Paris-Roubaix: Female riders prepare for 'physically demanding' maiden race

In 1896, the first race of men took place
Over the past 125 years, some of the most difficult men in one the most challenging sports have fallen on the cobbles of Paris Roubaix.

This weekend, the legendary race returns and for the first time ever, women will compete on the brutal "pave" course.

British's Lizzie Deignan said that a women's race of this nature "should have occurred a long while ago" in the lead-up.

She said, "Unfortunately it didn’t, but we’re making progress," at the Trek-Segafredo team's base in France for the race. It's a sign of how much women are cycling is getting respect."

Welcome to hell

The race to Roubaix, a small French town on the Belgian border, is known as the "hell of North". It involves a unique course of bumpy, narrow, cobbled farm tracks that leave riders covered in dust or with mud if raining.

The rain is expected to continue on Saturday as the female riders tackle a 160km course. They will be battered by stones for hours before the brave ones sprint for victory in Roubaix’s open-air Velodrome.

After trying out a section, Deignan, 32 said, "Physically it's going be one of the hardest races."

It's not what I expected. It's physically more draining than I expected, but I feel more comfortable in terms of my skill level."

It is difficult to predict who will win the race because of the unique route. However, the race favours stronger, more experienced riders who can adapt quickly to changing conditions and sprint.

Deignan is the 2015 road world champion and one of the most skilled one-day racers on Women's World Tour. She is still up against some of the best riders in the sport, including her team-mate Elisa Lango Borghini and Marianne Vos from Jumbo-Visa, as well as Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, of the formidable SD Worx.

Deignan thinks this race is the most unpredictable in a sport where a select group of riders takes most of the wins over a season.

She said, "This peloton has never raced over cobbles before." It will start from the beginning, I think. It's not a lengthy race, and there will be fireworks on cobbled sections. These cobbles are difficult to ride on.

Many riders are upset by the pave.

Men of the moment, and wily domestiques

The challenge for the men is more difficult this Sunday with a 258km course which has never seen a British rider win.

Jake Stewart, a promising 21-year old, will compete against legends in the race for his French Groupama FDJ team.

Past winners include Bora-Hansgrohe’s Slovakian star Peter Sagan, and the evergreen Philippe Gilbert from Lotto-Soudal. They will be up against men of the moment Wout Van Aert and Alpecin-Fenix’s Mathieu van den Poel.

The race is a lotto. Keep an eye out for clever domestiques like Luke Rowe from Wales and Owain Doull from Ineos Grenadiers, who are both skilled in the art of avoiding mistakes. They're a team that does more than just do the shorter Tour de France.

They're there to do their dirty work. And finally, the women.