Ellen van Dijk and Paris-Roubaix: Perfect on paper, less so in practice

She might be a favorite for Saturday's race, but the World ITT Champion isn't in love with the cobbles.

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When the ASO first announced a women’s Paris Roubaix in the Spring of 2020 attention immediately turned to one rider: Ellen van Dijk.

With the perfect combination of power and experience, Van Dijk was everyone’s pick to win long before anyone knew anything about the inaugural women’s Hell of the North. The Dutch rider remained the key rider to watch for over a year and a half and through multiple covid-19 postponements. The problem was, Van Dijk didn’t love the cobbles.

“No, I don’t need to do that, really. I don’t like it,” Van Dijk said of riding across the legendary cobbles of the Arenberg Forest. “We did it two years ago in recon, and it’s just so fast and so dangerous. I think in the men’s race there’s always a lot of punctures, a lot of crashes. Yeah, I mean, I don’t think this is what the race is about. So for me, no, please. No.

With no previous editions to base any kind of predictions on, the reason Van Dijk was the easy choice was because of the Dutchwoman’s power. Throughout her career, she has always been a time trial specialist, with two World ITT titles in 2013 and 2021, four consecutive European ITT titles and countless other ITT or solo breakaway victories. It’s fairly obvious that if you give Van Dijk some space she will simply ride away.

But when Paris Roubaix Femmes finally rolled around in October of 2021 and it was clear the weather would be the defining factor of the first-ever women’s edition Van Dijk’s power became less of an advantage. With wet cobbles, positioning was more important than raw watts, and positioning is not something Van Dijk excels at.

“What I learned from last year was mostly that you have to be in the front, which was not something really new because I knew that already before I started the race,” Van Dijk said ahead of the second edition. “Once you are on the backside of things and once you start chasing, you keep chasing for the whole race so it’s better never get into that position, but it’s easier said than done.”

“Positioning is key in this race. That’s not a secret and it’s also not my best quality really, positioning. So that’s why I struggle a bit with this race. But yeah, that’s my main focus [this year] to position well and then just go from there.”

In 2021 all eyes were on Van Dijk, but it was her teammate Lizzie Deignan who was able to pull off a long-range attack and cement her name in history.

“Last year nobody ever expected that Lizzie would make the winning move with 80 km to go,” Van Dijk said. “I expect that this year a lot of girls want to go early just because of last year. I think this year everybody will be keen from the beginning. It’s going to be a totally different race and with the dry weather conditions it will be faster.”

Coming into the second edition of Paris Roubaix Femmes Van Dijk is still a favourite, but she’s not the only rider people are talking about. Still, with completely different weather conditions no one is really sure what to expect from the second Paris Roubaix Femmes.

“[This race] is super special and last year was the first time, so it was even more special,” Van Dijk said. “But actually, this year, it almost feels like it’s another first time because it’s such different conditions and everything will be different than last year.”

“It’s still hard to know what to expect really in these conditions.”

Van Dijk has been racing in the professional peloton since 2006. She has seen the sport evolve and change over the past 17 seasons, seen salaries rise and teams become more professional. She has raced on teams like HTC-Highroad and Boels-Dolmans and she’s been there for many of the recent additions to the women’s calendar, from the first La Course by the Tour de France in 2014 to the first-ever women’s Paris Roubaix.

“I think in one way it’s special,” Van Dijk said of the Monument’s inclusion in the women’s calendar. “In another way, I think it’s something that should have been for a very long time already.”

Not only is the weather predicted to be the polar opposite of the first edition, but the buildup to Paris-Roubaix has also been completely different the second time around. Last year covid-19 restrictions in France forced the ASO to push the race from its usual Spring weekend back to October. This year Paris Roubaix will take place within the Spring Classics calendar, as opposed to right after the World Championships and a long season of racing for the women.

Van Dijk went into Paris Roubaix Femmes in 2021 on flying form. Just a week before, she won her second time trial rainbow jersey, but the pressure was on for her to perform on the cobbles of Roubaix. That pressure didn’t help her in the build-up. She had ridden the course in recon, multiple times, and despite years of experience racing on the road, racing the cobbles of Roubaix was something entirely new.

The week before Paris Roubaix Femmes this year Trek-Segafredo took some attention away from Van Dijk’s Paris Roubaix role by announcing that she would attempt the hour record once the Spring season has wrapped up. The news meant that instead of her having to talk solely about the cobbled Classic in a pre-race press conference she also happily answered questions about her goal on the track.

It may not have been a strategic PR move from the American team to deflect too much pressure on the world champion at Paris Roubaix, but it definitely worked out that way.

Van Dijk herself admitted that ahead of the second Paris Roubaix Femmes she had to change her mentality a bit.

“Last year I really thought, ‘oh yeah, it’s going to be super cool and this is probably something that suits me’. This year, I was a bit more like ‘I have to ride it’,” Van Dijk said. “I was not so excited about it anymore. At the same time, I don’t feel the pressure that I’m going to win this race. I know I have the power for it, maybe, but I also learned that you do not just need power for it. You need way more to win this race than just that good power.”

The fact the Van Dijk crashed, and crashed hard, at the last Paris Roubaix Femmes has a lot to do with her hesitation going into the race this time around.

Before the crash, Van Dijk was very much still in the race. It happened with 18 km to go. She was in the chasing group with the likes of Marianne Vos, Elisa Longo Borghini, Christine Majerus, and Amy Pieters, almost two minutes behind her teammate Deignan.

credit: Jojo Harper

The crash left Van Dijk with a concussion, and the symptoms stuck around for longer than Van Dijk had expected.

“I have some anxiety in me from last year,” Van Dijk admitted. “I kind of hate that. It was a rough three months to get back to normal after it. I had a really heavy concussion, it’s something that I don’t want to have again, of course.”

While Van Dijk still has some pressure on her shoulders for Saturday’s race her Trek-Segafredo team has more. They will not have the defending winner Deignan on the start line, but they do have last year’s third-place finisher Longo Borghini and Elisa Balsamo, the world champion who has won three WorldTour one-days already in 2022.

“We have a super good team so yeah, we have a lot of different options, and I think that’s only really good in this race because anything can happen,” Van Dijk said. “For sure, somebody will have better luck. Somebody will have a great day. Somebody left that day.”

“I think it’s just super nice to have a very strong team here, I think that that’s only in our favour. I do not really consider myself as a favourite anymore.”

She might not consider herself a favourite but Van Dijk has already impressed this season and because of that, no one will write her off on Saturday. She nearly singlehandedly delivered Balsamo to victory at Exterioo Classic Brugge-De Panne and she has been on the attack in a few of the races so far including the Tour of Flanders.

“We’ll see how it goes on Saturday, but I think the form is there,” Van Dijk admitted. “Like I said, it’s not only about that, so I just need to be in the front and everything will be okay.”

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