It is hard to believe that anything could top the history-making first-ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes, won in remarkable fashion by Lizzie Deignan as she was crowned the inaugural Queen of the Cobbles.
The Hell of the North epitomises the magic of the Spring Classics because of its unruly pavé and unpredictable racing, so we expect nothing less than pure spectacle again for the second edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes on Saturday April 16, the day before the men's Paris-Roubaix.
After facing criticism for offering €91,000 for men vs €7,005 for women last year, organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) have bumped the women's prize purse up to $50,000. The winner will take home €20,000, versus the €1,535 Deignan won last year, which will be a welcome change.
The route will not include the famed Trouée d'Arenberg of the men's race route, but the women will race a slightly longer 124km, versus 115km in 2021, including an additional opening lap in the start city of Denain.
As for the pavé, the women's peloton will tackle 17 sectors for 29.2km of cobbles. Two are rated five-star difficulty: Mons-en-Pévèle with 49km to go, and the Carrefour de l'Arbre with 17km to go en route to the velodrome in Roubaix.
Last year's race was made even more thrilling due to the rain and wet weather conditions that caused pools of water and slippery mud sections along the route, and this Saturday is expected to be dry, partly sunny and a much warmer 18 degrees Celsius.
That difference alone could lead to a completely different type of race and outcome.
Paris-Roubaix was held in October last year after postponements due to COVID-19, but it is back to its traditional spring spot on the calendar in 2022. While the race will close out the cobbled classics, it swapped dates with Amstel Gold Race held last weekend. It is unusually positioned among the Ardennes Classics, just ahead of Flèche Wallonne on April 20 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 24.
That change may force some riders to pick and choose where their targets are; however, Paris-Roubaix Femmes still promises a stellar field.
In the absence of Deignan, who is currently taking maternity leave from the sport, the start line will be complete with all the major cobble contenders aiming to be crowned the second champion of the Hell of the North.
Paris-Roubaix Femmes - The favourites
World champion Elisa Balsamo had a tough time racing in the wet and muddy Paris-Roubaix last year, and after several crashes, slips and slides while wearing her new rainbow jersey, she mustered up the strength and determination to finish in 57th place.
She has said, quite frankly, that she doesn't like to race in the cold nor wet weather conditions. Lucky for her, this Saturday will be dry, sunny and relatively warm making Balsamo one of the favourites especially after her ‘golden week’ of racing where she won back-to-back Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem.
"I will be more prepared. My hope is that we can at least race in dry conditions. The rest, we'll only find out as we race," she wrote in an exclusive blog for Cyclingnews.
She also has a capable team, with other likely contenders, including last year's third placed rider Elisa Longo Borghini, the eighth placed Audrey Cordon-Ragot and time trial world champion Ellen van Dijk.
Trek-Segafredo and SD Worx have been the two most powerful teams during the spring Classics, each trading off blow after blow late into the finals, and their respective teams are likely to take a similar approach at Paris-Roubaix.
SD Work will line up with Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Lotte Kopecky, two potential winners who have put a heavy target on this race. Kopecky is already two for two in her goals, winning both Strade Bianche and Tour of Flanders, likewise van den Broek-Blaak showed her strength as she supported Kopecky to victory in Flanders while also finishing third.
And then there is Marianne Vos, who rode out of her skin to try and catch Deignan last year, and finished an admirable second place.
The reigning cyclo-cross world champion, racing for Jumbo-Visma, will undoubtedly have prepared to improve upon last year’s performance – and that only leaves room enough for the victory.
She will also have a strong team with Coryn Labecki and Romy Kasper. After Deignan’s 82km solo win last year, Vos may not be willing to risk any dangerous early-race gaps opening up again, so watch for her to be attentive, unless of course she’s driving the breakaway herself.
A closer look at last year’s top-10 reveals several other contenders including Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) and Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ), and while Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) was sidelined due to a positive Covid-19 test, Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) is a potential dark-horse winner.
It was little surprise to see Cavalli launch a winning attack on the run-in to Valkenburg to win Amstel Gold Race last weekend. It was the biggest win of her career but it was a long time coming. She stepped up to the top-tier team last year but had already secured top-10s at the biggest one-day races.
Normally paired with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig – who didn't line up at Amstel Gold Race due to COVID-19, Cavalli is a punchy rider with great positioning skills and she’s also fast.
She finished ninth place last year, but with ample determination to bring her team success in the Classics, watch for her to play for the win deep into the final of Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
Paris-Roubaix Femmes - The pavé
Deignan's attack of last year was ahead of the very first cobble sector, Hornaing à Wandignies, just 30km into the race and it, astonishingly and unintentionally, ended up being the winning move of the day.
This year’s route includes an additional circuit in Denain, for a total of four local laps, but otherwise the route remains much the same with 17 cobbled sectors along the route toward Roubaix. Once again, Hornaing à Wandignies is the longest sector at 3.7km long and so it has the potential to create early splits among the field.
Good positioning ahead of the pavé sectors will be a key marker of success in this race, but as with any edition of Paris-Roubaix – men's or women's – anything can happen and anyone can win. Having luck on one’s side is always a benefit.
The two pavé sectors that ASO deem to be the most challenging are located later in the race; Mons-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l'Arbre. The teams will have previewed many of the more decisive four-star and five-star sectors a couple of days ahead of the race to gauge how best to ride them and the most effective equipment to use.
After the final cobble sector across the Roubaix-Espace Charles Crupelandt, the riders will enter the velodrome where they must complete one full lap before the champion is revealed.
- 17 - Hornaing à Wandignies (km 42.3 - 3.7 km) ****
- 16 - Warlaing à Brillon (km 49.7 - 2.4 km) ***
- 15 - Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières (km 53.2 - 2.4 km) ****
- 14 - Beuvry-la-Forêt à Orchies (km 59.6 - 1.4 km) ***
- 13 - Orchies (km 64.6 - 1.7 km) ***
- 12 - Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée (km 70.7 - 2.7 km) ****
- 11 - Mons-en-Pévèle (km 76.2 - 3 km) *****
- 10 - Merignies à Avelin (km 82.2 - 0.7 km) **
- 9 - Pont-Thibault à Ennevelin (km 85.6 - 1.4 km) ***
- 8 - Templeuve - L'Epinette (km 91 - 0.2 km) *
- 8 - Templeuve - Moulin-de-Vertain (km 91.5 - 0.5 km) **
- 7 - Cysoing à Bourghelles (km 97.9 - 1.3 km) ***
- 6 - Bourghelles à Wannehain (km 100.4 - 1.1 km) ***
- 5 - Camphin-en-Pévèle (km 104.9 - 1.8 km) ****
- 4 - Carrefour de l'Arbre (km 107.6 - 2.1 km) *****
- 3 - Gruson (km 109.9 - 1.1 km) **
- 2 - Willems à Hem (km 116.6 - 1.4 km) ***
- 1 - Roubaix-Espace Charles Crupelandt (km 123.4 - 0.3 km) *
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