The most feared and challenging terrain in cycling is cobbles. These can come in all shapes and sizes from the smoother, car flattened stones of Gent Wevelgem to the rough, steep bergs of Tour of Flanders all the way to the brutal pave of Roubaix. Most riders will get very little experience of cycling cobbles and in these conditions, so swat up on the following advice from our pave expert on how to ride these sectors and how to set your bike up to make it a bit easier.
This is by far the most important adjustment you can make to your riding style to bring you success while cycling on cobbles. When you leave a beautifully silky stretch of asphalt and hit – and it really does feel like you “hit” – a section of pavé, every last atom of your being will be screaming at you to fight it. Your muscles tighten, your hands grip, your jaw is set. This may be one of the most counter-intuitive things you’ll ever do, but you’re going to have to relax. Let those elbows bend, take the tension out of your neck. The toughest thing of all is your hands. You need to find a way to hold the bars securely to keep your front wheel on the straight and narrow without hanging on for grim death. Let the bars dance in your hands a little without letting them pop out. Hold the hoods, the drops, the tops, whatever suits you, everybody’s different, just let the tension go.
2. Put your weight on your feet
It’s a good idea to shift a gear or two to give yourself something more substantial to push against when you enter a sector of cobbles. This isn’t an instruction to smash it as hard as you can and blow up within moments, you should aim to continue with the same speed. What you’re actually doing is taking more of the weight on the balls of your feet, giving your backside something of a breather. Most people aren’t able to spin neatly over the cobbles in a Nibali style, the bumps just tend to boot them out of the saddle, so pre-empt that by not sitting quite so firmly on it and let your feet do the work.
3. Maintain Momentum
Acceleration is a matter of some awkwardness while cycling on cobbles. In the 2014 Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France stage over the same so-called roads, Belkin’s flatland specialists Sep Vanmarcke and Lars Boom stretched the field by riding as hard as they could through each sector. These weren’t attacks in the traditional sense of the word, but sustained efforts making the most of the speed they brought into those sections, so maintaining speed rather than relying on increasing speed over the sector is key. Stay off the brakes, increase your speed going into each cobbled sector, take the corners as quick as you dare and let your bike as quick as it wants on the descents. Momentum is everything.
4. Judge your effort
If you want to avoid the opposite of momentum, the crushing inertia of losing speed like Wile E Coyote running through a freshly laid bed of quick drying cement, do not underestimate each section. In Paris-Roubaix, you could be on one seemingly innocuous section for ten minutes or more of hell. At Flanders, bergs like the Oude Kwaremont drag on and on and on. Unlike a normal hill, you can’t ease for a moment and recover your mojo, you’ll be at a dead stop quicker than you can say Chris Froome. Push hard, yes, but don’t go beyond yourself. There is no point in blasting through three quarters of a section only to blow your doors off and limp along bumping over one cobble at a time until you regain the blacktop.
5. Look further ahead
It’s easy to get sucked into looking down at the pitfalls immediately in front of your front wheel. This will eventually see you mired in the individual bumps and holes and shake your rhythm until you resemble less a Phil Collins and more like a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs. Once you’ve picked your line, force your eyeline up to the middle distance and concentrate on keeping your neck relaxed and your head steady. This is a key element to finding some consistency over the rough stuff. Master this and one day this whole charade might even begin to feel almost normal.
Make sure you don’t have your bars set too low. Your hands need to be relaxed to soak up the road and it will help you to have all three primary hand positions available to you: the hoods, the tops and the drops should all be comfortable. Carbon bars have had their strength questioned, but there’s no disputing the extra give they can bring you. The further you move your hands from the stem, the more flex you’ll be able to feel. By the time you get to the end of the hooks, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had 30 PSI in your front tyre. Avoid an old fashioned narrow diameter bar – having a fatter piece of metal or carbon filling your hand will make it easier to avoid clutching it like you’re trying to choke it.
2. Bar tape
There are lots of aftermarket slices of gel padding that you can fix to your bars before taping them. If you go down this route – probably the best if you’ve ever suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome or perennial aching wrists – make sure you don’t disturb the general round cross-section shape of the bar. This could get in the way of the good all-round contact you need between your palm and your bike. Many prefer to wrap another roll of tape over their existing stuff, then chuck the whole lot on your return for a spanky clean new look. You’re most likely going in spring, so just leave your grotty winter roll on under the secondary wrap. Nobody will know. Our little secret.
3. Bottles and cages
Oh yes, those streamlined carbon fibre cages sure do look purdy and super-professional on your ultra-modern machine. It’s a horrible shock to hit the first section of kaissen and find that your bottles immediately leap out of their cradles. At best, you’ll be walking back up the road looking for them. At worst, you’ll bring down the massive bunch on your back wheel. If you don’t want to ride with one hand on your bars and one hand on your bottle all day, get the allen keys out and consign those carbon cages to the garage shelf ‘til you get home. Refit a pair of cheap old aluminium cages for the trip. You can bend them down mid-ride to grip your bidons tight, keep you hydrated and avoid causing a pile up. In addition, don’t be tempted to take oversized triathlon-style bottles. Their top-heaviness will have them jumping up out of the cages and making their own bids for freedom.
The argument rumbles on about disc brakes, but there is no questioning their usefulness on the pavé. Mud, water or a buckled wheel are all neutralised by a good disc. However, there are ways to enhance your rim brake set up, too. Set your brakes up how you like them, then swivel your little quick release lever up to a horizontal position. This will give the rims a little more leeway to jump around over the broken stones without slowing themselves on the rubber braking surfaces. You’ll also now be better placed to handle the minor buckles and deviations from true shape that are all too common over cobbles. If the weather is bad and you find those pads wearing so quickly that you need a bit more bite before the day is out, simply reach down and flick those levers back down to the perpendicular for a little more punch to your braking.
First, don’t be fooled by the concept of “tread.” Patterns on car tyres are there to deflect water away from the rubber and give your motor the best contact with the tarmac. Your bike only has a few millimetres of rubber and they will cut through to the road just fine. It’s the compound of the rubber that gives you grip. In general terms: soft rubber is grippy but easily torn, hard rubber is tough but unsure in the corners. The most important part of the construction is the sidewall, which needs to be tougher than your average racing tyre to avoid cuts from jagged edged setts. Continental’s Grand Prix 4 Season tyre has been popular for years for this reason, as it feels like a race tyre but skips the stones without tearing. The general move towards wider tyres is useful here, and most people can fit a 25mm tyre in their frames. The extra width will give you increased comfort and stability without noticeably affecting your speed. You might even get away with a 28mm, but check the clearance before you set off.
The pros go for custom made tubulars that they can run at extreme low pressure without having a separate inner tube to pinch and puncture. If you weigh 60kgs, you’ve got the wheels for them and you’ve got money to burn, then treat yourself to some Dugast tubs. Professionals have been known to let the air whoosh out until there’s only 40 PSI holding their skinny asses off the road surface but if your primary goal is to get round, pump them up to at least 60. They can stand at the side of the road holding a wheel in the air and accepting commiserations until a neutral moto or a team car pulls up with a fresh wheel. You’ll just get a sore arm.
So yes, once again, we know everybody loves carbon. We are also fully aware that deep section wheels are dead cool. Your backside, however, is less interested in how cool you are, and more worried about finishing the day looking like Evander Holyfield’s ear after Mike Tyson got mad. Wheels need to be strong, of course, but we sometimes erroneously equate strength with stiffness. You’re actually better off with something that has a little give, so a longer spoke and a slimmer rim will give you a little more comfort without being any less reliable. Yes, you’ll still want a degree of lateral stiffness to carry you up the short, sharp climbs that often come hand in hand with the cobbles. Nobody wants a heavy wheel either, but the primary concern here is strength and comfort. If you can run to a special pair of wheels, the ideal solution will be some handbuilt tubulars, giving you the best tyre choice too.
On the pavé, you’d hope to be cranking your big ring most of the time, which will assist in keeping your chain from bouncing off. The test comes when you hit the bergs. If you’re feeling strong, you can power up, as they’re not usually very long. But sooner or later, nearly everybody has to sit down and grind their way up. That’s when your gear choice comes into question. A 28-tooth sprocket is most people’s choice, though if power climbing is not your forté, you might decide you would like a 30, and maybe a compact chainset. Just in case. Pro teams who use Dura Ace Di2 swear by the electronic changing over the cobbles, asserting that removing the human touch eliminates one of the variables that can lead to an unshipped chain.
9. Shoes and pedals
If you’re a follower of the trend for stiffer shoes, you might want to rethink tactics for the pavé. Coming from the track, the explosive power that stiff shoes give you for time trials and short, all-out efforts is swiftly counteracted by the shock of the cobbles. Ride a pair of shrink-fit layered carbon shoes over the battered stones of, say, Paris-Roubaix and you will know how walking on a bed of nails without the benefit of some karmic-chi love thang goin’ on feels. A jackhammer pummelling the soles of your feet for fifteen minutes at a stretch wouldn’t be dissimilar. For those who have raised an eyebrow at top professionals running up the Koppenberg, a more drastic option is to abandon your road set-up in favour of some mountain bike pedals and shoes. Sure, they might not be quite as efficient the rest of the time, but when everybody’s walking, you’ll be walking the fastest.
10. Bar end caps
Go to a specialist Belgian beer seller and get him to source two 750ml bottles of Duvel for you. Remove the champagne-style corks carefully and drink. You may wish to get a friend to help you. When you wake up again, drink a strong coffee, a pint of water, neck a couple of paracetamol, and recover those champagne corks. You don’t want the corks themselves, you want the cages that held them in the bottlenecks and, crucially, the little Duvel-badged caps. Remove your bar end caps and replace them with the Duvel beauties, using the wire cages to elegantly hold them in place. You won’t regret it.