Lizzie Deignan, the winner on Saturday of the first women’s Paris‑Roubaix, will be the main attraction in the 2021 AJ Bell Women’s Tour of Britain, which begins in Bicester on Monday. The six‑stage race will feature many of those who battled through the historic inaugural edition of the women’s “Hell of the North”, won by a bloodied and tearful Deignan in Roubaix.
The dramatic growth in popularity of women’s cycling, demonstrated by the advent of a women’s Paris-Roubaix and the long-awaited return in 2022 of the women’s Tour de France, will be exemplified this week by the Women’s Tour, which returns after a 28-month absence enforced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the previous six editions the Women’s Tour of Britain has established itself as one of the most prestigious events in women’s racing, with Deignan winning overall in 2016 and also the most recent edition, in 2019. A hat-trick of wins by the 32-year-old, who finished the weekend’s cobbled Classic with bleeding hands, so severe was the vibration from the ruptured roads, would make her one of the most successful British riders in history.
Deignan’s emotional victory was a moving statement of intent, underlined by the Yorkshirewoman’s powerful words afterwards. “We didn’t have a chance to dream for so long, it’s always been a men’s race,” the leader of the Trek-Segafredo team said. “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 trophy. She doesn’t just have to watch men on the TV any more. We’re here and we’re representing.”
Deignan added that she was “incredibly proud” that women’s cycling had reached what she called a “turning point”.
“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. 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.”
However, the cobbles did take their toll on the women’s peloton and there will be several notable absentees from the start line in Bicester on Monday. Among those nursing injuries after crashing on Saturday will be Annemiek van Vleuten, who broke her pelvis in two places after what she described as a “stupid crash”.
Despite her fall, the former world road race champion carried on racing to Roubaix. “I was just riding to get to the finish, but now I’m really disappointed that I didn’t just get off because I have to pay a high price for this.”
Deignan’s teammate, the world time trial champion Ellen van Dijk, sustained a concussion after her own crash. “I have to stay calm for a while,” said the Dutch rider, who has been ruled out of the Tour of Britain.
There are unlikely to be any days quite as brutal as a muddy Paris‑Roubaix in the 2021 Women’s Tour route but the autumn scheduling, rolling terrain and windy, unsettled weather is sure to make for a gruelling week.
Finishing on Saturday in Felixstowe, the outcome is likely to pivot on Wednesday’s 16.6km time trial stage in Atherstone. In a race route that looks likely to favour sprinters rather than climbers, Deignan is hardly likely to be disadvantaged. Buoyed and empowered by Saturday’s rubicon moment, she will be the rider to watch in the penultimate women’s World Tour race of the season.