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“Paris – Roubaix: My Story” – Abi Smith blog

So I was talking with my teammate (and fellow Voxwomen blog writer) Tanja, who I was sharing a room with, a few days before Paris Roubaix Femmes. I said that I was thinking about doing my blog about the race, but I wasn’t sure because I might not have much to write about. She told me ‘Trust me, you will have something to write about! It doesn’t matter where you come or how you did, everybody always comes away with their own story from Paris Roubaix.’ 

And so although the cameras only ever capture the nail-biting front end of the race, this is my little insight into the race behind the race – the fight to get to the finish. Here is my story.

Photo: Twila Muzzi

The day started pretty relaxed – a midday start meant a chilled couple of hours to eat and get ready in the morning. Unfortunately my stomach had been a bit off the evening before, and was still not feeling too good, so we said we’d just see how things go. 

When we arrived it was pretty awesome – I’ve never been at a race with so many spectators, people milling around, asking for autographs, pictures, cheering – you name it. It wasn’t long ago that it was me doing all of that!  It was even better knowing they were only here to watch us today, the women, not the men. It was our day. 

The race started, and we had 4 laps of a short circuit around Denain, before hitting the cobbles at 42km. So far so good – my stomach settled down and Tanja got herself into the early breakaway. In hindsight I was quite jealous of her actually, now knowing the chaos that would shortly ensue…

 

Lap 3 of the circuit, the road narrows going under a bridge, widens and narrows again. I think one rider must have hit the curb when the road narrowed again, and caused a pretty big pileup on the right. I got a disc brake rotor to the knee, tyre burn on my arm and a rubbing brake for the next 3 hours of racing. (Any cyclist with disc brakes will tell you how irritating that noise is). My aero suit zip split open in the crash, so was riding for a while in slight embarrassment until I could stop, get a jersey from the car and pull it on over the top. Not my most dignified hour, but generally I was still ok, if slightly warm wearing two jerseys. 

Got back to the bunch, but just as the pace ramped up due to the fight to get into the first cobbled sector at the front. Everybody knows how important it is to be at first there, otherwise you won’t see the front of the race again. (Unless you are the superhuman Ellen Van Dijk and just charge through everybody like a train). Spoiler alert – I never saw the front of the race again. 

Two more crashes happened within about 3km from the first sector – I got caught behind both. So as some bad luck (and some bad positioning) has it, I was pretty far back when we hit the cobbles. I managed to work my way up in the first 3 sectors or so, and the main bunch – if you can call at – was within reach now. Another crash on the cobbles though so another 30 seconds lost, and then another crash and then another. People flying into ditches and skidding on gravel, cars honking and trying to squeeze past on verges – it was absolute chaos. I dread to think what it was like when it was wet and muddy last year. After about 7 sectors a group of us, about 30 riders, settled into a rhythm. We kept riding for a while but eventually it was clear that the front was too far gone. Now it was survival. 

My feet were hurting a lot, the blisters on my hands burning and my knee starting to get pretty sore. The goal now was to get to the end in one piece. I have no shame in saying that I was counting down the kilometres and the cobbles, just waiting for the end to come. 

At 5km to go I gave it one last dig and attacked off the front of the group. I came flying round the corners into the velodrome and greeted with a wall of noise. That was special. 1.5 laps later I came round and crossed the line that was steeped in the history of all that had come before me.

Photo: Twila Muzzi

I greeted my teammates as we all came in, sitting there on the grass for a little while, soaking it in and resting our tired bodies. We headed back to bus and then to the showers! The iconic Roubaix shower room. That was cool. I went into the stall with Tom Boonen’s name plaque on it, and thought again how awesome it was that almost all of the best riders in the world have all been here too. 

Back at the bus we had a proper look at my knee. It wasn’t so good. It needed stitches as it was quite deep. So we took the hour drive back to the hotel, before jumping back in the car to get to the doctor who would very kindly do this for me.

Photo: Twila Muzzi

‘Are you hungry’ asks Daniel, my DS, who was unfortunately lumped with the task of taking me to the doctor. The plan had been to go out to a nice Italian restaurant and get a pizza with the whole team, which we two were now going to miss out on.

‘Pizza?’ I ask… hopefully. 

‘Pizza’ Daniel agrees. 

So there we were, sat there in the car at 10:30pm, beside a petrol station in Compiègne, my knee all stitched up and still the long drive back ahead of us, eating takeaway pizza and feeling in need of sleep. We rolled into the hotel at half past midnight, ready for the 7am start in the morning to jump on the train back home. What a day.

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And there we have it, my first Paris Roubaix, and the 2nd in Women’s history. Long, exhausting, and pretty damn hard. But a day I will never forget.

Up next for me is a short break from racing, back at home in the UK, (while I try and get my Visa sorted…) then a very busy May and June coming up – thanks for reading and I’ll be back soon to tell you all about it! 

Abi

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