In her ideal world, Lucinda Brand will cross the finish line of Paris-Roubaix Femmes on Saturday five minutes ahead of her rivals. She will enter the famed velodrome alone, and have time to celebrate the victory, soaking up the accolades from the crowd. She will feel goosebumps on her dusty skin. For a rider who hasn’t ridden in the Hell of the North before, and is yet to secure a strong result on the road in 2022 so far, it's a big dream. But the Trek-Segafredo rider will not shy away from a challenge.
“I’m one of the leaders, and I’m a good card to play for the team,” she tells me with confidence just a few days ahead of the race. But Brand isn’t a bookies’ favourite. While she had a stunning cyclo-cross campaign over the winter – where she ended up winning 20 races and finished second in the World Championships – the Dutch rider’s start to her road season was hampered by illness and she’s only just beginning to find her form. However, as the springtime edition of Paris-Roubaix rolls round and the sun beats down on the cobbles of Northern France, the 32-year-old appears more than ready to fight for victory.
Brand doesn’t expect that missing the race last year will hamper her chances. “I started road racing early and always have been riding in the bunch,” she explains. “If you are trusting your own skills on the bike, like how your bike is reacting and handling, that will help enough.”
Of course, she watched last year’s wet edition of Paris-Roubaix with a vested interest as her teammate, Lizzie Deignan, stormed to an impressive solo win. “I actually really was proud of how she rode on the cobbles,” says the Dutch rider. “In those conditions, your natural reaction will be to brake or stop pedalling. But actually, if you keep going, you will find the traction again, that’s what I told Lizzie.”
2021’s inaugural edition of Paris-Roubaix was brutal, and saw many riders leave the race with cuts, bruises and broken bones, battered by the greasy cobbles. While it may instil fear in those of us just watching on TV, seeing the carnage of last year didn’t faze Brand. “If you start thinking about these things, like crashing, you will be in the back of the bunch. Once you feel like this is the moment I really need to move, suddenly you're not really thinking about it anymore. It's still scary, but you kind of delete it from your mind,” she says.
Brand has a pragmatic approach to avoiding the risk of crashing in Roubaix: if there are fewer riders in front of you, the probability of people falling off around you is lower. This means fighting for the front of the bunch is at the forefront of her mind heading into the race. “I'm not a nice person in the bunch. It's not that I'm hitting anybody or anything but it's really clear: this is my spot,” she says. “I make gaps that you think maybe aren’t there and then suddenly, I just can pass.”
Despite her clear hunger for her own chances, Trek-Segafredo bring one of the best sprinters in the world to the race with Elisa Balsamo. Will Brand sacrifice her race to protect her Italian teammate for a bunch kick? “We should not throw away a sprinting card. So for sure, we're going to protect her a little, or at least give her the freedom to save energy,” she says. “For us, I think we just need to keep trying and racing. And also, after a race like this, I think your sprint is never the same.”
The Dutch rider expects a different race to 2021, one that might favour the faster sprinters and make it harder for a solo winner. With dry conditions and a peloton who has faced the Roubaix cobbles once before, a move like Deignan’s could be harder to pull off.
“People will be more aware,” says Brand. “Also, I think a big benefit from last year for our team was that it was also really hard for teams to regroup and to start chasing, because it was just kind of a war and nobody knew where their teammates exactly were.”
For Brand, watching last year’s race went much deeper than just analysing tactics. She notes that the first edition of Paris-Roubaix served as a platform for the women’s peloton to show how capable they are of tackling such a tough race. However, despite the attention Paris-Roubaix Femmes garnered, the Dutch rider doesn’t see completely emulating the men’s side of the sport to be a desirable solution for the women’s cycling calendar.
“The mistake a lot of people sometimes make is to compare men's cycling with women's cycling. It's kind of a different sport. There is just this genetic difference in power, for example. So it's just a fact that the Flemish hills are almost climbs for us but for the boys, it's just a punch uphill. That makes it a different race for us.”
It’s for this reason that Brand doesn’t hope to see the five-star Arenberg sector included in Paris-Roubaix Femmes. “I think it is a super good decision that they haven't put it in yet. Let us first do this. It's hard enough,” she says. “It's the same with the discussion about distance, if the races were longer, would it really change the result? And this question is for women's and men's cycling.”
Brand expects her cyclo-cross rival Marianne Vos to be one of the top contenders in the race on Sunday. “I guess I just need to sit on her wheel, right?” Brand jokes. “If you look at how she did last year, you could see how skilled she is over the cobbles. She's one of the riders to watch. If she puts her mind to something, she really will stick to it and reach her goal.”
The Trek-Segafredo rider believes that the skills learnt in ‘cross racing will be transferable to the cobbles, explaining that her time on the CX bike has given her an added trust in her handling and equipment. “You learn to read the road really well. like that if your wheel slips you don't need to be scared, and you will find some traction somewhere.”
In fact, fear doesn’t seem to be an emotion in Brand’s repertoire when it comes to racing bikes. The Dutchwoman tells me she’ll ride with a single-layer of bar tape and no gloves during Paris-Roubaix, believing that she won’t be able to feel the pain in her hands once she’s in the race. She’s added shifters to the top of her handlebars to aid with changing gear on the tops and will ride Trek Domane, optimised for the cobbles.
Above all, after being a professional athlete for over a decade, Brand relishes the chance of a fresh new challenge in Paris-Roubaix. “It will be iconic to ride into the velodrome. Like knowing you’ve finished this crazy Hell. I'm really wondering how special that feeling will be,” she says.
Rumours are swirling around Twitter about new technology, tyre pressures, gear ratios and the conditions of the cobbles, but Brand distils her plan for race day into a raw, simple strategy: “The more you can push on the cobbles, the better you can go over them. So I just need to ride hard.”