Paris-Roubaix is a race about far more than just physical strength. Bike-handling capabilities are essential – ruts between the jagged cobblestones need to be avoided and sudden jolts to the bike must be easily dealt with and corrected.
The Hell of the North can also be a fight against the elements, with wet weather making crashes and punctures more likely. Above all, the winner usually needs to have Lady Luck on their side – mechanicals and mishaps have decided the fortune of many in Roubaix in the past. This makes it a notoriously difficult race to predict.
However, there are riders who have a way with the cobbles. They make finessing the great slabs of stones look easy, appearing to glide over the jagged surface without feeling the vibrations which permeate through their handlebars.
In Paris-Roubaix Femmes last year, Lizzie Deignan seemed to travel with relative ease over the greasy pavé beneath her, somehow maintaining composure despite some close calls. Mental fortitude is essential too, as riders must have trust in themselves and their equipment to keep things rubber side down on the road to the famed velodrome.
In 2022, Deignan won’t return to defend her title as the “Queen of Hell”. The British rider is pregnant with her second child and hopes to return to racing in 2023. This leaves the race open to a brand new winner and, with the women’s peloton only tackling the cobbles of Northern France once before, it’s a guessing game on who is best-suited to the rough Roubaix parcour. However, there are some riders have shown top form in the Classics so far who we think could be in with a shot at Paris-Roubaix Femmes 2022.
Team Jumbo-Visma’s Marianne Vos opted to skip Amstel Gold Race this year, choosing to focus fully on Paris-Roubaix instead. Her team’s director sportif, Liselot Decroix, told Sporza: "Marianne would rather train so that she is fit and rested at the start of Paris-Roubaix." There’s no denying that Vos is the GOAT of women’s cycling, the Dutch rider has over 30 Giro Rosa stage wins to her name, as well as multiple World Championship titles in a plethora of disciplines. Currently, Paris-Roubaix Femmes is a race that’s missing off her glittering palmares, however, and she’ll be looking to put that right in 2022.
Vos came close to victory in last year’s event, quickly closing in on Lizzie Deignan in the final stages of the race. However, the Jumbo-Visma rider just didn’t have enough road left to catch the Brit, and had to settle for second. While she has only raced three times so far in 2022, Vos ended up second in Gent-Wevelgem and finished seventh in Strade Bianche. Her performance in the Tour of Flanders was below her usual standards, but she’ll be rested and focussed ahead of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Her cyclo-cross background will also be an asset over the cobbles, and we expect Vos to have extra motivation given her second place last year.
Winner of Strade Bianche and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Lotte Kopecky has made herself known as one of the strongest and most versatile riders in the women’s peloton. The Belgian rider grew up racing on cobbles – albeit on the slightly less severe Flandrian kind – and will thrive in the difficult, attritional nature of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Kopecky is vocal about loving wet weather so she won’t be deterred if we see a repeat of last year’s treacherous conditions.
The 26-year-old finished in 15th place in Paris-Roubaix Femmes last year, but there’s no denying that she has improved immensely since joining Team SD Worx at the start of this season. When riding for Liv Racing in 2021, Kopecky often reached the end of races alone, but the collective strength of Team SD Worx has made the Belgian Champion largely unstoppable this year, giving her multiple options when it comes to the finish. Kopecky could challenge from both a solo breakaway and in a reduced bunch kick.
35-year-old Marta Bastianelli is one of the most experienced riders in the women’s peloton. A past winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem, Bastianelli is certainly no stranger to the cobbles. So far this season, Bastianelli has only finished outside the top-10 once in all of the one-day races she has started, but she’s yet to secure a WorldTour victory.
Being so close on many occasions will likely give the Italian even more motivation to reach the top step in Paris-Roubaix Femmes, and her 5th place in last year’s edition proves that she can handle the rough stuff. Bastianelli could be hindered by a lack of support from her UAE Team-ADQ teammates, who will enter the race with a relatively inexperienced roster. If Bastianelli is alone against the likes of SD Worx in the closing stages of the race, she will struggle to make a successful attack. The Italian will likely hope for a reduced bunch sprint for the line where she can showcase her impressive finishing speed.
From one Italian to another, Trek-Segafredo's Elisa Balsamo also has a good chance of lifting the cobblestone trophy at the Roubaix velodrome in 2022. Looking at her performance in the race last year, however, Balsamo doesn’t stand out as a rider suited to the arduous nature of Roubaix. She finished 12 minutes down on Lizzie Deignan, but was hampered by various crashes. Balsamo has flourished since joining Trek-Segafredo in 2022, with three WorldTour wins already to her name. Guided by the more experienced riders on her team, such as Ellen van Dijk and Elisa Longo Borghini, we expect Balsamo to have a much better showing in the Hell of the North this year.
The World Champion isn’t Trek’s only option, either, which will ensure that Balsamo doesn’t feel too much pressure leading up to the race. With Longo Borghini, who finished third in 2021, and Van Dijk, who is well-suited to the cobbles, the American team have a range of options.
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak
SD Worx’s experienced team captain has largely been playing a role in helping her teammates to the win in races leading up to Paris-Roubaix. However, the tough cobbles of Northern France are Van den Broek-Blaak’s bread and butter, and we expect her to have a leadership opportunity in the Hell of the North. The Dutch rider has won from impressive solo attacks on multiple occasions and has the ability to perform throughout steady endurance efforts. Her tactical nous will be an asset too, with years of experience in the peloton meaning Van den Broek-Blaak knows how to read a race.
Her podium finish in the Tour of Flanders – despite working for teammate Lotte Kopecky – is an indicator of Van den Broek-Blaak’s current form, and, in an interview with Rouleur, she mentioned that Paris-Roubaix Femmes would be one of her main targets for the season.
With the current weather forecast for Paris-Roubaix Femmes sunny and clear, it could be that slightly a bigger group enters the velodrome. The wet conditions in 2021 caused many riders to crash and abandon the race, but drier weather will favour the fastest legs in the peloton who will want to reach the finish line with enough left in the tank for a sprint. Should this happen, Team DSM’s Lorena Wiebes will be the big favourite to take the victory.
The Dutch rider outsprinted Lotte Kopecky in Nokere Koerse earlier this season, a race with some cobbled sectors, and also won both the Ronde van Drenthe and Scheldeprijs from a bunch gallop. It could be that the cobbles of Roubaix are too challenging for Wiebes, but this will depend on how the race is ridden. If other teams are slightly conservative then this will favour the Dutch sprinter. Wiebes will be supported by a strong Team DSM, including British Champion Pfieffer Georgi and German rider Franziska Koch who finished seventh in this race in 2021.
Yet to finish outside the top-20 in a race this year, Movistar’s Danish powerhouse Emma Norsgaard, enters Roubaix as one of the main contenders. With Movistar’s de facto team leader Annemiek van Vleuten not taking to the start of the Hell of the North, Norsgaard will assume full responsibility for the Spanish squad. A sole leadership position is well deserved for the 22-year-old; she finished 6th in Paris-Roubaix last year, proving she can handle the cobbles.
Image: Peter Stuart
Norsgaard’s form so far this season has been impressive, with her win in Le Samyn des Dames a perfect example of her skills on the pavé. A 13th place in Flanders and 17th place in Amstel Gold race indicate Norsgaard’s strength; she’s been consistent even at races where Van Vleuten has served as the team’s leader. She will have to be careful not to find herself isolated with too many SD Worx riders, though, as has been the case for her Dutch teammate in a number of races this season. It will be down to Norsgaard’s support squad, which includes the likes of Barbara Guarischi, to keep the Dane protected over the rough Roubaix roads.
Outsiders with a chance
As we mentioned, Paris-Roubaix is tough to predict and has often thrown up surprise winners. This means riders from smaller teams should not be counted out.
Marjolein Van 't Geloof of Le Col-Wahoo said in an interview with Rouleur that she’s hoping to “do a Mat Hayman” in Paris-Roubaix Femmes by launching a surprise attack on the big favourites. She finished 13th in the race last year.
Arlenis Sierra of Movistar had an impressive fourth place finish at the Tour of Flanders and was lauded by Van Vleuten afterwards for her bike-handling skills on the cobbles.
Though she’s yet to have a stand-out performance so far this season, Lisa Brennauer of Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling finished fourth in Roubaix last year and will be back to improve on this in 2022. Chiara Consonni of Valcar-Travel and Service has been sprinting exceptionally well this season and will be able to contest a reduced bunch kick.
Riders should also be wary of solo attacks from FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope’s Marta Cavalli and Grace Brown.
Cover image: Peter Stuart