The clouds had darkened and the light lowered as Lizzie Deignan approached her umpteenth set of mud-caked cobblestones, on her way to victory in the first women’s Paris-Roubaix.
She was out in front and alone but with 25km remaining, she skidded on the Camphin-en-Pevele sector. It almost ended everything.
As Deignan measured the power through her pedals to avoid spinning her rear wheel through dark brown water and slop, her bike began to tilt, taking her left towards the gutter on one of the many farm tracks of northern France that this most brutal of races is famed for.
With the number 13 still visible on her back – in a race where across 125 years men have prayed for all the luck possible to survive – Deignan styled it out, maintaining her centre of gravity and gently straightening her handlebars to counter the fact the rest of her bike was steering her.
As her rear wheel kissed the grass of the sodden verge, her bike slewing to the right now, it was clear this was a moment she had to survive.
With the locals and fans shrieking at what they saw, she engaged all of her core strength to fishtail like a Formula 1 car under full acceleration.
Deignan rode on, untouchable now in the momentum, with a poise and strength that would carry her through gritted teeth to victory. The moment finally came after riding hard and alone for 80 breathless kilometres, her French plait swinging in the cold autumnal breeze.
“I felt like I was flying,” Deignan says. “Every athlete dreams of those days. It’s incredibly special.
“All those women who raced for passion rather than having the opportunity to race as professionals, I felt the weight of their sacrifice over the years. It’s because of those women we are where we are today.
“I just felt the strength of the history of women’s cycling behind me.”
This shouldn’t have happened to her. Deignan began as the third-choice rider in her Trek-Segafredo team, set for a race as loyal worker for the team, or ‘domestique’.
But after emerging from the end of the first cobbled sector at the front of the peloton and stretching out a two-and-half-minute lead, she was set free and encouraged to try and win the race herself.
Before this year, that wasn’t even an option.
First raced in 1896, Paris-Roubaix has long been a legendary day in the cycling calendar. The race was given the nickname ‘Hell of the North’ in 1919 to describe the area after organisers and journalists set off to see how much of the route had survived following four years of heavy shelling and trench warfare in the first World War.
The men’s race is dominated by powerful athletes too big to win Grand Tours by challenging in the mountains, but muscular and heavy enough to stay upright on the muddy cobbles and battle it out across 258km. You win through grit and resilience. It’s about suffering.
Deignan had previously said: “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to ride it.” On Saturday, 2 October 2021, a 115km (71 miles) women’s race was staged for the first time.
The 32-year-old from the hilly and unforgiving terrain of Otley in West Yorkshire thought the cobbles were more draining then she expected on a pre-race recon in the sunshine, but still believed she had the necessary skill levels.
She was right, proven by that moment in the mud with 25km to go.
“It was a combination of experience and strength, and luck, that kept me on my bike,” she says.
“The funny thing with cobbles is it’s always about momentum. As soon as you lose momentum, that’s when you start bouncing around, so you need to be able to produce enough power to go over them at speed. When you start to fatigue that’s when your power drops and you start bouncing around more, your bike becomes harder to control.
“I’d done a recon in spring and then one just before the race. In spring I was about 1.5 kilos heavier and the difference in having that extra weight just to hold the bike down was quite astonishing really.
“But I made some adjustments to my material too – 2.3 bar in my tyres is incredibly low and obviously you would never do that on the road. So it’s a technical question as well as a physical question.”
Deignan’s athletic brilliance on the day was a given; she’s one of cycling’s most decorated riders, a regular winner at the biggest races. In 2015 she was world champion. In 2018 she became a mum. She returned to sport and didn’t stop winning. Last year she was victorious at the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege, plus the one-day La Course by Le Tour de France.
When she crossed the line in the wet at the outdoor Roubaix velodrome with her hands raised aloft, it sent another message about her character. You could see the blood.
The sheer force of will, determination and need to grip the handlebars as the cobbles relentlessly shook her bike meant she had drawn blood from her hands. Enough of it to be soaked up by the bar tape by the end of the race.
“On the cobbles you’re fighting vibrations all day long – you’re literally shaking, all of you, and my hands on the handlebars were gripping,” she says.
“A lot of people were saying: ‘Why didn’t you wear gloves?’ But I never wear gloves, because even when you wear gloves, you still get blisters because it’s all about the chafing and vibration between your fingers.
“Of course I’m suffering for it now [we spoke the following day] and I have bloody blisters and I woke up and almost felt hungover. I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t crash, but my body felt like I’d had an impact because I literally have been taking the vibrations through the cobbles for so long, so my whole body is aching.”
After achieving such a big victory in a such an impactful way, any athlete at the centre of it all could be forgiven for missing its significance whilst caught up in the maelstrom.
Deignan, though, is very aware. There’s emotion in her voice when acknowledging it.
“Paris-Roubaix is one of the most iconic races – men have things called ‘monuments’ [the five biggest one-day races] and women’s cycling hasn’t had those. But slowly we’re building that into our calendar, and this race is known as the hell of the north, which is stereotypically something that is not associated with women in cycling, and that has been our barrier. To smash through that barrier we’ve shown that women are more than capable of riding on cobbles.
“We’re making history. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re the first women to prove it was possible, but it doesn’t mean women before weren’t capable of it.”
The more you think about it, the more absurd it is that it has taken 125 years for women to take on Paris-Roubaix (with one year added for last year’s coronavirus cancellation).
Perhaps even more so when there has been no women’s Tour de France stage race for women. The women’s version of cycling’s biggest event has been a one-day offering from organisers ASO – the La Course race Deignan won in 2020.
But next year there will be a week-long event, starting just as the men finish their usual three-week slug-fest on the Champs Elysees in Paris on 24 July.
It’s a milestone worth celebrating, but it begs the question why it has taken so long, with one cycling insider saying ASO have “been dragged kicking and screaming” into organising a women’s Tour.
Paris-Roubaix was a milestone too. Deignan describes it as “definitely a tangible turning point”.
She adds: “I think this race has captured the imagination of so many people that it’s undeniable that it was as entertaining as the men’s race, and the viewing figures were as good.
“I just don’t think we’re in a position where we can regress anymore. The only way is up, and there is this momentum now.”
In a world where many women still feel they have to fight to be heard, and even be safe, and where people doubt the quality of women’s sport relative to men’s, Deignan’s guile felt game-changing.