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Slipping and sliding but never slowing, Lizzie Deignan all but cruised over the muddy cobbles on her way to history. The 32-year-old British rider will forever be known as the first woman to win Paris Roubaix. To boot, she is also the first ever British rider, male or female, to win the Hell of the North.
WORDS: Amy Jones
Before the race, all eyes were on Deignan’s teammate, Ellen van Dijk, who with her powerful physique — and recent track record of taking the European road title and World time trial title — looked to be in perfect position to take the victory in Roubaix. Van Dijk admitted in a pre-race press conference that she would prefer dry conditions and even cried the first time she did a course recon but that she and the cobbles had since become “friends”. On the day, however, those friends turned into foes and van Dijk suffered more than one tumble on the muddy pavé.
Sat beside van Dijk in the same press conference, Deignan was keen to emphasise the Dutch rider’s prospects. “Everyone else finds the cobbles very difficult, but Ellen is flying over them at the moment,” she said, not once revealing any personal ambitions other than an admission that: “Personally I don’t mind if it rains, I mean it might say something different if it actually does and the cobbles are like ice. But I think it scares a lot of riders and rain doesn’t tend to scare me. I think obviously it will make the race pretty crazy but I think it’s going to be crazy anyway.”
“I think our race will be off from the start, it’s not a very long race and I think from the first cobbled section I expect there to be fireworks. I don’t think anybody will be hanging around and you simply can’t ride over these cobbles easy. So I expect it to be full-on from the beginning,” she added.
Deignan’s words turned out to be prescient on all counts. The wind and rain did indeed make the race “crazy” and in it, she thrived. With 80km to go, on the first sector of pavé, Deignan found herself in front solo. “That was really not the plan. I needed to be at the front in the first cobble section to protect my leaders,” she admitted after the race. “Actually today I was kind of the third rider. I looked behind after the first cobbles and I thought at least if I’m in front they have to chase me, so I just kept going.”
Keep going she did, and chase as they might, what was left of the rest of the peloton could not reel the Trek-Segafredo rider back in as she appeared to ride her way almost effortlessly over some of the toughest terrain in road cycling. Once or twice, her back wheel skidded across a mud-soaked surface but Deignan stayed composed and skillfully corrected each slip up.
Those who were hoping for the epic scenes synonymous with the men’s race for hundreds of years will not have been disappointed. The wet conditions made the pavé treacherous and many of the favourites came a cropper, whether crashing really has a place as part of the entertainment in bike racing is a contentious topic, but it is indeed part of the sport — particularly in a race like Roubaix.
After a second crash for van Dijk in the closing stages caused a split in the chasing group, Marianne Vos saw her opportunity to attack and was visibly emptying herself to chase down the lone leader with Deignan’s teammate, Elisa Longo Borghini close behind. In the end, however, it was futile and Deignan barely ceded any time to her rivals. The three riders came into the velodrome in that order, Trek-Segafredo the clear winners on the day — even if the riders in question were not the ones we might have expected.
The enduring image of the race will perhaps be the sight of an exhausted and mud-soaked Deignan and Vos congratulating each other in the velodrome. Two long-time legends of the women’s peloton in an emotional embrace, standing in one of the sports most iconic arenas
Deignan’s post-race comments convey perfectly the significance of this moment for women’s cycling: “I just feel so incredibly proud. Women’s cycling is at a turning point and it’s part of history. I’m also proud to be part of a team that also makes history,” she said. “We’re so grateful to everyone behind the scenes, all the viewers watching, every fan watching is also making history. It proves there’s an appetite for women’s cycling and the athletes here can do one of the hardest races in the world. I’m so proud I can say I’m the first ever winner.”
Only seven months to wait until the next one.