Two years ago, I sat across from Alison Jackson in her hotel lobby a few days before the inaugural edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Back then, most riders were still cautious about doing in-person interviews, preferring to keep those outside of their ‘bubble’ at arms length, often giving journalists who asked to interview them at hotels a blunt and frosty response.
Not Jackson, though, who greeted us with a wide, beaming smile and spoke to me for an hour and then sat for our photographer, appeasing us both with a grin and kooky, funny poses. Journalists should remain impartial, but I couldn’t help but feel a warmth to Jackson after our interaction, and I was willing to see her perform well in Roubaix a few days later.
Even back then, before she’d had any big wins on the road and when she was far from a pre-race favourite, Jackson told me that she wanted to win the Hell of the North. It wasn’t one of those flippant dream-like statements that seem far-fetched, but it was said with a calm and assured assertiveness that achieving her goal was utterly plausible.
“I'm good on the cobbles,” she told me, distilling it down with a refreshing simplicity. “I'm also good at positioning and so that's a big part of what this race calls for. I like to watch previous editions and figure out several ways of how I can win.” I nodded when she said this, believing every word. Jackson had convinced herself that Roubaix was a race for her, and in our hour-long interview, she had convinced me, too.
Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix
In the end, the Canadian rider finished in 24th place that year in a race which was marred with crashes and mechanicals on wet, mud-soaked cobbles. As she stood in the iconic Roubaix velodrome afterwards with dirt covering her white Canadian National Champion kit and blood seeping down the right of one knee, I spoke to her again. Had her love and hope for Roubaix been thwarted now she’d felt the thump and judder of the cobbles in a race for the first time?
‘No way, Those are my favourite races. I think I would have liked to have been on the podium or win of course,” she said with a grin.
Since that day, I have always had Jackson in my mind each time Roubaix creeps up on the cycling world and the cobbles beckon the riders. The thing is, it takes a special type of person to win Roubaix, but that is exactly what Jackson is.
When most riders might have hobbled into the velodrome vowing never to go to war on the cobbles again after that brutal edition in 2021, Jackson crossed the line smiling from the thrill of it all. While some riders who excel on the cobbles of Roubaix have grown up riding on them, Jackson told me that where she was raised on a ranch in Canada, you rarely ever even saw a bicycle out on the road. When some riders spend their spare time watching Netflix or reading books, Jackson is creating viral TikTok videos. When some may think that winning arguably the biggest one-day race in the world is merely a fantasy, Jackson really believed it was possible.
It was this self-assuredness that helped her to a victory which was stunning and emphatic and historic two years later. When some riders who got themselves into that 18-rider breakaway at the start of the race were shocked and happy to be there, expressing their surprise at holding off the chasing bunch in the velodrome post-race, Jackson reiterated to journalists that she’d never had any doubt in her ability to do this.
“When you go into races like this, you have to have the confidence that you can do it. You have to be your best cheerleader. I would never shy away from saying that I could win this,” she said.
Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix
Jackson’s self-belief was clear to see just by watching the race this year on television. Throughout the entire day, she was driving the breakaway on, never afraid to pull big turns on the cobbles, riding with a determination which made it look like she was throwing every fibre of her being into getting her bike to the Roubaix velodrome as quickly as she could possibly manage. Even when some riders began to stop assisting her during the final kilometres of the race as it seemed likely that they would be caught by the group of favourites behind, Jackson persisted.
“I knew that I would be one of the strongest in that group, but when you are that also means that you have got to play your cards and actually commit to using some of that energy to keep it away. When you've been out in the breakaway for so long and you've been fighting for that 140km before you get there, to give it up at the end by playing it safe, that wasn't going to sit well with me,” she explained after the race.
“I'd rather ride my heart out fully and then end up mid-pack in that group, than sit in and allow the group to catch. This gambling is what sport is.”
When I wrote that piece about Jackson two years ago, I titled it “the power of positivity”, but the 34-year-old’s performance at Paris-Roubaix this year was about more than just mindset. That played a big part, but behind Jackson’s fun, TikTok dancing demeanour is also an incredibly strong and tactically astute bike rider.
Her sports director, Tim Harris, said after the race: “She’s a fighter. She’s super strong. She won it not just on luck, but she kept that group away, she was the one doing the riding on the cobbles, she was the one who really did the majority of the work. I said to her on the radio, 'If you can get to the stadium, for the rest of your life you’re going to remember this.'”
And it’s not just Jackson who will remember the day she conquered Paris-Roubaix. It is a performance that will be etched in the minds of everyone who had the pleasure of watching it. From the tactical nous that got her into that initial of breakaway of riders, to her fighting for every kilometre to the velodrome, to her dancing celebrations and tears as she crossed the line, to her belting out to the Oh Canada anthem on the podium and cradling the cobblestone trophy like a baby, we’ve never seen a Roubaix winner like Alison Jackson.
“This little rock here, hopefully I can teach him some dance moves,” Jackson joked in her post-race press conference, holding the heavy cobblestone Paris-Roubaix trophy in front of her. “I've got to do a few more push ups to include him in some dances, but I think we're just going to fully enjoy the win and then we'll see what comes after that.”
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix