The new idols of Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix builds idols, sometimes out of nothing, sometimes chiseled from the already great

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ROUBAIX, France (CT) – Thin chains hang from old pipes over square concrete shower stalls. Pull for water, hot at first, colder as the evening wears. The first spray stings blistered hands, a sharp but brief pain layered over duller, longer-lasting aches. Photographers snap and flash, eyes close, and layers of northern France swirl down small metal drains. 

How good that shower must have felt for Lizzie Deignan. 

There are certain moments in professional cycling that have only been available to men. They also happen to be some of the same moments that pull most effectively on the cycling fan’s soul. The right hand turn onto the Roubaix velodrome, turning into the roar, is one. The Roubaix showers are another. Photos of faces plastered in dust and mud, of hands blistered; these are things we understand. No additional context required. 

I was standing on the side of Hornaing when Deignan went by. We’d wanted to see the very first sector of the very first Roubaix Femmes. She had maybe 10 meters. Elisa Longo Borghini sat just behind, along with much of the SD Worx team. Two Drops-Le Col riders, punching well above their wildcard status, had their teeth set grimly. The peloton was already split into three large groups, ripped apart by crashes and corners on the opening laps around Denain. 

We saw them again at Mons-en-Pévèle. Puddles from overnight rain were splashed onto otherwise relatively dry cobbles by each passing car so that by the time Deignan arrived her rear wheel had only a loose relationship with the ground. 

The next groups had it worse. A TV motorcycle spun and flopped on a narrow stretch flanked by steep grass walls. Cars ground to a halt, half off the cobbles, covering the crown and leaving only a slick, off-camber shoulder available. Elisa Balsamo went spinning like a top, covering her new world champion’s kit in mud. Alison Jackson lost her rear wheel and slid down into the grass. A team car dropped its right front wheel into the ditch; its day was done. 

SD Worx chased as much as you can chase when another sector interrupts rotation every few kilometers. Marianne Vos danced like she was born for it. Longo Borghini closed gap after gap on pure power. 

They made the right hand turn into the velodrome, into the roar of the crowd, and collapsed on the lush green infield. 

Paris-Roubaix creates icons. It builds idols, sometimes out of nothing, sometimes chiseled from the already great, always stone by stone. Sector by sector. Slide by slide, attack by attack, crash by crash. In sport, the greatest heights are always reached following the lowest, most difficult lows. This is the lasting power of Roubaix, a race where there are no easy wins. There aren’t even any easy finishes. And it’s why this weekend was as important a moment for bike racing as any in our lifetimes. 

“Maybe it had to be like this,” Vos said afterward. The first edition had to be in the rain and mud. It had to be won with a spectacular, long breakaway. Roubaix was the canvas upon which the peloton would paint history, and it could be no other way.

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