In recent years, the women’s Classics scene has come on leaps and bounds. Strade Bianche joined the calendar in 2015, and there will be debuts for the Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this spring.
Fitting alongside comparative mainstays like the Trofeo Binda, Tour of Flanders, Ronde van Drenthe and Flèche Wallonne, the spring calendar is in good nick.
There is perhaps only one thing missing: Paris-Roubaix. The Queen of the Classics does not have a women’s version. Why?
We put it to Amaury Sports Organisation’s technical director of races, Thierry Gouvenou, himself a former top-10 finisher in the prestigious French event.
“Women’s cycling is already in the process of evolving. A lot of high-level races have been created for women in recent years,” Gouvenou said, acknowledging recent developments.
“But we also notice that the women’s peloton is not very dense. So, there is no urgency to do a copy-and-paste of the men’s calendar and put in a women’s version [of Paris-Roubaix] at the moment. Because there is not an enormous amount of women in the peloton.”
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“Among the men, there are riders who do Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and sometimes Amstel Gold. After that, it’s another type of rider who does the Ardennes Classics. There are not those two categories among the women yet. But in time, there’s a good chance that it will come.
“I don’t think that there is a real demand from the women to do Paris-Roubaix at the moment,” Gouvenou added later. “I’m part of the women’s commission at the UCI and we haven’t felt a real want from them to do Paris-Roubaix.”
Has Gouvenou discussed a women’s Paris-Roubaix with any female riders? “Personally? Directly? No,” he said.
Guarnier’s Roubaix desire
There is an appetite among top women riders. When we asked Boels-Dolmans star Megan Guarnier of her interest in racing it, she replied: “I would love to do it. Just because it’s a super hard race, one of the great classics. It’s really a hard man’s race – a hard woman’s race, it should be at some point.”
“I think if the men can do it, we can do it too. If you put women on the same roads in the same conditions, it’s going to be just as exciting.”
However, the reigning WorldTour champion is wary of the dangers of a tokenist women’s Paris-Roubaix: “It has to be something that the organisation wants, not something that’s forced onto them. I think they need to see value in it, and I think we’re going in that direction.”
Guarnier isn’t the only champion to voice her enthusiasm. Over the years, Marianne Vos has repeatedly spoken of her desire to race – and win – a women’s Paris-Roubaix, saying “it would be an act of recognition for women’s cycling.”
A logistical nightmare
It comes down to far more than dreams and desire, but cold, hard logistics. Finding a slot in a busy cycling calendar is a headache. The dominant formula for running women’s Classics involves holding them hours before the men’s event, when all the organisational structures are already in place: Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège all do this.
However, this seemingly cannot be repeated at Paris-Roubaix: as Gouvenou explains, the junior men’s race takes place a couple of hours before the elite men’s race, finishing in the Roubaix velodrome. However its 111-kilometre route, including Mons-en-Pevèle and the Carrefour de l’Arbre, might prove ideal for the women.
Speculatively speaking, there is an U23 Paris-Roubaix, organised by the Vélo Club Roubaix on May 28, which could provide another opportunity for an early afternoon women’s version. Moreover, it currently fits between the Tour of California and Women’s Tour on the WorldTour calendar.
“It’s difficult for the Vélo Club Roubaix to run two races. You need two teams to work with the police and you need to close the road for much longer. Logistically, I think it would be a bit complicated,” Gouvenou suggests.
Secondarily, the trains put another strain on any running of Paris-Roubaix: the men’s event already traverses over a dozen railway crossings.
It’s like threading the eye of a needle over and over again: for all the diligent railway schedule perusing pre-race at ASO headquarters, closed barriers and controversy are sometimes impossible to avoid, as we saw most recently in 2015.
ASO has increased its range of women’s races this year. “We’re organising a fair few events, we have [the Asda Women’s] Tour de Yorkshire, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we have La Course. We are attentive to the development of women’s cycling,” Gouvenou says.
“But everyone should advance. The organisers have announced a lot in the last three or four last years, but the teams have not advanced at the same speed, neither has the number of riders. So, we need to stabilise the progression of the number of races.”
“Women are undoubtedly capable of doing Paris-Roubaix, there’s no worries about that,” Gouvenou says. “But are they capable of having 100, 120 or 140 women on the start line there? I don’t know. I think at the moment, it could be a bit hard. But with time, it’ll come.”
Will we see a women’s Paris-Roubaix in five years’ time? “There is a lot of work to be done, so that things keep advancing. You can’t just skip all the steps,” Gouvenou says.
“The men’s Paris-Roubaix already has 114 editions [115 after 2017] but voila, it wasn’t created yesterday. It takes time.”