Rarely does a new race become an instant classic, but Paris-Roubaix is unique, and it was worth the wait.
The event itself is one of the oldest bike races in cycling history, starting in 1896, but 118 editions later, the women's event has just begun and with a race as epic as that, it's difficult to see how it cannot continue on the calendar.
Britain's Lizzie Deignan made history as the first winner of the long-awaited race, she launched an early, gritty attack on the first of 17 sections of cobbles (29km worth) still with 82km of the 116km course left to race to Roubaix.
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In the Winners’ Words - Lizzie Deignan on her historic Paris–Roubaix win
Deignan was the third rider in the team, and it was known that the latest world time trial champion Ellen van Dijk would be Trek-Segafredo's leader. The team had done a number of recons of the route across the year, and presumably the postponement from spring only aided them to success with more time to prepare as Deignan fended off Marianne Vos and Italian national champion of Trek-Segafredo, Elisa Longo Borghini finished third.
Deignan, 32, earlier in the year said she was "pleasantly surprised" by the course, but also that it would be very different with a full peloton to contend with. By going solo Deignan was able to take the best line across the trickier parts of the course, avoid sliding around in the mud, although she did almost come a cropper at one point, while others in the chase group were tangled up by riders who hit the deck, splitting the group apart, allowing Vos to launch herself after the Brit.
However, attacking so early was a risky gamble when Paris-Roubaix is known as being a wildly unpredictable race which isn't over until its over, not to mention going solo on tired legs with no shelter from team-mates.
Although Deignan has won an impressive list of races over her career, including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, La Course, World Championships, Strade-Bianche the only other victory she had this year was Tour de Suisse. Before last week's world championships she said: "I simply have to be willing to lose in order to win," which is the same approach she took on Saturday, and although it wasn't the plan for her to attack so early, she knew she needed to be at the front of the peloton as the race hit the cobbles to stay safe which put her in the best position to win from the off.
She said: "I thought well if at least I am there I can cover something. And when I looked behind no one was there, and I thought, ‘Well at least then they have to chase.’” And knowing her team-mates were behind, they could press on towards her if something happened, but instead she built her lead to a staggering two-and-a-half minutes and was never caught.
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Lizzie Deignan celebrates victory in Paris-Roubaix, October 2, 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Paris-Roubaix is historic because as one of cycling's five monuments, it's known as one of the hardest endurance challenges a rider can put themselves through. The area is known for dusty paths in the dry, and muddy, slippery terrain in the wet, with narrow, endless stretches of bone-shaking cobbles.
Deignan finished with bloodied hands, while other riders finished covered in sweat and mud. In the build-up, riders had detailed how watching the race on TV in their youth inspired them into cycling, and they recalled vivid memories of their childhood spent eagerly watching the drama unfold.
In a post-race interview, Deignan said: "We didn’t have a chance to dream for so long; it’s always been a men’s race. and I am just so proud that this is where we are, that women’s cycling is on the world stage now. I am proud that my daughter can look at the [cobblestone trophy]. She doesn’t just have to watch men on the TV anymore, we're here and we’re representing and it’s thanks to support from people like those in Trek-Segafredo that we’re here.”
She added: "I just feel so incredibly proud women's cycling is at this turning point and today is part of history and I'm proud to be part of a team which also makes history.
"We are so grateful to everybody behind the scenes, all the viewers watching because everybody who is watching this is also making history and it's proving there is appetite for women's cycling and the athletes here can do one of the hardest races in the world and I'm so proud I can say I'm the first ever winner."
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Viewers did not get to see the first half of the race, including Deignan's attack, since the TV coverage began from 60km to go. But the engagement with Saturday's race online showed the profile of women's cycling has risen dramatically and races like Paris-Roubaix Femmes should be here to stay on the calendar, with more coverage. The audience who witnessed the race unfold are part of the history and are vital in contributing to the sport's growth towards the coverage it deserves.
Other races such as La Course took several years to develop with longer routes, and a change of dates each time for it to become more exciting and considered a classic on the women's calendar - Milan-San Remo was, sadly, cancelled in 2006.
But 2022 sees the introduction of a Tour de France Femmes, and all of these classics contribute to the next generation of the WWT. In living rooms around the world, girls will have been inspired by what they saw from the women on the screen in 2021, showing blood, sweat and grit in one of cycling's most famous races, and long may it stay on the calendar.
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You can watch the 2021 Paris-Roubaix live and ad-free on the Eurosport app and Eurosport.co.uk. Download the Eurosport app for iOS and Android now. You can also watch the most comprehensive live & ad-free racing on GCN+. Go deeper and get interactive with live polls & quizzes, plus rider profiles, race updates, results & more – plus stream exclusive cycling documentaries.
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