“It was completely surreal,” said Deignan, speaking after her victory. “I was there as a teammate, and I never considered or dreamt about winning the race myself.”
For those who tuned in to the live broadcast of Paris-Roubaix Femmes when it started with 60 kilometres of the race remaining, it may have looked like Lizzie Deignan was executing a perfect plan. She was gliding over the cobbles with a significant gap over her rivals. She was out there alone, away from the crashes and carnage behind, missing out on mouthfuls of mud that she would have been treated to had she been sitting on a wheel. The pre-race talk was all about the potential dangers of being in a bunch over the cobbles, so it seemed like Trek had honed in on the perfect tactic: get a rider up the road, on their own and out of danger.
But the plan had never been for Deignan to launch that early attack. The British athlete had every intention to be in a support role, working for the Classics specialists on her team. “Our two leaders were Ellen Van Dijk and Elisa Longo Borghini,” she explained. “I was meant to be one of the last helpers but clearly it was really important to be there in the front on the first section. I could tell that Elisa and Ellen were struggling with position and I was in front. I thought, for insurance, I need to be at the front of the peloton, and I took some speed because I really had to sprint to be there.”
With her sprint, one that has won her a World Championship title on the road in the past, Deignan opened a gap to the main peloton, and they never saw her again. The TV cameras missed this crucial moment, the point in which the race was decided. Rouleur was there on the side of the road, witnessing Deignan moving off the front of the bunch behind. It was an accidental attack that will go down in history, the moment when the first winner of the maiden Paris-Roubaix Femmes was decided.
“I looked behind me at the end of the cobbles and I had a gap,” said Deignan. “I thought well, as long as I'm in front, they have to chase behind. I kind of rode about 75% until I had about a minute [gap] and then I got the call in the radio that I had to give 100% so that's what I did.”
The all-or-nothing effort that Deignan put in after she was given the go-ahead from her sports director meant that the gap to the chasing group behind crept upwards throughout the race, nearing two and a half minutes at its biggest. It meant that her teammates in the bunch behind could afford to not do any work and let rival teams chase to bring Deignan back. “As long as I was upfront, I knew that the other teams were losing riders and that it's all about isolating them and having the numbers game at the end,” Deignan said. “I certainly wasn't thinking about victory when I went onto those cobbles first.”
It wasn’t plain sailing for the Brit, though, as she had a few close-calls on the slippery roads to Roubaix, having to navigate her way over the wet cobbles, surrounded by puddles and mud. “There was a moment where I slipped to the left, and then I slipped to the right but I knew that it would be worse in a group,” she explained. “I knew I had an advantage to be alone to be able to pick the lines. It was incredibly muddy in some sections and I'm not a cyclocross rider, I don't have much experience in muddy conditions.”
“I took a couple of tips from my teammate Lucinda Brand [cyclo-cross World Champion] and she said: ‘whatever you do, just keep pedalling.’ So that's all I could think of, just keep pedalling.”
It wasn’t just staying upright that Deignan had to worry about in her long breakaway, as she had three-time road World Champion Marianne Vos hot on her heels in the last 18km of the race. Vos launched her attack from the chasing group on the Camphin-en-Pevele 4 star cobbled sector, and set off in pursuit of Deignan, narrowing the gap to just over one minute at the finish.
“I knew that she obviously had fresher legs than I did,” said Deignan, talking about Vos’ chase. “Marianne is an incredible athlete so I knew that she would be chasing me down and she would be taking time out of me. My objective was just to get over the cobbles with as much time as I could because I knew that that's where I would be losing time because my legs were so tired.”
Deignan arrived at the Roubaix velodrome with blood on her hands from the severity of the cobbles, racing without gloves despite the savage terrain. “I always race without gloves so I thought I'm not going to change it today,” she said. “I raced without my wedding ring for the first time, it's round my neck.”
While she suffered from the vibrations from the cobbles, Deignan was quick to praise her Trek Domane bike which carried her through the race. “The cobbles are particularly difficult but I raced with 2.3 bar in my tyres, so they were really, really low, which I would never do normally,” she explained. “It was very uncomfortable and at times towards the end when you're losing power, you're going over [the cobbles] slower. So you're just bouncing around and it was hard towards the end to keep the bike in the straight line but luckily I managed it.”
Riding alone towards victory in the Roubaix Velodrome is a moment which Deignan will never forget. “I really cherished that last lap,” she explained. But despite the historic nature of the race and the hardships that all riders endured to make it to the end, Deignan would only receive €1,535 for her win, while the victor in the men’s event would get €30,000. Though she acknowledges the injustice of this statistic, Deignan aims to look at the positives of an inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
“We have a Paris-Roubaix and I think that's a huge step forward,” she says. “I'm very grateful that I get to be a part of history. We are part of history now. And there's no going back. I think that's incredibly important. Obviously, the prize money is disappointing.”
She points out that her team, Trek Segafredo have been equalling the prize money to the male equivalent of races throughout the entire season. “It takes initiatives like that and support from sponsors and from brands to push the boundaries,” she says. “We need to keep pushing, we're not there yet. But we're not being silent about it anymore. And I think that's important.”
Further inequalities between the men’s and women’s events can be seen in the difference in distance and number of cobbled sectors in each race. Paris-Roubaix Femmes omitted the Arenberg, a famously difficult cobbled sector that has been crucial in the men’s race since its inception.
“The safety of the riders is important,” explains Deignan. “The reason we weren't on the Arenberg is because of the fact that we wouldn't be a reduced peloton by the time we hit it. It's our first Roubaix and I think all of us have gained a huge amount of experience. The race is very difficult, very challenging and dangerous.”
The British winner points out that there is room for development and time for more difficulty to be introduced as more editions are run. “I don't expect that this race will still be the same in 10 years time,” she says. “I think it's been a great start.”