ESCAPE FROM HELL – (V/V) 2023: Alison Jackson

2023: Alison Jackson
In the end, it’s not always the strongest who wins. Certainly not in cycling, and most definitely not in Paris-Roubaix. On the roads of the Hell of the North, the „strongest“ can just as easily win in the legendary velodrome as get bogged down in the Trouée d’Arenberg. Year after year, the cobblestone crushers crash in the Mons-en-Pévèle sector or collapse in the Carrefour de l’Arbre – and one cannot underestimate the traps of the asphalt either. On these unique roads, an aspirant for glory needs to be strong, but also brave and lucky. Paris-Roubaix smiles on the bold, even those who have been out there the longest. In a race where chaos is always the order of the day, early attackers create unsuspected openings. Conquerors of the Hell of the North, they tell us about their heavenly day on the cobbles.

Alison Jackson : “Don’t think, just do”
“In the three editions that we’ve seen, Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift has been won in a different way on a different part of the course”, Alison Jackson (EF Education-Cannondale) celebrates as she gets ready to defend her crown in the French Monument. In 2021, for the grand premiere, British icon Lizzie Deignan powered to the front as soon the race hit the cobbles, flying to victory through a magnificent one woman show. A year later, the favourites raised hell on the cobbles and Elisa Longo Borghini eventually resisted her fierce rivals. In 2023, Jackson invented another scenario.
A seasoned rider, the Canadian champ enjoyed her first tastes of the Hell of the North (24th in 2021, 13th in 2022) and felt she had the means to pave her own way to victory towards Roubaix. It was all a matter of creating the right opportunity, emulating the long range attackers who have historically shined in the men’s edition of Paris-Roubaix.
The opening circuit gave Jackson and the baroudeurs the proper terrain to get away. Once they reached the cobbles, an absolute thriller was on, marked by a mass crash in the chase group with 37 km to go and an extraordinarily tight finale. Ten kilometres away from glory, the gap was down to 15’’. In any other race, it would have been a done deal… Not in Roubaix. Three decades after Steve Bauer saw Eddy Planckaert pipe him with the smallest margin on the André-Pétrieux velodrome, Jackson became the first Canadian to ever win a Monument.

KM 0. ROLL WITH INTENT : “Always better to be ahead”
“I had done quite well in the previous editions and I always said: ‘If I have a clean run, no crashes, then I think I could win the race.’ I came with the attitude that it’s always better to be ahead. Any moment when you find yourself at the front of a bike race, be aggressive, make an attack. So that was gonna be my approach to the race although I thought I would be doing that later in the race, more in some of the harder parts. I had a few other teammates that their role was to try and get in that early break but there was a big group going and it was important that we were in it, so I went. It was the right moment and, no second guessing, the reaction right away was to jump in it. Here’s the break! And then you have to believe that it’s gonna work out. You don’t go in a breakaway if you don’t think it’s gonna go far.”

KM 25. GIVE THE BREAK A CHANCE : “Every little bit mattered”
“The key was just to ride. I believed in this breakaway and that showed everyone that they could also believe. It was leading by example. Susanne Andersen was up there for Uno-X. We were teammates once upon a time and she’s a very smart bike racer. Knowing that she was always pulling through, I was always pulling through, and the same with the others. Even if the group catches us later on, we’re still in the finale, we can get a great result and we’ve put ourselves in a position to avoid crashes, chose our lines on the cobbles… So I have full commitment and it encourages others to have full commitment, so the gap grows. I’m hearing on the radio: ‘You’re doing too much work.’ People told me all the time that’s what they said when they watched: ‘Oh she’s working too much, she’s not gonna win.’ But that’s how we maintained that gap. Every little bit mattered to keep it going.”

KM 80. THRIVE THROUGH CHAOS : “I got word through the radio there was a big crash”
“I was not so much aware of the situation behind. All I knew was the time gap – up to six minutes, that was really good. And just listening and watching, hearing from the team car where that time gap was, you could get a sense of what was happening behind. But because we had almost every team in that front group, I knew that the chase behind wasn’t gonna be very strong. So the gap was coming down slowly. I got word through the radio that there was a big crash behind so that let our gap go up. I didn’t know who crashed or what it looked like. And also you don’t know what the tactic is behind. At one point, [Lotte] Kopecky attacked but she dropped her teammates from SD Worx, so she was alone and she couldn’t chase the whole group… These dynamics didn’t help them behind. But you know, the gap was coming down closer and closer. At one point, it was nine seconds.”

KM 135. TOO LATE TO GIVE UP : “That’s what I love about bike racing”
“I remember looking behind and seeing the group was very close. Such a small gap usually means the race is over for the breakaway. With 5km to go, I thought : ‘We’ve been out here on the road, alone for 140k, we’re not giving up now!’ You have to commit to the very end. And Roubaix is a very rough race, everybody is tired, so 10 seconds means more than in other occasions. Even if I pulled the group all the way, I would still get 5th and that would be a great result. I’d rather be a part of the front action than change the tactics. Expressing that to the other girls also allowed them to get on board. Three of us drove all the way into the finale. At that moment, if you’re behind, you think you’re gonna get back and you already think of the finale. So they think they’ve caught us and they slow down, while we think they’ve caught us and we go full gas. It creates a new separation and that’s what I love about bike racing, the games, the tactics… Because it’s not just the decisions we make, it’s also the decisions they make behind at that timing that made it so positive for us in the breakaway.”

KM 145.4. GLORY AND PARTY IN THE VÉLODROME : “It’s not your imagination, it’s real life”
“I’m not a track rider, I’m not used to sprinting on a velodrome, but I always asked the trackies how to manage this one. But I mean… On my handlebar, my notes are: ‘Don’t think, just do’. That’s really what it came to. As long as you don’t get boxed in, it’s about what you have left in the legs so that was the plan, to sprint absolutely full gas. Once you cross the line, you know you can own it. This. Is. My. Win. It’s a bit of relief and a bit of knowing you’ve accomplished something so big. No Canadian had ever won a cycling Monument. So to be the first is super meaningful. And then it’s just so exciting. Bike racing is fun but winning is a special type of fun. You ride around the velodrome on the recons, imagining what it would be like to win. Now, it’s not your imagination, it’s real life and you get to experience it. You just want to celebrate with all your teammates and friends and all the people that know you. Of course my teammates are not there yet but it’s whoever, friends that were in the crowd, some journalists, photographers, the team staff… And we start the celebration.”

Alison Jackson :
Born on 14 December 1988 in Vermilion (Canada)
• 3 participations in Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift
Winner in 2023
• 3-time Canadian National Champion
Road race in 2021, 2023 / ITT in 2021
• 9 participations in the UCI World Championships
6th in 2021