Some races come with their own gravity. Paris-Roubaix Femmes – the first ever women’s edition of one of cycling’s most beloved races – was one of those. As it approached in the calendar, the entire world of cycling seemed to orbit around it.
In the end, after all that build-up, the result itself didn’t really matter as much as the fact that there
was a race to have a result. But it sure helped that it was a scintillating one.
Off the front for most of the race was Lizzie Deignan – a rider who’s had some ups and downs over her career, but in the later stages of her career has become symbolic of the growth that women’s cycling has taken. She stepped away from the sport, became a mother, was supported by her employer through the process, returned, and is back at cycling’s pinnacle.
In second position – and, for a tantalising stretch, threatening to reel Deignan back in – was Marianne Vos, a rider that needs no introduction and one of cycling’s most gracious figureheads.
Paris-Roubaix is never just one story. The 2021 Paris-Roubaix Femmes was a compendium of 129 of them, one for each rider’s journey to the Roubaix velodrome, or into a team car, or into the back of an ambulance. Happy stories and sad stories. Dreams realised and dreams dashed. Life in microcosm.
Through the lenses of our photographers, here are some of those stories.
After a mere 125 years of build-up, it was game time in Denain. Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) – arguably the greatest cyclist of all time – bore the heavy burden of being one of the pre-race favourites. Here she is, signing on. The riders would tackle a 116.4 km course, starting in Denain and finishing on the famous outdoor velodrome of Roubaix. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images) Fingers – and fingernails – were prepared for the rigours of what was to come. Could Vos add Paris-Roubaix to her impressive palmares? (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images) From more than 80 km out, it was clear that another former World Champion was there to race. Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) rode past a reactor, saw an opportunity to herself go nuclear, and exploded off the front. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) With the arrival of the early cobbled sectors, the peloton stretched into a long line and things started getting attritional. An autumnal view of the peloton through the Warlaing à Brillon cobblestone sector. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) One of the first crashes of the day saw two riders tangle … … before another couple joined in the fun. Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky (Team Liv Racing) was one of the key riders leading the chase of Deignan early on. After a crash, she’d ultimately finish the day in 15th, more than 4 minutes behind. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) Meanwhile, Deignan was building out her advantage at the front, picking her own lines through the slippery stones. A minute or two later, the chasing peloton had a much more nervous time of it. Two Team Drops-Le Col riders tangled and spent some time on the deck. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) Coming down on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix leaves you feeling a little shellshocked. Back to the front of the pack. Still Deignan forging her own path? Thought it might be. New World Champion Elisa Balsamo (Valcar Travel & Service) was keen to put on a good showing for her fresh jersey and Ultegra-clad bike. European champion Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) was one of the big favourites before the race, but it wasn’t to be her day. Portuguese champ Maria Martins’ Garmin was literally hanging on by a thread as Van Dijk and Longo Borgini worked their way back into the race. (Photo by ERIC LALMAND/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images) 2 Fast 2 Furious: Roubaix Drift Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) was an incredible force in the race. She finished agonisingly close to the podium in fourth position. A select chase group began to form – with numbers for SD-Worx, Movistar and Trek-Segafredo. A Skoda (left) and some slop (everywhere else). Paris-Roubaix is as tough on bikes as it is on their riders, and the mechanics and soigneurs were run off their feet. Elisa Balsamo getting a little too up close and personal with the cobbles. (Photo by ERIC LALMAND/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images) In Paris-Roubaix, you have to roll with the punches that are thrown at you. After her crash, Balsamo was straight back on the bike and back in the fray (by which I mean the race, not the tepid pop-rock band). (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) A particularly challenging reverse-gravity cobbled section. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images) Team SD-Worx are favourites in basically every race they contest, but had a surprising off day at Paris-Roubaix. Chantal van den Broek-Blaak was one of the pre-race favourites, and had support from Christine Majerus (not in frame, but picture Luxembourg’s national champion for time immemorial and you’ve got the gist) and Amy Pieters (rear) at the pointy end of the race. Van den Broek-Blaak finished in 10th. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) Italian champ Elisa Longo Borghini had a tumultuous Paris-Roubaix. She hit the deck midway through, looked somewhat uncomfortable for a bit thereafter, and then recovered to finish an excellent third. Here’s her Trek-Segafredo teammate, Lauretta Hanson of Australia, making her way through a cobbled sector on foot after a mechanical. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) Longo Borgini’s continued renaissance. Deignan, meanwhile, was reeling in the finish line … … despite the best efforts of a Lisa Brennauer-led chase group. On the Camphin en Pévèle sector, Marianne Vos decided she’d had enough of waiting for the group to cooperate, setting off alone in pursuit of Deignan. (Photo by Etienne Garnier – Pool/Getty Images) She was visibly quicker on the cobbles, slashing Deignan’s advantage by more than half a minute. On the imfamous five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre sector, Vos got to within 1:15 of Deignan. But that was about as close as she got. Balsamo, meanwhile, was keeping on keeping on. Damn paparazzi. As the cobbled sectors ticked down, Deignan’s grasp on the win looking increasingly assured … … while Vos was just plain running out of cobbles to make up the lost ground. And then, from the full-body rattle of cobbles onto the relative tranquility of the velodrome, Deignan reached her destination. Crossing the line, the first winner of Paris-Roubaix Femmes punched the sky with bloodied fists. It was metal as hell. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images) After being off the front alone for almost the entire race, Deignan treated herself to a tiny can of iced tea as the enormity of her accomplishment began to sink in. (Photo by POOL ETIENNE GARNIER/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images) Vos left it all on the road. Her courageous chase snared her second place … … while a thrilled Elisa Longo Borghini picked up third for Trek-Segafredo. Here she is celebrating the victory of her teammate, and her own phoenix-like ride. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images) Trek-Segafriendos. (Photo by Etienne Garnier – Pool/Getty Images) Pre-race favourite for Trek-Segafredo, Ellen Van Dijk, had a rough day at the office. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images) She crossed the line in 32nd, muddied and bloodied, with a swollen elbow and a head full of ‘what if’s. Australian champion Sarah Roy had been in a good position before getting caught up in a crash, landing hard on her leg. She battled through the pain to finish in 23rd, and was rewarded with a pressure wash from her team mechanics. Roy’s BikeExchange teammates – Teniel Campbell (left) and Jessica Allen (right) – finished outside the time limit, but all riders were allowed to pedal to the finish instead of getting stopped on course. Campbell suffered a couple of mechanicals, had a bike change, and was still stoked. “I love it. I had so much fun! I was like crossing my heart and hoping not to die so many times, but it was so bloody amazing,” she said after the finish. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images) Deignan wasn’t the only rider whose hands copped it. After the win, it was time for Deignan to take a shower in cycling’s most iconic shower cubicles (admittedly, I can’t think of any other contenders for that title). The cobblestone trophy is a heavy one, even if you haven’t been getting beaten up by the things for a few hours. (Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty Images) A pretty normal podium celebration for a pretty exceptional race. Nothing weird about to happen now at all. OH SHIT. They’ve got flamethrowers?! Today was a good day.