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Paris-Roubaix Femmes: Inside Vélodrome André-Pétrieux

6 Oct 2021

The roar of the crowd would’ve blown the roof off the Roubaix velodrome... if it had a roof

Words Robyn Davidson Photography Kevin Fangaert

One kilometre from the calling beacon of the Roubaix velodrome lies a stretch of pavé with irregular stones sporadically placed. Not unusual for a race such as Paris-Roubaix. But on further inspection, the stones are actually commemorative plaques paying tribute to all those who have won this historic race over the years.

Lizzie Deignan smashed a glass ceiling when she entered the beckoning jaws of Vélodrome André-Pétrieux to write her name into the history books. Head shaking in disbelief, her hand raised to acknowledge the waiting spectators as the lone figure circled the track. Red blood stained her black handlebars, painting a painful picture of what Deignan had been through to get here.

The journey just to get to the finish line of the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes was a test through hell in the form of punishing cobblestones, slippery mud and torrid weather conditions. Deignan, who started as number 13 in the race, had a couple of heart-in-mouth moments as she navigated her way through the bone-shaking sectors. On the five-star Mons-en-Pévèle, her back wheel began to skip and skid heading out of a corner. It happened again on the four-star Camphin-en-Pévèle where she slid through the mud – her bike-handling skills on fine display.

The second Marianne Vos put the hammer down on the Camphin-en-Pévèle sector in a bid to close down the gap to Deignan ahead, numerous riders slammed into the ground behind. Ellen van Dijk went down first, hard. Then Christine Majerus. Then Sarah Roy. Then Aude Biannic. Groans flooded the velodrome with each falling cyclist. For a second it felt like it would never stop.

As the kilometres ticked down and realisation crept in that even the greatest cyclist of all time couldn’t close the rest of the gap to Deignan, anticipation buzzed through the air like electricity, fuelled by the chopping noise of the television helicopters drawing ever nearer.

A wave of noise followed Deignan as she entered the arena and pedalled around the track, never once returning to a baseline silent level. The roar of the velodrome would’ve blown the roof off had one existed. I’ve never experienced a phenomenon quite like the cheer for Deignan instantly resurging in one collective breath in the direction of the incoming Marianne Vos.

The Jumbo-Visma rider entered the velodrome just as Deignan crossed the finish line, followed by Elisa Longo Borghini, who was in turn followed by splintered groups persevering to the line, determination etched on their faces.

The crowd welcomed each and every one of them with the same enthusiasm. The booms of encouragement almost felt like a physical force spurring the riders on to the finish line. And even after 116 punishing kilometres, some still managed to put on a show.

Rival teams attempted to outsprint each other. Team BikeExchange’s Teniel Campbell and Jessica Allen crossed the line with hands on each other’s shoulders in support, Alé BTC Ljubljana rider Tatiana Guderzo blew a kiss to the crowd. Margaux Vigie of Valcar Travel & Service spotted her loved ones in the grandstand and pedalled to the top of the track to share the historic moment with them. Despite finishing after the podium presentation, BePink’s Lara Crestanello and Liv Racing’s Evy Kuijpers raced to the finish together. Pernille Larsen Feldmann of Team Coop-Hitec Products and teammate Amalie Lutro celebrated with hands in the air.

Every rider who entered the velodrome had their own story to tell. Some were ultimately outside the time limit, a concept that seems almost unnecessary for a one-day race, yet they persisted to cross the line regardless. You only get one chance to participate in your first Paris-Roubaix, after all.

Speaking afterwards, Deignan said, ‘We didn’t have a chance to dream for so long. It’s always been a men’s race. I’m just so proud that this is where we are, that women’s cycling is on the world stage now. I am proud that my daughter can look at the Paris-Roubaix cobblestone trophy. She doesn’t just have to watch men on the TV any more. We’re here and we’re representing and it’s thanks to support from people like those in Trek-Segafredo that we’re here.’

Trek-Segafredo themselves made a statement after Paris-Roubaix Femmes, celebrating the achievement of women finally getting to race an iconic event that, for 125 years and 117 editions, had been reserved for men only. As significant a milestone as this is for women's cycling, however, Deignan's victory was only worth €1,535 in prize money, compared to €30,000 for men's winner Sonny Colbrelli. The women’s total prize pot stood at €7,005 for the women, compared to €90,000 for the men.

Deignan’s team released a statement that they would be making up the difference in terms of the prize money disparity. It was then revealed they had actually been doing the same thing all season long. As brilliant a commitment to financial equality as this is, it's one that shouldn't be necessary.

The first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes marked a historic moment for women’s cycling, but not just for the women's peloton itself. It’s the young children in the stands who were able to witness women competing on the highest stage. It’s the child riding her small bike on the cobbles, inspired by Deignan's heroic efforts. It’s the girl spotted taking on the five-star Carrefour de l’Arbre before the race. It’s the promotion of women’s cycling to the next generation. It’s beautiful.