Blood on the bars: Lizzie Deignan’s victory at Paris-Roubaix and a benchmark for women’s cycling

Lizzie Deignan celebrates her victory with her teammates
Deignan, celebrating here with his teammates, won an 80 km breakaway

The clouds had darkened and the light had dimmed as Lizzie Deignan approached her umpteenth round of mud-covered cobblestones, en route to victory in the first women’s Paris-Roubaix.

She was in front and alone but 25km from the end, she slipped on the Caphin-en-Pevele sector. It almost finished it all.

As Deignan measured power using his pedals to avoid spinning his rear wheel in the water and dark brown slop, his bike began to tilt, taking it left towards the gutter on the one of the many agricultural tracks in northern France that this most brutal race is famous for.

With the number 13 still visible on his back – in a race where for 125 years men have prayed for every possible chance to survive – Deignan styled him, maintaining his center of gravity and gently straightening his handlebars to counter the made the rest of her bike steer her.

As her rear wheel kissed the soggy edge grass, her bike spinning to the right, it was clear that this was a time she had to survive.

As locals and fans screamed at what they saw, she engaged all of her core strength for the fishtail like a Formula 1 car in full throttle.

Deignan continued, now untouchable in the momentum, with a balance and strength that would lead her through gritted teeth to victory. The moment has finally come after riding hard and alone for 80 miles breathless, her French braid swaying in the cold autumn breeze.

“I felt like I was flying,” says Deignan. “Every athlete dreams of these days. It’s incredibly special.

“All these women who have run for passion rather than having the opportunity to run as professionals, I have felt the weight of their sacrifice over the years. It is thanks to these women that we are where we are. we are today.

“I just felt the force of women’s cycling history behind me.”

A poster advertising the first Paris-Roubaix for women
‘L’Enfer du Nord’ – Paris-Roubaix is ​​a legendary race

It shouldn’t have happened to him. Deignan started out as a third-choice rider in his Trek-Segafredo team, ready for a race as a loyal team worker, or ‘domestic’.

But after coming out of the end of the first cobblestone in the lead of the peloton and stretching a lead of two and a half minutes, she was released and encouraged to try to win the race on her own.

Before this year, that wasn’t even an option.

First run in 1896, Paris-Roubaix has long been a legendary day in the cycling calendar. The race received the nickname “Hell of the North” in 1919 to describe the region after organizers and journalists set out to see which part of the route had survived after four years of heavy bombing and war. of the trenches during the First World War.

The men’s race is dominated by powerful athletes, too tall to win Grand Tours while challenging in the mountains, but muscular and heavy enough to stand on muddy cobblestones and compete for 258 km. You win through courage and resilience. It is about suffering.

Deignan had previously said: “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to ride him.” On Saturday October 2, 2021, a women’s 115 km (71 mile) race was organized for the first time.

The 32-year-old from the ruthless hilly terrain of Otley in West Yorkshire thought the cobblestones were more grueling than she expected during a pre-race reconnaissance in the sun, but still believed that she had the necessary skill levels.

She was right, proven by this moment in the mud 25 km from the finish.

“It’s a combination of experience, strength and luck that kept me on my bike,” she says.

“The fun thing about cobblestones is that it’s always about momentum. As soon as you lose momentum that’s when you start bouncing around, so you have to be able to produce enough power to go through them at high speed.When you start to tire, that’s when your power goes down and you start to bounce more, your bike becomes harder to control.

“I had done a reconnaissance in the spring and then just before the race. In the spring I was about 1.5 kilos heavier and the difference between having that extra weight just to hold the bike was pretty amazing.

“But I also made a few adjustments to my gear – 2.3 bars in my tires are incredibly low and obviously you would never do that on the road. So it’s a technical question as well as a physical one.”

Lizzie Deignan's bicycle handlebars
Deignan’s handlebars were stained with blood

Deignan’s athletic brilliance that day was obvious; she is one of the most successful cyclists in cycling, a regular winner of the biggest races. In 2015, she was world champion. In 2018, she became a mom. She returned to the sport and never stopped winning. Last year, she won the prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège race, as well as the one-day event of La Course by Le Tour de France.

When she crossed the line in the wet at the Roubaix outdoor velodrome with her hands up, it sent another message about her character. You could see the blood.

The sheer force of will, determination and the need to hold the handlebars as the cobbles relentlessly rocked her bike meant she had spilled blood on her hands. Enough to be absorbed by the bar tape by the end of the race.

“On the cobblestones you’re fighting the vibrations all day – you’re literally shaking, all of you, and my hands on the handlebars were gripping,” she says.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Why didn’t you put on gloves?’ But I never wear gloves because even when you wear gloves you still have blisters because it’s all about friction and vibration between your fingers.

“Of course I suffer from it now [we spoke the following day] and i have bloody blisters and i woke up and almost had a hangover. I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t crash, but my body felt like it had an impact because I literally took the vibrations through the cobblestones for so long, so my whole body hurts. “

Lizzie Deignan lifts the Paris Roubaix trophy
Deignan spoke fondly of the significance of Saturday’s historic race

Having scored such a big victory in such a punchy way, any athlete at the center of it all could be forgiven for missing its meaning while caught in the maelstrom.

Deignan, however, is very conscious. There is emotion in her voice when she recognizes him.

“Paris-Roubaix is ​​one of the most iconic races – the men have things called ‘monuments’ [the five biggest one-day races] and women’s cycling has not. But slowly we are building that into our schedule, and this race is known as the hell of the north, which is stereotypically something that is not associated with women in cycling, and has been our barrier. To break down this barrier, we have shown that women are more than capable of riding on cobblestones.

“We are writing history. It is no exaggeration to say that we are the first women to prove that it was possible, but that does not mean that women before were not able to.”

Short gray line of presentation

The more you think about it, the more absurd it is that it took 125 years for women to face Paris-Roubaix (with one more year for the cancellation of last year’s coronavirus).

Perhaps even more when there was no women’s Tour de France in stages. The women’s version of the biggest cycling event was a one-day offer from the ASO organizers – the La Course race Deignan won in 2020.

But next year there will be a weeklong event, starting just as the men wrap up their usual three-week slug-fest on the Champs Elysees in Paris on July 24.

It’s a milestone worth celebrating, but it raises the question of why it has taken so long, with one cycling insider claiming ASO was “trained by kicking and screaming” in the world. organization of a Women’s Tour.

Paris-Roubaix was also an important step. Deignan describes it as “certainly a tangible turning point”.

She adds: “I think this race captured the imaginations of so many people that it was undeniable that it was as entertaining as the men’s race, and the audience numbers were just as good.

“I just think we’re not in a position where we can fall back anymore. The only way is to go up, and there’s that momentum now.”

In a world where many women still feel they have to fight to be heard, and even to be safe, and where people doubt the quality of women’s sport compared to that of men, Deignan’s cunning has changed the game. given.

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