Paris-Roubaix is not nicknamed “the hell of the North” for nothing. The race, which is among the five “monuments” of cycling – the most prestigious one-day events – is one of the most difficult to win. Demanding physically, mentally, sometimes violent. “This hell is blessed by the gods, however reminded the humorist Raymond Devos on the occasion of the centenary of the event, in 1996. It leads to paradise. “
On Saturday October 2, the women’s peloton will set off for the first time on the “queen of classics”. More than a hundred runners will start from Denain (North) to cover the 116 kilometers – including 29.2 kilometers of cobblestones spread over seventeen sectors – until the arrival at the Roubaix velodrome.
The race joins the Tour of Flanders (2004) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2017) on the calendar of the women’s circuit, which now only misses the two Italian monuments Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy. “Paris-Roubaix is a fantastic addition to the calendar, insists the Dutchman Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), triple world champion in road cycling. It’s a very special race. It cannot be compared to any other. ”
“It’s a bit of a special event, abounds Pascal Sergent, president of the Hauts-de-France cycling committee. It’s a live dramaturgy. Everything can happen. Falls, punctures, reversals of situations… ”
Of course, between the Tour of Flanders, the Flèche wallonne and the Amstel Gold Race, the women have already had the opportunity to discover the cobblestones. But these have nothing to do with the legendary sectors of Paris-Roubaix, “Very difficult to cross, much more than those found in other races, such as in Belgium”, details François Doulcier, president of the Friends of Paris-Roubaix association.
“You feel the difference in your arms, in your legs …”
The Belgian Jolien D’hoore, who recognized the course with her SD Worx team, confirms: “I can guarantee that on arrival you will feel the difference in your arms, in your legs… Your whole body is in pain.” “ “As a runner you expect it but you also know you are going to suffer. It’s going to be a great battle “, nevertheless enthuses Marianne Vos.
The first female peloton in “the hell of the North” was scheduled for 2020. But the race, which traditionally takes place in April, was postponed for the first time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, before being canceled . An unprecedented decision: since its first edition at the end of the 19th centurye century, only the two world wars had got the better of Paris-Roubaix.
“In wet weather, the speed will be reduced, the road more slippery: you have to be skilful, agile”, François Doulcier, president of the Friends of Paris-Roubaix association
This year again, the health situation led to the postponement of the race to the fall, that is to say at the end of a season already weighed down by the holding of the Olympic Games this summer. This shift in schedule will undoubtedly have an impact on the state of form of the peloton. But also, perhaps, on the weather.
“We’ve had dry editions for twenty years, now we’re hoping for a wet edition., confides François Doulcier. In dry weather, it is essentially athletic power that prevails: you have to know how to ride very quickly on cobblestones. In wet weather, the speed will be reduced, the road more slippery: you have to be skilful and agile. It requires a higher concentration. There are more traps on the road, you have to be constantly on the alert, anticipate. “
“It becomes really dangerous if it rains”, advises Jolien D’hoore, believing that the one that will win at the Roubaix velodrome will also have to be “Lucky”. Marianne Vos prefers to put into perspective: “April or October, there is always a possibility of rain. It doesn’t really bother me. It will be a complicated race anyway. “
The meeting point of the Carrefour de l’Arbre
With its reduced mileage, the women’s course will avoid certain emblematic sectors of its men’s counterpart: the Arenberg gap in particular, too close to the start in Denain. “It’s true that it’s a shame because it’s a legendary area. But we must remain reasonable, advances François Doulcier. You can’t bring down a hundred runners with a goal in blank: it would be a massacre. The Arenberg gap is in the middle of the men’s route, when the race is a little settled. “
The runners will nevertheless pass through key areas known for their difficulty, such as the path of Prayers and especially the crossroads of the Tree. Borrowed by all editions of the Hell of the North since 1980, it generally ends the skimming among the contenders for the coronation.
🚴♀️ #ParisRoubaix Femmes 🚴♀️ 🚩 @Ville_Denain – @roubaix 🏁 📏 116 km 1⃣7⃣ cobbled sectors / paved sectors 2⃣9⃣,… https://t.co/tx92AnXxoW
“This sector is a little over two kilometers. The first part is very winding, then we go along the LOSC training center [le club de football de Lille], then there is a 90 degree turn difficult to negotiate which begins the last section: approximately one kilometer of false flat rising in the open, where one is often swept by a contrary wind ”, details the president of the Friends of Paris-Roubaix.
The saying goes that the winner of the race is the one who takes the lead at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the last pavement of which is 16 kilometers from the Roubaix velodrome. “It’s more of a legend than a truth, tempers Pascal Sergent. But, generally, the sacred runner is among the first to pass in front of the eponymous inn. “
Physical battle, psychological struggle
The geography of the place, its proximity to the finish line, but also its difficulty, make it an area conducive to attacks. “If there is a group of three, four or five runners, they will try to make a difference. Ten or fifteen seconds early, it doesn’t seem like much, but psychologically, for those who are behind, it becomes hard. There is often in these last kilometers, beyond the physical battle, a psychological struggle, over the will, the envy ”, underlines Mr. Doulcier.
During the first edition of the race in 1896, the Roubaix velodrome was packed: more than 20,000 people gathered to await the arrival of the riders. “Since then, it has remained at the same level of motivation for the participants, interest and involvement for the spectators”, adds Pascal Sergent.
One hundred and twenty-five years later, the inaugural race of the women’s peloton will benefit from an international broadcast, total or partial, in more than a hundred countries on the five continents. Jolien D’hoore, who will end her running career at the end of the season, sums up: “It’s a magical race. When I was little, I watched her on television. It’s a dream to end up like this. “