The breakaway that was never meant to win - Inside a strange edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes
The riders who crossed the line first in the iconic Roubaix velodrome were those who few expected ahead of the race
There were tears. There were mouths aghast with shock. There were riders on the podium who didn’t really know what to do with themselves. The favourites rolled into the finish line with looks of disappointed bemusement. This was not how many expected the race to go.
The post race interviews reflected it too. “During the race they said to me, you can make it, you can ride for the win in this breakaway. You are strong, keep going. If this morning at the start I thought about the race I can’t imagine that I came second,” Katia Ragusa of Liv Racing TeqFind said after the finish.
“I’m really happy, it’s weird because I’m only third but for me, third is like a victory, I’m really happy and a bit emotional. It’s a big dream of mine, I was hoping for a top-20 and now I’m third, it’s so good,” 23-year-old Marthe Truyen (Fenix-Deceuninck) explained with tears in her eyes.
None of the riders in the top-six, including the winner, have finished inside the top-10 in Paris-Roubaix Femmes before. Marion Borras of small French continental team St Michel-Mavic-Auber93, who sprinted to fifth place overall, has only raced once so far this season and didn’t compete outside of France in 2022.
There is no denying that these riders deserved their results and worked hard for them, but how did it happen that all of the pre-race favourites missed a shot at Paris-Roubaix victory? When all talk ahead of the race was about teams like Trek-Segafredo and Team SD Worx, how did neither manage to finish with a rider inside the top-five?
It started with a breakaway that, although missed by the TV cameras (come on ASO, we need line-to-line coverage of this race), was established after 30km of racing. The number of riders in front swelled to an impressive 18-rider strong group, and the time gap to the peloton simply got bigger and bigger. From two, to three, to four, to five, to a maximum of six minutes, these 18 opportunistic riders found themselves with a huge gap to the peloton after the first section of cobbles.
Behind, riders looked at each other hesitantly, with no one fully committing to the chase. The thing was that, apart from Movistar and Jumbo-Visma, every big team was represented by a rider in the breakaway. This meant that the chase from behind had very little impetus until late on in the race.
The key turning point came with 50km to go when Team SD Worx’s Lotte Kopecky launched a trademark attack on the Auchy-les-Orchies à Bersée sector, her hopes set on achieving a historic Flanders and Roubaix double. The storming turn of speed from the Belgian dragged a group of riders, including Elisa Longo-Borghini, Pfeiffer Georgi, Lucinda Brand, Elise Chabbey, Floortje Mackaij, and Chiara Consonni clear from the rest of whittled down field.
While a small regrouping came afterwards just before the chase group hit the Mons-en-Pévèle sector, there was a moment which followed that potentially changed the entire course of the race.
Longo-Borghini, driving hard on the front of the group, lost her rear wheel on the slick, savage cobbles, sliding out in front of the riders who sat close behind her. Lorena Wiebes and Kopecky came down in a domino-effect, alongside many of the other pre-race favourites. It was then that it seemed even less likely that this group would catch the original breakaway who rode coherently up the road.
It didn’t take long for the riders least affected by the dramatic crash to remount and begin the chase once again, despite many being covered in cuts and mud from the wet roads. However, it was too little, too late. Despite vicious attacks from the group behind and a valiant effort to chase, the remnants of our unlikely breakaway ahead drove on to the finish line. The gap teetered at a tantalisingly close ten seconds as the riders stormed through the velodrome doors, but the original group had enough time to fight it out in a furious final sprint to the line.
Alison Jackson of EF Education-Tibco reigned supreme, outsprinting Ragusa and Truyen and crossing the finish line with a look of shock that represented the feelings of many who had just watched the race.
“I said to her before coming into the stadium, whatever happens, you have to stay in front of the group chasing behind because if you get to the stadium, you’ve always got a chance to win. It’s better to arrive with the group than be caught by those behind. I knew if it came to the sprint that she was a fighter and could do a good result,” Tim Harris, EF Education-Tibco sports director, explained after the race.
And the reality is that every rider in that breakaway today fought hard to get their shot at Paris-Roubaix. The magic of this race is that everyone can give themselves a chance at doing something special. It’s the shock, the awe and the unpredictability that makes it so great for the sport. In a season that has so far been dominated by the likes of SD Worx, Paris-Roubaix today added a flavour of spice and intrigue into the women’s WorldTour season.
The riders who finished inside the top-six may not have been the bookies’ favourites, and they may have barely believed it themselves as they collapsed on the tarmac of the velodrome which holds a mythical place in the legend of the sport, but they made a race which will go down in cycling history.
“It was so important we kept rolling through and kept committing to the break,” eventual winner Jackson said in her post-race press conference. “In this bike race, anything can happen.”