three women cross a finish line after a rainy bike race in Belgium

Paris-Roubaix Femmes preview: Two strong teams vs. one G.O.A.T.

Breaking down the course and contenders for the most unpredictable race of the year.

In some ways, every race prior was building to the epic day that will be Paris-Roubaix avec Zwift. The word epic may be overused at this point, but how else can you describe the Hell of the North? No matter the weather conditions, no matter the riders on the start line, which team is strongest and which is not, all bets are off on Saturday when the women take to the cobbles.

In its fourth edition, there is still so much to learn about Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Below you will find a course breakdown and a list of names who you’ll likely see at the front of the race on Saturday. Take it all with a speculative grain of salt because, at the end of the day, the race is going to be what we least expect. As Emma Norsgaard said on Wednesday, “Anything can happen.

If it is the most likely winner who crosses the line first, it may not happen in the way we anticipated. And even if the most predictable outcome is what occurs, there will be a hundred other stories throughout the race we didn’t expect.

What can be said about Paris-Roubaix? It’s so new to the women’s calendar that only Lizzie Deignan, Elisa Longo Borghini and Alison Jackson have claimed plaques in the legendary showers, but already the race is one to look forward to. There’s a reason that, from the moment it ends, for 365 days, we countdown to Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

The Basics

When: Saturday, April 6 (this is the only race with a men’s equivalent where the women have their day †all to themselves) 

Distance: 148.5 km, 29.2 km of which is cobbled

Live Coverage: 🇬🇧 Discovery+, 🇺🇸 Peacock, 🇦🇺 SBS, 🇨🇦 FloBikes starting at 15:00 CET / 9:00 EDT / Midnight Melbourne (with GRACIE ELVIN commentary!)

Weather: Saturday’s forecast calls for partly sunny skies and unseasonable warmth 20°C/70°F and strong, gusty winds (30-40km/h or 15-20 mph) from the south much of the afternoon. Except for the opening loop around Denain, that means they’ll be mostly tail and cross-tail. That could produce fast speeds, and the winds will have something of a drying effect. However, it’s been a notably wet spring in much of France, with fields heavy with water, and it has rained several days this week, including on Thursday night and more expected Friday AM. Despite local efforts to clean the cobbles and a solid 24 hours without rain, even if the day of Paris-Roubaix is dry, the cobblestones almost certainly will not be.

The Course

Even longer this year, the women will start in Denain and race 148.5 km to the historic Roubaix Velodrome (formally the Velodrome André-Pétrieux, to distinguish it from the newer “Stab,” the indoor Velodrome Jean Stablinski next door.) The distance is only 3 km more than last year, but 23 km longer than in 2022.

The amount of pavé remains unchanged: 29.2 km over 17 sectors, with the first sector rearing its head 66 km into the race. There’s plenty of time for action to occur even before the critical points of the race.

The course map of Paris-Roubaix Femmes 2024, with a start in Denain and a shallow southern loop followed by a meandering route back north to the finish in Roubaix.

Just like in the past editions, the women will not race through the famous Arenberg forest, but they have enough pavé to make the racing as wild as it needs to be at Paris-Roubaix. There’s no easing into the cobbles with a short first sector to test out the legs. Hornaing à Wandignies is 3.7 km in length and is ranked as a four-star sector, aka the second-toughest on the five-star scale.

The next five sectors – Warlaing à Brillon (2.4, ★★★), Tilloy à Sars-et-Rosières (2.4, ★★★★), Beuvry-la-Forêt à Orchies (1.4, ★★★), Orchies (1.7, ★★★), and Auchy-lez-Orchies à Bersée (2.7, ★★★★) – all range between three-stars and four-stars and build up to the first five-star sector of the day, Mons-en-Pévèle (3 km, ★★★★★).

This is the first one that will really see the peloton scrambling for position, where we are likely to see the first major splits of the day and where we will find out who ate their cereal in the morning.

The breakdown of the 17 sectors of cobbles in women's Paris-Roubaix.

From there there are six sectors ranging from one-star to three-star before the next big test. Mérignies à Avelin (700 m, ★★), Pont-Thibault à Ennevelin (1.4 km, ★★★), Templeuve (l’Épinette) (200 m, ★), Templeuve (Moulin-de-Vertain) (500 m, ★★), Cysoing à Bourghelles (1.3 km, ★★★), and finally Bourghelles à Wannehain (1.1 km, ★★★) build up to the two crucial, late sectors that will turn the race on it’s head (if it’s still upright in the first place).

Camphin-en-Pévèle (1.8 km, ★★★★) is only four-star, but it’s the sector that comes next that makes this one important. It’s important by proximity. By this point the race has covered 128.6 km, the legs are feeling it, and it’s only the odd team that still has at least three riders still in the front of the race. All those ingredients are chucked into a mixing bowl with the Carrefour de l’Arbre at 131.3 km. This sector (2.1 km ★★★★★) is a beast. It is at this point that the real contenders will come to the fore.

Whatever remains of the race then has to try to piece itself back together before the finish, made harder by a spattering of one to two-star sectors. Gruson (1.1 km, ★★), Willems à Hem (1.4 km, ★★) and, finally, the 300 m Roubaix sector with ★ that is really just for aesthetics before they can finally smell the velodrome filled with fans screaming their names.

There’s no telling what will happen but we can still predict where there will be breaks in the race, where the jostling for position will happen and where the riders need to be on it.

Top Contenders: Lotte Kopecky, Marianne Vos and Lidl-Trek

The current dynamics of the peloton, after the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, set the scene for what is expected at Paris-Roubaix Femmes. On one side we have the best team of 2023, home to World Champion Lotte Kopecky and the best sprinter in road cycling right now, Lorena Wiebes. On the other hand, you have the team that has, in the past, pulled out all the stops to win Paris-Roubaix Femmes twice, recently won the Tour of Flanders, and currently looks to have the strongest team in the peloton. In the third corner, you have the GOAT, winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen recently, Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease a Bike).

Lorena Wiebes, covered in mud, raises her arm in victory, holding up four fingers to signify her fourth Scheldeprijs win.
Wiebes won her fourth-straight Scheldeprijs on Wednesday.

The three different lanes are fascinating in that SD Worx-Protime hasn’t had as clean a run this year, and Paris-Roubaix seems to be the race in which they can’t quite get their ducks in a row. Last year they had Femke Markus in the perfect position but the young Dutchwoman crashed in the velodrome before the sprint started. In the other two editions, Lidl-Trek outsmarted the Dutch team. Something about Paris-Roubaix Femmes and SD Worx-Protime just hasn’t gelled.

That could all change this year with Kopecky riding the way she is. She didn’t look quite as commanding at Flanders as she did at Strade Bianche, and it’s possible her early season form is on a downswing, but with Paris-Roubaix, you just never know. All she needs is to be in the right place at the right time.

By contrast, Kopecky’s teammate Wiebes is on fire. On Wednesday she won her fourth Scheldeprijs in a row (there have only been four editions); at Flanders, she was the only SD Worx-Protime rider in good position going into the Koppenberg and thus the only one in the move of the day. She is not just a sprinter and has over the last couple of years evolved into, for lack of a better way to put it, a damn good bike racer.

Between Kopecky and Wiebes, SD Worx-Protime and Lidl-Trek are tied for one-day victories so far this Women’s WorldTour season, however, Lidl-Trek is arguably the better team of the two right now.

Elisa Balsamo climbs cobbles in the rain at the Tour of Flanders.

One of their three wins was with Elisa Longo Borghini and two were with Elisa Balsamo. Longo Borghini, who is eyeing the Ardennes, will not be racing Paris-Roubaix despite winning the 2022 edition, but Balsamo is the more likely leader for the American team anyway. The former World Champion continues to prove her worth time and time again and at Gent-Wevelgem and Classic Brugge-De Panne was one of the strongest riders in the race.

Longo Borghini not racing makes sense, but unfortunately, the team is also missing Shirin van Anrooij, one of the best riders of the spring. To support Balsamo they do have Ellen van Dijk (who could also be a favourite, to be fair), Lucinda Brand (another possible favourite; she was third in 2022), and Lauretta Hanson who is in some of the best shape of her career.

Balsamo can absolutely win this thing, but it will be hard for her to get away from Wiebes.

The third star of this situation is Marianne Vos. There are so few races that Vos hasn’t won. Just this year she added Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Dwars door Vlaanderen to the list. The one race that has eluded her is Paris-Roubaix Femmes, partially because it’s only been around for three years. In 2021, the first year, she won the “best of the rest” behind a solo Lizzie Deignan for second. Leading up to the 2022 edition Vos was the out-and-out favourite but the morning of the race she tested positive for COVID-19 and thus wasn’t able to start. And last year she came to the velodrome in the group of favorites, but in a sprint for seventh as the race already decided just ahead by the day-long breakaway. She finished 10th.

Marianne Vos celebrates winning a bike race, both arms stretched wide as she lets out an open-mouth shout.
Marianne Vos recently won Dwars door Vlaanderen.

This year Vos is going into Saturday with some of the best form we’ve seen from her in years, which is saying a lot. What she doesn’t have is the strong team that Kopecky and Balsamo do. Visma-Lease a Bike had major staff and rider turnover in the offseason and hasn’t quite been as good as expected this year. The young roster has dealt will illness and injury (Anna Henderson is currently out) and they’ve not been present – sometimes literally, as they missed both Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Ronde van Drenthe. Vos will not even have World Cyclocross Champion Fem van Empel by her side. She will of course not be alone, but if you stack up the two teams she’s up against Visma-Lease a Bike doesn’t have the firepower of SD Worx-Protime and Lidl-Trek. Not right now.

Other riders to watch

For the potential winner’s name to be on this preview half the start list would have to be listed as “other riders to watch,” but there are still some who stand out amongst the rest.

Alison Jackson, who won last year’s edition with an abundance of panache, is the perfect rider for Paris-Roubaix Femmes. She proved it last year with her tenacity, but what really makes Jackson a good rider for this race is her attitude towards racing her bike. Gracie Elvin said on the Wheel Talk Podcast this week that Jackson doesn’t take herself too seriously but is serious about racing her bike. In order to win Paris-Roubaix you need to have fun along the way, no one can do that better than the Canadian National Champion.

Coryn Labecki and Alison Jackson wait for a bike race to start. Their backs are to the camera while they talk.
Alison Jackson chats with her teammate Coryn Labecki before the Tour of Flanders.

A team that hasn’t quite performed this year has been DSM Firmenich-PostNL. The Dutch team was down Charlotte Kool earlier in the spring due to illness and Kool hasn’t quite been able to contend with Wiebes this year, but she is still a phenomenal rider. The legs are coming around, and the late start to the year might mean they come around on Saturday. DSM’s strongest rider without question has been Pfeiffer Georgi. The British National Champion has been holding that team down this spring and especially in the last two weeks has been everywhere she needs to be. It’s time she takes the reigns of the Dutch team and gets a chance to shine at Paris-Roubaix.

FDJ-Suez has two strong time-trialists on their roster in Amber Kraak and Grace Brown. When it comes to strength, these two have it in spades. If either of them can get up the road ahead of the favourites no one will see them until the race is done.

Tiffany Cromwell rides in a pack at the Tour Down Under.
Tiffany Cromwell during the Tour Down Under.

Canyon-SRAM is handing leadership over to Tiffany Cromwell for Saturday’s race, a big opportunity for the Australian who always rides in support of her teammates. Her experience, skill in positioning, and love for non-paved surfaces will come in handy. Her teammate Zoe Bäckstedt is also one to keep in mind. The youngster just finished off an impressive cyclocross season.

Audrey Cordon-Ragot and Lily Williams are a good duo for Human Powered Health to go in with. Williams has had a fantastic spring so far, she even finished third in Nokere Koerse a few weeks ago. Cordon-Ragot is always active in races that have a bit of unknown. As an experienced rider, her positioning will get her far in Paris-Roubaix.

Star Ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Lotte Kopecky, Marianne Vos
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Lucinda Brand, Elisa Balsamo, Lorena Wiebes
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Alison Jackson, Pfeiffer Georgi, Charlotte Kool
⭐️⭐️: Amber Kraak, Tiffany Cromwell
⭐️: Zoe Bäckstedt, Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Grace Brown

Bear 🐻 watching, but no idea how they’ll do: Kim Le Court (AG Insurance-Soudal), Marta Lach (Ceratizit-WNT), Letizia Paternoster (Liv AlUla Jayco), Emma Norsgaard (Movistar), Christina Schweinberger (Fenix-Deceuninck)

Wheel Talk Podcast picks

With the news that Puck Pieterse is not racing Paris-Roubaix after both Loren and Gracie picked her on this week’s podcast, we have the following back and forth. I am including this instead of straightforward picks because Paris-Roubaix is the opposite of straightforward.

Abby: Puck [Pieterse] and Shirin [van Anrooij] aren’t racing so who do you all pick? I am sticking with Vos [like I said on the podcast].
Loren: Oh god … I don’t know!
Abby: You could really go safe and pick an obvious choice or pull a name out of a hat. Or go fully heart-pick.
Loren: I’ll go heart. Although both could win I pick Vos. Need to think of a dark horse.
Abby: Audrey [Cordon-Ragot].
Loren: Good shout! An early break, she’d be a good breakaway companion.
Abby: A real heart pick would be [Christine] Marjerus.
Matt de Neef: Domestique getting her big win?
Abby: And she might be retiring.
Loren: I was going to say Christine! She’s on form too.
Abby: How amazing would it be if she won?!
Loren: Roubaix is a tough one to pick … the race is still too new and there are way more variables at play.
Matt: Kopecky to bounce back after the frustration of Flanders. But I’d like to see Grace Brown win it.
Gracie: Georgi? Wiebes?
Abby: Wiebes would be a good win for sure. Pfeiffer, love that for me (and my fantasy team).
Loren: Wiebes is a good pick! But if we go off my crystal ball prediction, SDW ain’t winning Roubaix …

FINAL PICKS (I think?):

Abby: Vos
Matt: Kopecky
Gracie: Wiebes
Loren: inconclusive

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