As she crossed the finish line at Paris-Roubaix Femmes, race winner Elisa Longo Borghini tapped her shiny red helmet three times. She did it because “in Italy, they say I have a wood head,” she explained afterwards. It’s a phrase used to describe someone stubborn. Someone with grit, determination and an unwavering spirit. “It’s my tough head that brought me here.”
In Paris-Roubaix, mental strength is perhaps more important than physical. As soon as a rider loses concentration for just a moment, hesitates before going through a gap or takes their eye off the cobbled ruts, they can be face down in the cobbles, tasting mouthfuls of dust with the race disappearing through the murky clouds ahead. The brutal cobblestones of Roubaix are kinder to someone who trusts them, rewarding those who push limits and take risks, unafraid to lose.
When Longo Borghini made her winning attack with 33km of the race remaining, she had this in mind. It was a perfect counter-attack, with the Italian launching herself up the road straight after a three-rider move, containing her teammate Lucinda Brand and pre-race favourite Lotte Kopecky, was reeled in by the peloton.
“It was pure instinct,” she explained. “I just went full and I kept believing.” Perhaps thinking of her teammate, Lizzie Deignan’s solo long-range attack in 2021, the Italian champion’s confidence never wavered all the way to the velodrome. When asked at which moment she realised she would stay away from the chasing pack, she replied: “From the beginning. If you don’t believe in your attack, you will never win.”
In contrast, while Trek-Segafredo’s instinctive racing paid off on the unpredictable pavé of Northern France, hesitation spoiled the chances of their main rivals: Team SD Worx. While the Dutch team looked to have their tactics dialled in the races leading up to Roubaix, they got things wrong in France on Saturday. The team’s best finisher was second place Lotte Kopecky, who crossed the finish line over 20 seconds behind Longo-Borghini. “I think everything went well until a split second we were in a bad situation. That is Paris-Roubaix, it can change so quickly.”
Today, once again, proved the volatile nature of the Hell of the North. The dusty farm tracks are too unpredictable, too brutal to follow strict team plans. Everyone must be flexible and ready to adapt. It’s why Trek-Segafredo dominated the race today. By no means was it a faultless ride to the finish; the team’s world champion, Elisa Balsamo was disqualified for taking a “sticky bottle” when returning to the bunch after a bike change.
Another key player for the American squad, Ellen van Dijk, punctured halfway through the third sector of the race and, with no team car nearby on the cobbled section, she had to ride on a flat tyre to back to the tarmac road to receive a front wheel change. A long and tough chase back to the front of the race followed for the Dutchwoman. But Longo Borghini and her team adjusted and overcame, and this is the key to Paris-Roubaix.
Trek-Segafredo’s directeur sportif, Ina Teutenberg, freed Longo Borghini to go on the attack as soon as she heard of Balsamo’s disqualification. While the team had initially planned to ride for the world champion, who they believed could have made it to the velodrome to fight for the win, Roubaix wasn’t kind to the 24-year-old today. It’s a race that waits for no one. In a split second, Longo Borghini’s attack had refocussed the team, and put them in the winning move for a second year in a row.
Parallels can be drawn between this year’s Paris-Roubaix and last year’s inaugural edition. Though the pavé was dry and riders found themselves choking on dust rather than mud, a rider from the same team won and it was someone who attacked with the same do-or-die attitude. Just as Deignan did in 2021, Longo Borghini noted the importance of her team staff and mechanic’s dedication to this race, explaining that the team’s new Trek Domane is now the “perfect bike for Roubaix.”
And for many, just as last year, the cobbles broke both hearts and bones. Multiple pre-race favourites punctured, and still riders struggled into the velodrome bloodied and wounded, emotional and unsure of their feelings about this savage event.
For the winner though, the suffering and the pain was worth it to lift that elusive trophy. “It’s like going through the darkest hell and all of a sudden being in paradise,” she said after the race.
Elisa Longo Borghini embodied the spirit of the Hell of the North, she was stubborn, gritty and never gave up. Even when her time gap was hovering at just 10 seconds, she kept pedalling and, most importantly, with the help of her stubborn “wood head” she never stopped believing.