesn’t sound too bad.

How’s it going to play out?

Predicting Paris-Roubaix Femmes is like guessing lottery ticket numbers. There is no saying what is going to happen on Saturday. Still, for the sake of this piece, we can narrow down a general idea of who might come out ahead and how.

Unlike many of the women’s cobbled classics, equipment will play a much larger role on Saturday than teams are used to. Yes, the women’s teams have, for the most part, figured out Belgian and Dutch cobbles, but the cobbles of Northern France are not comparable. Teams who have the support of big bike brands, like SD Worx with Specialized, Canyon-SRAM and Movistar with Canyon and SRAM, and Trek-Segafredo with Trek and Bontregar, have an advantage going into the race. They simply have access to more equipment choices than a lot of other teams.

Likewise, women’s teams who have a men’s team attached have an advantage. They have male teammates and staff of the men’s team who have experience in Paris-Roubaix and can pass on that knowledge to the women’s team and staff. There’s a reason CCC-Liv picked up Lars Boom midway through the 2020 season.

The race will probably weed out a lot of the peloton before the live coverage even starts, especially with many tough sectors of pave at the beginning of the race. Mechanicals and crashes are always a thing in Paris-Roubaix and will also remove some of the contenders.

By the 30 km to go mark the race will be all but decided. At that point, teammates will be a thing of the past. Based on how races have been going lately and the sheer magnitude of Paris-Roubaix Femmes it’ll be either a solo rider or a select group of five or less riding into the velodrome.

This late in the season it’s also possible to at least narrow down some race favorites.

The top favorite for Saturday is hands down Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo). Van Dijk has been on fine form in the last couple of weeks, winning the European Championship road race solo and then winning the World Championship individual time trial last week. She looked like the strongest Dutch rider in the World Championship road race as well, no small feat.

Van Dijk’s Trek-Segafredo team has done a lot of course recon, with a whole host of team staff following them around with various changes of wheels and tires and bike frames. So she has that going for her too.

Among the Trek-Segafredo roster, Van Dijk should be the undisputed leader, although the team still has the numbers. With their experience in the peloton Lizzie Deignan, Chloe Hosking, Audrey Cordon-Ragot, and Elisa Longo Borghini make for quite an intimidating force.

Next to equipment, form, and mental sharpness experience positioning and handling a bike will also be key, and who is more experienced than Marianne Vos? Second in the World Championship road race last weekend, Vos is still holding some late-season form. She’s won nearly every single big race the women’s calendar has to offer, but not this one. Vos is the G.O.A.T. regardless of if she wins on Saturday or not, but it would be the icing on her career cake to take this legendary victory.

She’s got some good helpers on Jumbo-Visma with Anna Henderson and Riejanne Markus, both of whom have shined this season.

As the pavé chips away at the peloton, teams with numbers will remain in the lead. If there are mechanicals or crashes, it’s those riders with a team around them who will be able to recover and keep fighting, and SD Worx has always been that team. Going into Paris-Roubaix Femmes SD Worx has one leader; Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. Van den Broek-Blaak announced she would be retiring after the Classics in 2022, so at this point, she’s into the final chunk of her career. She’s won the World Championship road race, the Amstel Gold Race, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Strade Bianche, the list goes on.

Van den Broek-Blaak’s biggest strength is her tactical savviness. She’s great at forcing herself into the right move, or off the front at the perfect time. It’s how she won the rainbow jersey and last year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen.

When it comes to having the legs and body type to excel at Paris-Roubaix, Marlen Reusser (Alé BTC Ljubljana) ticks all the boxes. Reusser has been one of the breakout stars of 2021, winning a handful of races in the latter half of the season including the European Championship ITT. What Reusser doesn’t have is experience, and her bike handling skills might not cut it on the cobbles of Roubaix. What she lacks in years in the peloton, though, she makes up for in guts, so even if she isn’t a favorite going in, it would be unwise not to keep her in the back of your mind.

Someone who does have years of experience in the peloton is Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM). Her aggressive riding at the World Championships won her a silver medal, and that style isn’t going anywhere. Plus, Niewiadoma has peloton veteran Tiffany Cromwell to guide her in case of emergencies.

Liv Racing has two strong contenders in Alison Jackson and Lotte Kopecky. Kopecky was nearly unstoppable in the early season but after a nightmare of an Olympic Games has taken a step back. She was the hot favorite for Worlds and didn’t factor in the sprint, but it’s hard to tell what that says about her current form. Jackson on the other hand was attacking at the Worlds and eventually finished in sixth.

There are some dark horses who are sure to at least be there in the fight, like Emma Norsgaard (Movistar), Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM), and Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT). All three have had strong seasons, are good at time trials, and have the know-how to be where they need to be when they need to be there. Also not to be forgotten is the new World Champion Elisa Balsamo, who will be wearing her Valcar-Travel & Service rainbow jersey for the first time.

Where to watch the action

As per usual anyone in Europe or the U.K. can find the race on GCN+ or Eurosport. In France, the viewing is restricted to France 3. For Canada, it’s going to be on FloBikes, whereas in the USA it’ll be NBC Sports. Australian viewers can look to SBS.

The race kicks off at 13:35 local time and ends around 17:00 CET. Live coverage starts at 14:45 CET.

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