If there is one rider in the women’s peloton best suited to Paris-Roubaix, it’s Ellen van Dijk. The Trek-Segafredo rider has the flat-line power to motor across the cobbles and, as the time trial World Champion, the fortitude to sustain an attack.
Yet after being heavily touted as the favorite for last year’s race and then crashing out with a serious concussion, the Dutch rider admits she’s anxious about Saturday’s race and is looking forward more to her next major goal, attempting to set the UCI Hour Record.
Van Dijk displayed a mix of trepidation and excitement before the second edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes where she will be just one card of a very strong hand for Trek-Segafredowho line up also with last year’s third-place finisher Elisa Longo Borghinithe World Champion Elisa Balsam and cyclo-cross specialist Lucinda Brand.
“There are so many people who are excited about the race and it has such a big history. [It] is just different from any other race,” Ellen van Dijk said while pointing to last year’s massive build-up to the first edition and her disillusionment with how her race went.
“Maybe my mentality changed a little bit last year, I really thought ‘it’s gonna be super cool’. And it’s probably something that suits me. This year, I was a bit more like, ‘[sighs] Paris-Roubaix, I have to ride it as well. I was not so excited about it anymore.
“At the same time, I don’t feel the pressure like I’m going to win this race. I know I have the power for it. But I also learned that you do not just need the power for it. You need way more to win this race than just good power.”
It was almost as if not being excited for Paris-Roubaix was freeing for the 35-year-old who last year was one of the top favourites.
“I do not really consider myself as a favorite anymore, so I don’t carry that pressure around,” she said but changed her tone quickly when challenged whether she was ready for Paris-Roubaix.
“I am ready. I’m excited to go out there and ride as fast as I can,” she said before explaining the source of her hesitation.
“I have some anxiety in me since last year. It’s been a rough three months to get back to normal – I had a really heavy concussion and it’s something that I don’t want to have again, of course. We’ll see how it goes on Saturday. I think the form is there but it’s not only about that. I just need to be in the front and then everything will be OK.”
Rather than last season’s October slog through mud and rain, Saturday’s Paris-Roubaix Femmes will undoubtedly be dry and the race organizers said the cobbled sectors are in better shape than usual.
The weather forecast is a relief for Van Dijk. “My boyfriend kept telling me ‘if it’s going rain, I forbid you to start – you’re sure not going to start again’. I don’t know if I would have listened to him but I’m happy it’s dry anyway.
“This year almost feels like it’s another first time because it’s such different conditions and everything will be different than last year. It’s still hard to know what to expect really, in these conditions.
“What I learned from last year is mostly that you have to be in the front, which was not something really new… but once you’re on the backside of the things you keep chasing for the whole race. Positioning is key in this race. that’s not a secret. it’s also not my [best] quality, so that’s why I struggle a bit with this race. My main focus is to position well and then just go from there.
“We have a super good team and have a lot of different options. And I think that’s really good in this race because anything can happen. For sure somebody will have bad luck, somebody will have a great day, somebody will have a bad day I think it’s just super nice to have a very strong team here in Roubaix.”
Last year the team also went into the race with a strong team, and Lizzie Deignan’s early attack into the first cobbled sector turned out to be the winning move. Van Dijk expects a different race this Saturday.
“Nobody ever expected that Lizzie was making the winning move with 80k to go,” Van Dijk said.
“I expect that this year, a lot of girls [will] want to go early, just because of last year, they saw it is possible. So I think this year, everyone will be keen from the beginning on. It’s going to be a totally different race with the dry weather conditions, it will be faster. I think there will be bigger groups, but maybe also bigger pressure. For sure it will be chaos.”
The first edition included 29.2 kilometers of pavé on a paltry 115km route. This year, the organizers added an extra opening lap to add 9km, but Van Dijk said it won’t change the race. Although many riders felt that last year’s course was more than enough, Van Dijk thinks the women can take more cobbled sectors.
“The addition of the first 10k in the local lap doesn’t add anything. Last year, I remember I thought it was more than enough. I think the course is it’s hard enough. But I would like to see more cobbles in the future .”
One thing she doesn’t want to have the women’s race take from the men’s is the Arenberg forest sector, however.
“Two years ago, we did it in the recon and it’s just so fast and so dangerous. In the men’s race, there are always a lot of crashes and a lot of chaos. I don’t think this is what the race is about So for me, no, please, no.”
After Paris-Roubaix, Van Dijk says she will take a short mental break before diving into the intense preparation for her Hour Record attempt, which comes on May 23 in Grenchen, Switzerland when she will try to surpass the mark of 48.405km set by Great Britain’s Joscelin Lowden.
“I’m excited about [the Hour Record] and I’m also a little scared for that as well. But it’s one of my biggest wishes and the biggest project in my cycling career.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for about 10 years but never found the right time or the right team to support me. This year with Trek the time is there. It’s been my main focus since I started training this winter. It’s my main motivation I really get excited about it – way more than Paris-Roubaix, I have to say.”