Paris-Roubaix Femmes – an important step for women’s cycling

Words by Rebecca Bland

On 2nd October 2021 we saw women racing for the illustrious cobblestone trophy of Paris-Roubaix for the first time in its 125-year history. A year or so after the first edition was due to be held, Lizzie Deignan of Trek-Segafredo etched her name into history as she crossed the finish line inside the Roubaix velodrome as the victor.

A brave solo attack (which didn’t even begin as an attack) just before the first cobblestone section saw her ride off the front and never look back. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the winning move as it occurred before the live coverage began. This, along with the massive disparity in prize money between the men’s and women’s races, demonstrates just how far cycling still has to go to reach parity in the professional realm.

Why is it so important that after 125 years we finally got to see professional women riding the treacherous cobbles? And how much further does professional cycling have to go to reach equality?

Why is it important? 

The inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes was the result of 125 years of inequity, and not because there wasn’t interest from fans or the women’s professional peloton. For years the narrative has been that women are unable or unwilling to ride this incredibly hard race, while in reality, this wasn’t the case. And the first edition proved that. The images of Deignan’s blood-stained handlebars and blistered hands demonstrated visually that women can most certainly handle the pavé. The gloves are, literally, off.

It’s no secret that the Women’s WorldTour is a…work in progress. There are far fewer top-level races during the season than the men’s, a lack of live images even when mandated by the UCI, much smaller salaries and a distinct difference in prize money. Although Paris-Roubaix Femmes doesn’t solve all these issues, its presence is important in continuing the development of women’s professional cycling.

The first announcement of a Paris-Roubaix Femmes was over 18 months ago. Covid put a stop to the first edition, but why did it take over 120 years to get to this point anyway?

In essence, women have been fighting for equality in cycling for a long time. It was only in 1984 that women’s cycling was included in the Olympics, for example, while men have raced for the coveted medals in almost every Olympiad since 1896. Beyond that, there are several epic races whose women’s editions are remarkably youthful despite their storied histories, e.g. Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, etc. It’s hard to believe now, and while women aren’t asking for their own edition of all men’s races – Milan-Sanremo, for instance – we’re constantly reminded how much fighting these women have had to do just to get where they are.

The beauty of this inaugural edition of the ‘Hell of the North’ wasn’t lost on the wider sporting world, either. It was even discussed in the traditional mainstream media, namely BBC Radio 4. Additionally, the fact that it was Lizzie Deignan who won made it even more special, as a woman, a wife, and a mother.

This is a professional cyclist who took time out of her stellar career to have a baby and has come back successfully at the highest tier of the sport. It proves that women aren’t the fragile, lesser beings that they were once believed to be. Instead, they’re badasses. And the fact Deignan returned after having a baby has already had a positive effect on the peloton. Pro racer and Olympic gold medalist Elinor Barker has just announced her own pregnancy and she cited mothers like Deignan, Laura Kenny and Dame Sarah Storey as inspiration; she too can return to cycling after the birth. What’s more, both British Cycling and her new team for 2022, Uno-X Pro Cycling, have promised their full support while she takes time out from racing.

What still needs to happen in women’s cycling?

Although Paris-Roubaix Femmes is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still plenty that needs to be done to provide equal opportunities. The prize money debacle was widely documented on social media, and we also learned that Deignan’s team Trek-Segafredo has quietly been equalling prize money throughout the season, ensuring that their women receive the same as the male winner of the same race. This is a fantastic gesture, but it shouldn’t be on them to do this. Race organisers manage to give equal prizes in cyclocross, so why not in road racing?

It’s important to note that women’s cycling doesn’t need a carbon copy of the men’s season. Let it carve out its own personality. It has its characters, its rising stars, and its veterans. Giving them the platform is key to developing the sport. Increase the media coverage, there is an appetite from fans new and old, and increase the prize money. Nobody expects an immediate fix but each step forward must be more than a token gesture.

And the thing is, women’s cycling is changing. It is becoming more equal, and it’s developing slowly into something much more professional. There are, like many career paths, obvious disparities and a lack of opportunities for women. But there is also reason to celebrate, as the UCI and race organisers realise there is a palate for women’s racing and steadily increase investment. Sure, they take a step backwards once in a while with the prize money issue or the introduction of a U23 world championship within the elite race…but the ball is rolling.

And with this inaugural display on the iconic pavé, little girls have been able to watch women racing across the cobbles. And, perhaps for the first time, fully embraced the idea of following in their footsteps. It’s not just about how history has been made on that cold, wet September day, but how it will inspire future generations and open up more opportunities to those who were once deemed too weak and frail to ride the cobbles.

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