Paris-Roubaix Femmes is more than just a race. It’s a statement

On the eve of the first Paris-Roubaix Femmes, Gracie Elvin writes about why this race carries such symbolic weight.

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On the eve of the first Paris-Roubaix Femmes – 125 years in the making – CyclingTips columnist and ex-pro Gracie Elvin writes about why this race carries such symbolic weight.

Picture the winner of the Hell of the North taking his first wash in the famous showers.

His face is stained with the grime of the day, showing deep carvings where the stress-induced wrinkles in his forehead and around his eyes have been set from a day of grimacing. He is nearly broken, but buoyed by his jubilation that is just setting in. He takes off his jersey to show a pale upper body, his shoulders hunched from the many hours spent lurching over his handlebars. He turns the shower on as the photographers try to get that perfect shot over the low cubicle walls that tell the story of ultimate pain in the pursuit of glory.

Now imagine this scene with a woman.

How does it make you feel? Does her dirty weathered face make you inspired or uncomfortable? What about the dried-on mixture of gels and saliva around her mouth; the sweaty, messy helmet hair; the hunched-over body, sitting with her knees open because she is so spent she doesn’t care to sit like a lady? 

The image of a woman in the showers of Roubaix makes some people uncomfortable, and many are not even aware as to why they feel like this. Our cultures and our entrenched values from our upbringing run deep, and sometimes we are challenged with an image that doesn’t fit into our previously held beliefs.

Some people are uncomfortable not because she is uncomfortable, but because they are uncomfortable in their own insecurities and inability to see women as anything other than a sexualised being. They can’t see a human being who has just achieved something great, rather they see something that scans as masculine instead of traditionally feminine and it does not compute.

Some people are conditioned to be uncomfortable seeing women in any roles traditionally held by men. The women in these roles would not themselves be uncomfortable if they existed in a vacuum, but they have been made to feel uncomfortable by others. I believe most CyclingTips readers do not fall into this category, but as with any sport the majority of readers and viewers are men.

This race is not just a race that is finally offered to women. It is a statement about what a woman can be. The images of riders during and after the race tell other women that it’s OK to try hard. It’s OK to be rough. It’s OK to be masculine or feminine or however you want to be. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to care.

This race will be the opportunity to capture a greater audience in sport – more women. I know that many male fans are excited to watch this inaugural race and the viewer numbers will prove beyond a doubt that women’s cycling deserves to be televised properly, but the images and the stories to come from this day will ignite a whole new generation of female riders and viewers.

This year, we’ve seen team managers suspended by the UCI for harassing female riders, team managers saying that support of women’s cycling is analogous to charity, team managers making clear through words and actions that male cycling is the only cycling they feel matters. For them – and all those with the same mentality – this day is not for you.

To them, I say: for your belief that there is no market for women’s cycling, that women are not up to such a challenge, and for all your discomfort in seeing the images of wrecked and muddy women on Saturday, there will be a magnitude of others who will be proud, inspired, and feel like they have permission to just be themselves.

I can’t wait to see the images of my contemporaries and my heroes at the end of the race. I will be grieving because it was not me, but my tears will be because of how much I know what each woman will feel in her heart that day – and how that can change the world.

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