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It was the picture of Marianne Vos, arguably the greatest female cyclist in the history of the sport, wandering through some concrete shower stalls in her Jumbo-Visma helmet and kit, which really tipped cycling Twitter over the edge this week.
Not that it needed much tipping. After 30 long months without a Paris-Roubaix, it is difficult to overstate how much the sport as a whole is looking forward to this weekend. But the image of Vos – published by her Dutch team on Wednesday and accompanied by the words: “A feeling of history” – was extra special. This weekend is not simply the 118th running of Paris-Roubaix, one of cycling’s most iconic, most feared races. It is the first ever running of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. A huge milestone.
Those shower stalls would not have meant much to the average person. But to cycling fans they represent a hallowed place in the sport’s lore.
Adjacent to the Roubaix velodrome in north-east France, right on the border with Belgium, they are the place to which surviving riders repair to wash off the dust and mud and pain of a race dubbed “the Hell of the North”; as much a part of the ritual as the sectors of bone-juddering pavé, or cobblestones, that pepper the course.
Famous photos have been taken there, interviews with winners conducted there, iconic footage from documentaries filmed there. Each cubicle bears a brass plaque of a past winner.
The race to become the first woman to add her name to a plaque has gripped the sport precisely because of such traditions; the special place the race occupies in the minds of cycling fans. Paris-Roubaix is not simply one of cycling’s five monuments, the name given to the five big one-day races in the calendar. It rivals the Tour of Flanders as the monument.
It does not feature mountains, or even any climbs of note. Its fearsome reputation – the Hell of the North nickname was bequeathed after the First World War when organisers went to survey the route, which takes in rutted tracks from France’s old coal-mining region, and found it completely bombed out – derives from its length and its cobbled sectors, which are given star ratings depending on difficulty.
The men’s race on Sunday is a whopping 257.7 kilometres and features 30 cobbled sectors, including the five-star rated Trouée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. The women, meanwhile, will race 116.5km, taking in 17 cobbled sectors including two five-star sectors in Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre.
At less than half the distance of the men’s race, there will be those questioning whether the women’s race is the full Paris-Roubaix experience. But when you the factor in that this could be the first wet Paris-Roubaix in a generation, making the pave treacherous, most cycling fans are more nervous the race could descend into carnage rather than prove too easy.
Alex Dowsett summed up the apprehension earlier this week when he tweeted: “The prospect of a wet Paris-Roubaix frightens me and I’m not even riding it.”
It will undoubtedly take its share of victims, as it does every year, but it is a gauntlet the best female cyclists in the world are only too thrilled to run. Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo}, who is hoping to achieve what no Briton has ever before by winning Paris-Roubaix, described Saturday’s inaugural race as a milestone. “It’s huge and it means that from now on women’s cycling will be a part of cycling’s history,” she said.
Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, meanwhile, said she could not wait to get going. “I expect to suffer a lot, but I can’t wait to start,” she said. “More than anything else, I hope to be able to cross the finish line knowing I’ve got nothing left in the tank.
“Whoever wins this Paris-Roubaix will go down in history. Everyone’s dreaming of being that person.”