Aware of the magnitude of the occasion, the riders in the women's peloton are gearing up for the first edition of Paris–Roubaix Femmes, scheduled for Saturday 2 October, after their debut on the cobblestones of northern France was frustrated in October 2020 and again last spring. The world of cycling is awash with questions about the favourites to win the inaugural edition, wondering what it takes to shine in this race and whether the decisive attributes are exactly the same as in the men's competition. Winner of the neighbouring Tour of Flanders, the 2017 World Champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak hopes her instinct and experience can make the difference in a race where “anything can happen”.
A DREAM IS BORN
As “a classics rider”, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak has been hoping for years to take on the unique challenges of Paris-Roubaix. “It’s a super cool course, a typical one-day race, it fits me and I’ve been waiting for this moment”, she acknowledges ahead of the first edition of the women’s event. “I always watch the men’s race”, she says, “and you can see it’s a pure classic. You can see it’s tough and you cannot compare it with anything else. So I have mixed feelings: I’m super excited but on the other hand it’s also a bit scary.” Van den Broek-Blaak, a proper expert in gruelling races, has been impressed by the action packed racing always displayed on the way to Roubaix, and most notably by Mathew Hayman’s exploit in 2016, when he triumphed in the velodrome ahead of the Belgian icon Tom Boonen despite a broken arm six weeks earlier: “If you can’t race for such a long time, and you prepare at home and win, that’s cool!”
CUT OUT FOR THE COBBLESTONES?
Used to shining in the Spring classics, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak is hopeful she can also tame the cobbles in the Autumn. “You need power for this, and I’m a bit of a bigger rider”, she explains. “Normally, I’m good in really hard races, when it’s been hard all day and there’s a hard finale coming up. Roubaix, whether it’s ridden fast or slow, you’ll always be empty in the end. I think it makes it a good race for me.” In her 14th season as a professional rider, she can also make the most of her experience in a nervous race requiring specific abilities: “It takes a mix of power and skills. I’m not bad at riding the cobbles, but I’m also not the best. It’s not like I’m a cyclo-cross rider that always jumps on and off the bike. I’m not gonna do it like Marianne Vos! But I’m not scared, so that’s a good thing.”
PREPARING FOR THE BIG SHAKE
With her experience, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak assures “you can’t compare the cobbles in Roubaix with any other race. I always take the example of Flanders, and in the Ronde, if you’re empty, you can always try to find a way out, but in Roubaix, it’s impossible. It’s flat and there is not much rest in between the sectors. And the cobbles are really hard, very bumpy. So when you’re empty, you really lose a lot of speed.” The Dutch champion has already done two recons to get familiar with the unique challenges leading to Roubaix and test specific material. “But we had good weather, with a lot of dust, and that makes me a bit nervous because the condition can be muddy in October. That’s why I’m returning quickly after the Worlds to prepare as much as possible. You can train physically, you can prepare your equipment, you can make yourself ready mentally, because you know it’s gonna be hard, and then you have to accept that anything can happen in Paris-Roubaix.
THE IDEAL SCENARIO
With her resistance, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak has won most of her 25 pro wins in small groups or on her own, after she made the most of the challenges of the day to drop all her rivals. “The solo would be awesome”, she anticipates with a laugh with the velodrome of Roubaix on her mind. “But I can never predict a race, it’s a feeling, and I hope I can have the right instinct again in Roubaix. I normally race the best when everyone is just empty. Let’s start with a hard race, that always makes me happy.” Tactically, “it makes no sense to copy the men’s race”, she says, although she’s inspired by the many scenarios witnessed in previous editions: “We’ve seen it’s a race where anything can happen. You can win from the early breakaway. You can be in the best position and have a flat or crash. You can be dropped and return for the win. I’m gonna do everything and hopefully I’ll have good legs and a bit of luck!”
Photo credits: Getty Sport