A big step forward into the muddy cobbles

by William Fotheringham

Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com

Well, it’s been quite the wait. And I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s been two and a half years since there was a Paris-Roubaix of any description, or the fact that it’s been 20 years since the last time the Rain Gods smiled on the race. Yes, all of that, but the big thing is this: it’s been 18 months since Paris-Roubaix Femmes was first meant to happen and who knows how long since the biggest one-day Classic of them all should have been on the women’s calendar.

It’s not as if every great men’s race should have a women’s version. On this site Amy Jones made the point back in March that the women’s calendar should develop in its own way, with races like Alfredo Binda and the Postnord Vargarda that have forged their own identity and history over many years.

The road to equality should not be a simple matter of aping what the men have got, and tagging it with the label “women’s”, but having said that, there is a logic in having a women’s spring Classic calendar that runs in parallel with the men’s one, because cycling’s spring Classics provide a fantastic narrative that builds its own momentum as the weeks pass. In the simplest possible way, in future Paris-Roubaix Femmes means the spring Classics narrative between Binda and Amstel will now be complete.

Also, the biggest Classics are all unique, and Paris-Roubaix is not lightly christened the greatest Classic of them all. It is unique in its prestige, its demands, its location and its tradition. It’s pretty obvious that it will bring something extra to the calendar, in the same way that Flèche Wallonne and the Tour of Flanders did when they were brought in back in 1998 and 2004.

So it’s 115.6 kilometres, starting in Denain, replicating the final 85km of the men’s race, with 29.2km of pave divided into 17 sections, and crucially crossing the five-star sectors at Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. There’s no Forest of Arenberg, but maybe that’s for the future.

“Yes, women have been racing on cobbles for a while. No they don’t need to prove how tough they are. But legendary courses and venues and experiences should belong to everyone.”

US writer Bonnie D Ford

If there’s one downer about the revised – and hopefully one-off – end of season date, it’s the clash with the cyclo-cross season which means the world champion Lucinda Brand will be absent. But the October slot means the race is an immediate sequel to an outstanding world road race championships: silver medallist Marianne Vos, with her cyclo-cross experience, is an obvious favourite, particularly if it’s wet.

The rest of the Classics specialists need little introduction: Elisa Longo-Borghini, Ellen van Dijk, Demi Vollering, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Lotte Kopecky and Lizzie Deignan will head the list; it will be intriguing to see how the new world champion Elisa Balsamo shapes up, and how Annemiek van Vleuten’s strength and solo riding skill translate to a new context.

It’s historic moment, as most of the riders who’ve been interviewed in the build up have rightly said. “A very big deal,” in the words of respected US writer Bonnie D Ford. “Yes, women have been racing on cobbles for a while. No they don’t need to prove how tough they are. But legendary courses and venues and experiences should belong to everyone.” When you think about cycling without a women’s Paris-Roubaix it’s like contemplating distance running with a men-only London Marathon.

Look at the road to equality, and there are obvious milestones – the inception of the women’s world championships in 1958 at Reims, the first Olympic Games to include women’s cycling in 1984 are the best examples. These were turning points. So too, I’d argue, was Flèche Wallonne in 1998, so too the big step towards parity at the Olympics in 2012 with the introduction of team pursuit, omnium, team sprint and keirin.

What’s disturbing is how belated all these great steps now look, how long it took for the men who run the races to see the light. (At the time, when it was launched, it was hard not to see the announcement of Paris-Roubaix Femmes as ASO’s way of diverting attention from their failure to put on a Tour de France Femmes). What’s equally disconcerting is how radical some of these moves seemed at the time – it needed Eileen Gray to threaten to set up her own World’s for the UCI to come round – but how they all now seem like part of the cycling furniture.

That’s what happens when the right thing is done, however belated it may be, and no matter how much the relevant feet drag. Pretty soon, it seems like that’s how it has always been, because that’s how it should always have been. So let’s hail the arrival of Paris-Roubaix Femmes, because in a couple of years, we will watch the battle every April, we will marvel at what it takes to get over and round those infernal cobbles, and we will wonder: why the hell did it take so long?

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