Ellen van Dijk: The women’s peloton is not ready for the Arenberg

The Lidl-Trek rider discusses her demons with Paris-Roubaix Femmes, how the race has changed in the last three years and how it should develop

“I’m scared, scared of everything that is going to happen, I had a really bad experience the first time I rode this race.”

Just a few days before she is due to start Paris-Roubaix Femmes – her first participation in the Hell of North since the birth of her seven-month old son – Ellen van Dijk is honest when it comes to her feelings about the race. With Lidl-Trek’s two defending champions, Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini not starting on Saturday, Van Dijk (who finished in seventh place in the 2022 edition) is one of the team’s best options for success this weekend. Her physical prowess as a strong time trailist makes the 35-year-old the perfect candidate for Roubaix victory, but she admits it is the mental aspect of racing on the brutal cobbles that she struggles with.

“In one way, I'm really excited for it. When I'm training on the cobbles, I think: this is cool, it’s epic. But the training is so different from racing because you have so many girls around you and you don't know what they are going to do,” Van Dijk says. “Like, what if they crash? Or if they go left or right? You take a bigger risk just participating in this race. Everybody knows that, but you have to get over it somehow. You have to try and let the excitement be a little bit bigger than the fear.”

Van Dijk reflects on her first ever participation in Paris-Roubaix Femmes in 2021 where she crashed heavily on the wet, muddy cobbles and explains the impact this has on her each time the race rolls round. To try and conquer this fear, the Dutch rider believes that open discussion is the best remedy.

“I speak a lot with my boyfriend about: Why am I scared? What's going to happen? Those conversations help a lot already. I also speak to our mental coach from the team, Elisabetta,” Van Dijk says. “But really, you just need to be in the race. Like, yesterday, we did the recon of the course and it was wet and slippery so that was a good test. I was just really happy that all went well and these positive experiences are good going into the race.”

Despite her hopeful mindset after successful pre-race preparations, Van Dijk is also keen to point out that she’s not Lidl-Trek’s sole leader in this year’s Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Riders like Lucinda Brand and Elisa Balsamo are also options for the American team, who still boast strength in depth even without their two Roubaix champions.

“In this race, it really doesn't matter if you're the leader or not because in the end a lot can happen. It's nice when you get the support but for me it’s always just about seeing how far you can go,” Van Dijk says. “Because I'm coming back from pregnancy and everything, it's very different – I'm still building up. I don't have too high expectations, but I’ll just give it a go and see what I can do.”

With the women’s peloton having raced on the cobbles of Roubaix three times now, riders are becoming more accustomed to the demands of the treacherous terrain in Northern France. According to Van Dijk, the more experienced that riders become, the safer the racing is as a result, something that gives her some peace of mind.

Ellen van Dijk finishing the 2021 edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes (Image: Peter Stuart)

“In the first one everybody was super nervous that it was just so weird and so chaotic. Now everybody has a bit more experience and I think that in the second year already it was a much safer race,” the Dutch rider explains. “Last year was maybe a bit more medium and then this year, because a lot of riders have the experience now, it makes a difference.”

The introduction of Paris-Roubaix Femmes in 2021 was a big step towards equality in professional cycling, but race distances for the men’s and women’s peloton are still starkly different with over 100 kilometres separating the two. As a result of this, the women’s race doesn’t cover some historic Roubaix sectors, namely the Arenberg Forest which has formed a crucial part of the men’s event since its inception. Due to its geographical location, introducing the Arenberg to the women’s race would force an increase in race distance, and the severity of the cobbles would also significantly up the difficulty of the race. Van Dijk argues that racing on the Arenberg is not something she believes is yet necessary for Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

“I don't think we are ready for it, I don’t think they should put it in because I don't see the point of it,” Van Dijk says. “I really feel like it just brings so much risk and it doesn't give any extra value to the race apart from having riders drop out because they crash. I think the race is challenging enough, a lot can happen. I don't think you should put this extra dangerous part in there.”

After the 2023 season was plagued with illness and injury for Lidl-Trek, Van Dijk knows the risks and consequences of crashes all too well. She puts down her team’s step up this Classics season – with Lidl-Trek taking victories in Brugge-De Panne and the Tour of Flanders – down to the fact that the majority of the team’s riders being healthy.

“There is no injuries or sickness, that has made the biggest difference. Last year, there was so much bad luck in the team and then the mood starts to go down a little bit – the gap to SD Worx got bigger and bigger last year,” Van Dijk admits. “Now, everybody is performing really, really good and the team helps a lot with this. We get everything the men get and with the new sponsor we also have even more facilities. They take care of us which puts us in a good place to help perform, but the main reason [for the step up this year] is that everyone is healthy and fit and can do what they should do.”

Van DIjk argues that, even without the likes of Longo Borghini and Deignan, Lidl-Trek still have plenty of options when it comes to Paris-Roubaix. She points out that last year’s winner was unexpected with Alison Jackson, and that the Hell of the North is a tough race to predict. This means that an open mind and a strong spread of talent within a team is crucial – something that Lidl-Trek has in abundance. 

“You can have favourites but anything can surprise people.” Van Dijk says. “Even one of our helpers could win tomorrow. All of our girls are strong. You never know.”

Cover image: Getty

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