On the cobbled roads that lead to Roubaix, rain falls for 200 out of the 365 available in a calendar year. The Wednesday before Paris-Roubaix was not one of those 200.
The sun was out with no clouds for company and there wasn’t any wind, perfect bike riding weather. Even the nuisance of the cobbles that line the roads couldn’t spoil the day.
As Trek-Segafredo disembarked from their bus on a slip road squished between a highway and an industrial estate, the mood was lighthearted. Jokes were made about Harry Potter, of all things, but soon they were off. Contained within their ranks are reigning champion Elisa Longo Borghini and Elisa Balsamo, whose Italian national champion jersey combined with rainbow neck and cuffs not only testifies to her level as a bike racer, but is possibly the best-looking jersey across all pelotons everywhere right now. This is the only team to have ever won a women’s Paris-Roubaix, two on the trot now, but that doesn’t seem to have added any pressure.
Nestled within the cacophony of joking Italians and forming part of this esteemed squad, the only team to have won a women’s Hell of the North, is Elynor Bäckstedt, the 21-year-old Brit. This will be her first Roubaix participation in what is also her first full Classics campaign. She began life at Trek-Segafredo not long after her 18th birthday, but that neo-pro year was derailed by the pandemic and a leg break during a mountain bike trip.
In 2021 and 2022, she mostly raced stage races, but in 2023 has already clocked up nine one-dayers, half of which have been Women’s WorldTour level and included Strade Bianche, Gent-Wevelgem (a race she won as a junior) and the Tour of Flanders. Paris-Roubaix is another new frontier for the daughter of the winner of the men’s race 19 years ago.
“I feel pretty good, I’ve had a lot of racing in the legs,” Bäckstedt tells the Escape Collective soon after arriving at the Roubaix velodrome after two hours of testing out the cobbles.
“I feel good after that but I’m just really excited to be here and to help my teammates. It’s one of those races where you never really know what can happen and I’m just excited to be here with such a strong team of girls and hopefully we can bring back a cobble again.”
For two years, Bäckstedt has had to watch the race, like most of us, sitting on the sofa in front of the television. The slight difference being that she’s watched her team scoop both of the first two cobble trophies on offer, but now will be on the start line as Trek-Segafredo try to make it three in a row.
“I mean watching on the TV was also pretty special and just knowing that it was my teammates…you have a bit of a tear in your eye, especially the first one with Lizzie [Deignan],” Bäckstedt recalled. “It was such an iconic moment for women’s cycling, that was even special from the sofa.
“Today I’ve just been trying to get all the info I can. The best lines, the best cadence for the cobbles. To see how everyone else feels and also work out my own way to ride them as well. We’ll go from there. It’s just like Belgian cobbles it’s just longer, harder and there are more of them. I’m going to work out my own style of how best to ride them.”
On Saturday, the forecast looks similar to the Wednesday recon. The proof that the cobbles are truly a family affair comes from the fact that her sister, 18-year-old Zoe Bäckstedt, is also likely to line up for her first Roubaix start and dad Magnus will be in the team car for Canyon-SRAM.
Have there ever been so many Roubaix racers from the same home? Unlikely. More crucially, is the replication of sunny conditions favourable to the chaos of the mud and rain of the more iconic Roubaix editions?
“I would say preferable in the dry but it’s also epic in the wet isn’t it?” Bäckstedt estimated. “It will be one to remember either way and I’m just looking forward to racing.”
What did you think of this story?