The triumph of an underdog: Brains, brawn and a healthy dose of luck

How Alison Jackson made Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift her own.

The fiery Alison Jackson uncorked a wicked sprint at the end of a long breakaway and still had enough energy to hoist a giant rock over her head. (Photo © Gruber Images)

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 08.04.2023 Photography by
Gruber Images
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The 2023 Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift was a race for which even the most over-used superlatives are not enough.

After 130km at the front of the race, Alison Jackson (EF Education-Tibco-SVB) out-sprinted her remaining breakaway companions to take an extraordinary victory ahead of Katia Ragusa (Liv Racing TeqFind) and Marthe Truyen (Fenix-Deceuninck), a podium of underdogs. What makes the Canadian’s win even more perfect is that she laid out her plan a few days ago: get ahead of the race and catch the favourites off guard. Mission accomplished.

When three years ago the world was promised the first women’s Paris-Roubaix, there was relief, elation and thrill for riders and fans alike. And in each running of the ‘Hell of the North’, we were treated to wonderful and emotional performances as solo riders entered the Roubaix Velodrome to soak in victory.

The organisers added an extra 20km to the 2023 Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift, extending the run-in to the first cobbles to 64km (the route was the same from the Hornaing onwards), more than twice as much road – twice as much time – for the race to settle into a rhythm compared to the first edition.

This meant that there was a significantly greater chance of a breakaway going clear, allowing for the big favourites to relax in the bunch. For a while, at least.

Getting ahead of the race

It was a very large breakaway that escaped the peloton’s clutches early in the afternoon. 18 riders made the cut and nearly every team had representation, although notable absences included Jumbo-Visma and Movistar.

By the time the front of the race hit the first cobbled sector of Hornaing à Wandignies – more or less coinciding with the start of live pictures – the breakaway had a surprisingly wide lead of five and a half minutes.

Daniek Hengeveld (DSM) left her breakaway companions behind on the second cobbled sector, beginning 30 lonely kilometres at the front of the race.

With about 75km still to race, reigning champions Trek-Segafredo were all over the front of the peloton, evidently very keen to defend their 100% victory record and put a stop to SD Worx’s spring dominance.

Elynor Bäckstedt did much of the early work for Trek-Segafredo. Both Bäckstedts made their debut this weekend, 19 years after their father Magnus won himself a cobblestone, and Zoe even had a very special pair of pedals for the race.

At the same time, Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) was engaged in a furious chase after a bike change. She never gave up and eventually made it back up to the favourites, but this was far from the particular variety of focus the G.O.A.T. will have hoped for before the race.

Kopecky the Inevitable

Of all the bike races throughout the season, Paris-Roubaix is one of the least predictable – which is partly what makes it so beautiful – but one thing guaranteed to happen, pending crashes or illness, was an attack by top pre-race favourite Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx).

The Tour of Flanders champion attacked the Trek-Segafredo-led peloton on the relatively long and particularly dirt-covered Auchy à Bersée cobbles (a four-star sector, 2.7km) about 100km into the race.

It was inevitable (the crash behind too…).

Just as Kopecky stretched the elastic, there was a crash at the front of the bunch behind her as riders clamoured forward in an attempt to follow. She was soon joined by a formidable selection that included defending champion Elisa Longo Borghini and teammate Lucinda Brand (Trek-Segafredo), Pfeiffer Georgi (DSM), Floortje Mackaij (Movistar) and Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) who finished fourth last year.

The cobbles bite back

The breakaway – Hengeveld caught – still held two and a half minutes going into the last hour of racing (40km to go), but with a handful more big names in the Kopecky group, their lead was looking more and more tenuous.

But this is Paris-Roubaix.

Trek-Segafredo was holding the reins as the group lined out along the grubby crown of the Pont-Thibault à Ennevelin cobbles, so when Longo Borghini went down, only one escaped unscathed, Romy Kasper (AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step) the spare.

Nothing can ever be taken for granted at Paris-Roubaix, even and especially when you have this many hitters in one place.

Jackson and Lach take charge of the breakaway

Though bad luck rained on the favourites, the gap continued to fall and the breakaway began to get more restless in the last 30km, Jackson and Marta Lach (Ceratizit-WNT) careful to marshal proceedings.

“Nice try, you’re not going anywhere!”

As well as marking moves by others – Femke Markus was ever-present for SD Worx – the Canadian-German duo put in a number of probing attacks themselves, determined to force their companions into working with them, or jettison the weary hangers-on.

All in.

With 15km to go, the gap was under a minute and dropping fast, the chase behind now swollen and determined.

Paris-Roubaix was in the balance. Two possibilities lay open to the race: a late catch and a thriller of a sprint; or an underdog victory from the day’s breakaway. With everything that had already happened, either outcome would be an apt finale.

Kopecky took matters into her own hands once more.

10km to go. 11 seconds’ lead. It was all coming back together. Surely.

Jackson’s last-ditch effort…right? Just look at how close the pack is!

The chase group curse

With the gap hovering in the vicinity of 10 seconds and cohesion breaking down at the front of the race, it was only a matter of when the large chase group would catch the breakaway.

“Come on!”

The trouble is, it seems like those words were also in the minds of the teams behind: “it’s only a matter of time”. They knew it was in their reach. But they still had to do it.

The gap was almost back to 20 seconds as they entered the last 5km, so Brand launched a flyer, sensing real danger as her group failed to progress.

A neat use of road furniture afforded Brand a little daylight, but it was no more than a chink in the darkening clouds that swarmed above the chase group.

Brand was quickly regathered, and Elise Chabbey didn’t wait around to try the same. Longo Borghini also tried her luck, but all attacks were closed down.

The repeated bursts of acceleration ate a little time out of the gap, but more often than not a lull followed, and the breakaway carried 10 seconds onto the final ceremonial stretch of cobbles outside the Roubaix Velodrome.

Jackson’s perfect finale

Jackson had never been far from the very front of the group, and especially in the last 5km. The Canadian’s distinctive jersey was never not in the first three, and she was careful to secure herself to Lach’s wheel for the final few turns before the finale.

Note Jackson’s positioning, tucked in on Lach’s wheel, and the agonising proximity of the chase group behind them.

As the gap looked sure to close in the last few kilometres into town, the 34-year-old had looked a little shifty, as if she might burst out of the wheels and off the front for a late solo effort, but she had the patience and confidence to hold fast.

Lach stayed on the front going into the Velodrome – a selfless act? – as the others fought for position behind her.

Femke Markus (SD Worx) really really wanted Lach’s wheel – it could have been so much worse…

The touch of wheels that sent Markus slamming into the Cote d’Azur happened so fast and in such high-octane conditions that the possible implications barely registered in the moment – it’s incredible that no one else was affected – except for there being one less contestant in the sprint.

It was only moments after Markus’s crash that Marion Borras (St Michel-Mavic-Auber93) took over the front with a surge of pace.

And Jackson was ready for it, slotting, again, onto the leader’s wheel, then coming around the outside with a sprint that no one could match.

Now that’s one heck of a loveable underdog victory!

Kopecky dropped her head between her shoulders as she led the chase group across the line 12 seconds after Jackson, taking seventh as best of the rest following the remains of the day’s breakaway.

It was an incredible finale to an extraordinary race. A victory built of planning, patience, a healthy relationship with luck, and a very popular winner.

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