A side view of a woman's legs while riding a bike, covered in mud.

For Emma Norsgaard, Paris-Roubaix Femmes is about never giving up

"The most iconic way to win is coming alone into the velodrome."

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 03.04.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images and courtesy ASO
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There are so many things to love about Paris-Roubaix Femmes. The race is still new, unpredictable, strange and shiny. There is a cinematic quality to it that encourages the peloton to approach the day with a never-surrender attitude. It is unlike any other race on the calendar; even with only three editions under their tyres the riders still treat the race a different way from any other.

The Tour of Flanders didn’t go well for Emma Norsgaard. The former Danish National Champion went in with some of the best form of her life, but after being forced off her bike on the Koppenberg her race for a podium place was done. Looking ahead to Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift, the form is still there, but now it is alongside a cold.

“I think riding for four and a half hours in nothing [but a speedsuit] the other day, and in the rain, that might be the reason why,” Norsgaard joked on the phone three days after Flanders.

“I’m paying the price now.”

Even if she isn’t feeling her best on the Wednesday before Paris-Roubaix, she’s not ready to throw in the towel. For any other race maybe she would have flown home by now, but not for Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

“The key for Paris-Roubaix is this mentality of never giving up,” Norsgaard said. “But I think even if you’re not in the break you should never, never, never give up in this race.”

“This morning I called my husband [Mikkel Bjerg] and said ‘There’s no way I am going to race on Saturday if I feel like this,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but don’t give up. It’s Paris-Roubaix! Something magical can happen in this race’.”

Emma Norsgaard attacks late in Gent-Wevelgem. She rides alone under a large scaffolding on a bridge. The other riders aren't looking at her yet.
Norsgaard on the attack in the final kilometres of Gent-Wevelgem.

And magical things do happen in Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Alison Jackson’s start-to-finish attack in last year’s edition was proof, but so was Elisa Longo Borghini’s win in 2022. Both were surprise attacks from riders who weren’t named outright before the race started. All eyes were on Lotte Kopecky or Marianne Vos. Going into the 2022 edition Longo Borghini was having a disappointing spring. Eighth at Strade Bianche had been her best result, the week Paris-Roubaix she was 33rd at Flanders, over 90 seconds behind the winner Kopecky.

Now in the fourth edition, there is still no formula when it comes to winning in Roubaix. The men’s race has been going on since 1896 and they still don’t really know how to win it, other than just riding your bike really hard and having luck on your side.

“If I start on Saturday, this is the mentality I will go in with, that even if I am not feeling 100%, it doesn’t have to be super bad,” Norsgaard said.

“The first year I did Paris-Roubaix I was, mentally, so [swear word, I can’t say it nicely]. I was there just to help but in the end, because I never gave up, [I still got] a top-10. I think this is for sure what I will remember, that first edition of Paris-Roubaix.”

When Lizzie Deignan won the first edition she was basically in the right place at the right time. She hit the first sector of cobbles first and put the pressure on, but behind riders started slipping and sliding, crashing left, right and centre. The riders that could stay up couldn’t keep Deignan’s pace, and she rode solo to the finish.

Norsgaard rode to the finish just over two minutes behind Deignan alongside five other riders.

When asked how the race would have to go for her to win, Norsgaard said the only way is solo into the velodrome.

“Alison had the correct answer last year, right? An early break seems like it’s the way to win the race.”

For me winning it would be in a group that can go away and I would say exactly the same as Alison. I would prefer to go in an early break, because I am also a little scared of these pavé, to be honest.

The first wheel into the cobbled sectors is the safest way to approach them, whether or not there are other riders on your wheel. The first person across the pavé has the most control of the race, they pick the line and the speed. It’s hard for riders to come around them, and there is no threat of someone going down in front of you. If someone is going to go down in your path, it is nearly impossible to avoid them, as too many riders found out in both 2021 and 2022.

In the last two years, Norsgaard has been adapting her riding style to be more versatile year-round. She highlighted this after winning the sixth stage of the Tour de France Femmes.

Emma Norsgaard leans against a fence at the finish of Paris-Roubaix; she is covered in mud, talking to a friend in normal street clothing. They both laugh.

With the rise of Charlotte Kool and Lorena Wiebes, Norsgaard chose to pivot away from being a “sprinter” and focus more on being an all-arounder. Last year she wasn’t able to try her luck at Paris-Roubaix Femmes when a crash at Strade Bianche kept her out of the peloton for the entirety of the Spring Classics. This year, the form is there, even if the results aren’t (yet).

“I have never felt so good on the bike,” Norsgaard explained. “I feel like I am in shape, I am better than ever. Not sprinting, but my general shape is really good. I felt so good in Flanders but sometimes you’re also unlucky in races like this, and I crashed on the stupid, stupid Koppenberg. This is also Flanders: staying on the bike. But I feel super good, I’m happy with where I am.”

Norsgaard, like so many riders after Sunday’s race, would prefer not to race up the Koppenberg if the cobbles are wet.

“No one can climb this stupid climb if it’s wet, I hope they take it out for next year.”

Not that she doesn’t like a little bit of wet pavé. This year’s Paris-Roubaix day is predicted to be sunny, but the week before the race is non-stop rain, so the cobbles will likely be the perfect amount of wet.

“I don’t want [it to be dangerous]. If it’s a little bit wet it’s ok, then also I don’t like when riders go on the side of the cobbles. If it’s completely dry they can ride in the mud almost, and for me, this is so dangerous. I prefer it when we are all on the pavé.”

On Saturday, if she’s able to line up for Paris-Roubaix Femmes, Norsgaard knows how she wants the race to go. The perfect scenario would include the top riders, the top teams, and Norsgaard the outlier able to outfox the best in the sport right now.

“I think there would be some SD Worx-Protime riders in the break and of course also Lidl-Trek,” Norsgaard speculated. “Maybe that could be a good thing for me if they are sitting there looking at each other they might think ‘Oh, Emma, we can let her go, it doesn’t matter,’ so in this way, I don’t see it in a negative way. I cannot really see Paris-Roubaix without any strong riders in front, so of course for me, it would be even more crazy to take a nice result if [all the best riders] were in front with me.”

“Kopecky, Wiebes, maybe the whole Lidl-Trek team. And of course Vos.”

With all the pre-race favourites by her side, there would be no need to worry about the rest of the peloton coming back. The odds would tip in her favour, or at least the chances of her ending up in a smaller group at the finish would be higher. It’s simple math. But in her perfect world, Norsgaard wouldn’t be the only Movistar rider at the head of the race.

“I would want one of my teammates to be there with me to feel better, to feel safe, to have one person to count on.”

Emma Norsgaard and Floortje Mackaij smile at each other after Norsgaard's Tour de France Femmes stage win. They're still wearing helmets, which almost touch for how close their are together, and they are both so happy they are almost in tears.
Emma Norsgaard celebrates with her roommate Floortje Mackaij after winning the sixth stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

Digging deeper into this dream scenario, Norsaard has a good idea who would be willing to work with her to keep the remnants of the peloton away.

“Vos,” Norsgaard responded quickly. “She is super confident in her sprint, and she could beat me in a sprint and I think that’s why she would probably work with me. Wiebes would work with me, Kopecky, and I think from Trek, that’s difficult. It should be Balsamo I think. Would be nice to have Longo Borghini because she’s going so strong right now, she could make the gap bigger.”

“If I had to win in the best way possible it would be from a group with the best riders.”

The trick for her would then be getting away from those strong riders. Norsgaard doesn’t want to take them to the line, that would be too risky.

The most iconic way to win is coming alone into the velodrome.

“After the pavé, for me, for sure I would try and go alone. I wouldn’t wait for a sprint, I wouldn’t risk it. If something happened like to Femke [Markus] to crash on the velodrome, that would be so heartbreaking for me so I would for sure try and attack from after the last pavé so I would be alone in the velodrome.”

With only two days left before Paris-Roubaix, Norsgaard doesn’t know if her health will let her line up in Denain, but even if she doesn’t have the results she’d hoped for back in February, the spring season has been a good one in her eyes.

“I’m sad it isn’t with more results, but I can say I did everything I could in all the races; for me, this is just as important as a top-10, so that is what I will take out of this Classics campaign is that I gave everything I have.”

If she does line up, she is lining up ready to make magic happen. After all, it’s Paris-Roubaix.

“I think everything can happen.”

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