In its third year, Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift is very much still a mystery to the women’s peloton. The first year was one like no other. Rain, mud, chaos (and moved to October at the end of a long season). The second – back in the expected April spot – was sunny, dry, and a little more straightforward in terms of bike racing tactics, but still the women’s peloton has never raced a beast like the Hell of the North.
“We’ve got to experience both a really wet, terrible, rainy kind of Paris-Roubaix and then a dry one,” Alison Jackson of EF Education-Tibco-SVB told Escape Collective. “The first edition, when it was so wet, I was like, this is not my favourite race at all. This is only for the fans. There is no way any of us who ride it in the rain actually enjoy it. Then we had a dry Paris-Roubaix and that was really fun, it’s the right amount of chaos.”
Jackson, who started her career racing in North America, wasn’t raised in the crosswinds like some of the women she races against now, and has had to adapt her racing style over the years to compete with the European peloton.
Over the years she’s learned to love the chaotic races of Belgium and the Netherlands, finishing sixth at the World Championships in Leuven in 2021.
On Saturday Jackson will race her third Paris-Roubaix Femmes, which of course will be as many as any other racer in the peloton has done. The weather is predicted to be sunny and dry, much like the 2022 edition of the race. Twenty-fourth in the mud-splattered 2021 edition, 13th last year, she’s cautiously optimistic about her third attempt.
“Of course, it’s always a little bit of survival,” Jackson said of the race on Saturday. “But now you don’t have all the bad luck of crashing and the flat [tyres] and whatever else. You can use your brain a little rather than just the survival.”
Jackson re-joined EF Education-Tibco-SVB at the start of 2023, a team she previously rode for in 2018-2019 when it was TIBCO-SVB. Prior to coming back to the American team she rode for Liv Racing for two seasons and for Team Sunweb in 2020.
It’s been a building year for the American outfit. Although the team has been racing many of the big European races for years it’s only their second season in the WorldTour.
“You know, on some key moments, we’ve been missing the mark,” Jackson said of the year so far. “You always have another chance. So you’ve got to start out with kind of a fresh agenda. But I think what really is going to favour us is just being aggressive, trying to get ahead of the race and then not get caught up in some of these crashes or whatever.”
Paris-Roubaix is a hard race to predict. It’s equal parts luck, strength, team support and guts.
“We did a bit of a recon today and I think there’s going to be some rain before the weekend, so even in doing the recon, the cobbles and the roads and the gutters are going to change after a couple of days of rain,” Jackson said.
“What’s really great about this team is that we all get along super well and the atmosphere is really fun and positive. That’s what keeps a team alive and what makes riders able to bash it out again and again when you know you’ve got a supportive team and are in a good place .”
The team everyone has their eyes on for Saturday’s race is the Dutch powerhouse squad of SD Worx, of course. They’ve won five of the seven European WorldTour one-days this season and will line up with multiple favourites to win in the Roubaix Velodrome. But there are ways to beat them, and Paris-Roubaix, being what it is, is certainly not assured to go their way.
“The first year was so short and the weather makes it so different,” Jackson explained of the evolving course. “The second year we had a couple of these short laps before going into the cobbles. Now we have quite a big section before we get into the cobbles. I think that will allow teams to set up the race.”
Once the peloton hits the first sector of cobbles, 64 km into the race, the course is the same as the last two editions. But the build-up to those cobbles, even though it’s not the most interesting stretch of the road, could play a major role in the outcome on Saturday.
“In the men’s race, you have that early break that can go quite a long way. We couldn’t play that tactic in the women’s race because it was so short and so fast. The peloton would never settle down enough for a break to get away before the cobbles. It’s going to be raced differently this year.”
“When you have more experiences, year after year riding it in different conditions, you’ll know what to expect or what it might kind of look like. If the weather changes just before we go out there, we won’t have that same depth of reference points. We really have to ride it like cowboys.”
For Jackson, racing Paris-Roubaix like a cowboy, flying by the seat of her bibs and embracing the unexpected could be the key to taking on SD Worx.
“[Lotte] Kopecky really wants to win this race,” Jackson said. “But then if you can catch her off guard or be a little bit ahead [in a break] when she comes across to you, I think that’s a good situation.”
But it will take more than tactics to be in the fight for the Paris-Roubaix title. Luck has to be on your side in this race more than any other. Jackson’s fighting spirit is a tool in her belt that will be critical to Saturday’s race.
“You’ve got to experience the journey as it happens,” Jackson said. “Some of the races maybe you can target and really say, ‘I can do good power up the Mur de Huy’, for example, but here it’s ‘You have got to have the good luck and be ready to battle’.”
The style of racing at Paris-Roubaix is just part of a larger shift in the women’s peloton. We’ve seen it over the past couple of years, as the races get bigger, more attention and more live coverage, so do the teams. Women are paid living wages when they weren’t just a handful of years ago. But SD Worx, formerly Boels-Dolmans, has always been a stand-out team.
“We’re at the cusp of where women’s racing is changing,” says Jackson. “A lot of times in women’s racing, the racing is so fast and hard, you really just keep trying to save energy until the last moment, really attritional racing. But to beat SD Worx we have to be a little bit bolder. We’ve got a lot of strong riders and different teams.”
“Bike racing is exciting because it’s the tactics when you use your energy and where can really dictate how the race rolls. We just need to see more bold racing I think. Other teams need to be willing to lose it all in order to win.”
Which is the only way to win Paris-Roubaix on Saturday. Don’t worry about getting your boots dirty, because the Hell of the North only happens once a year and you never know how the dice will roll.