What's Cool In Road Cycling

Roubaix Preview: We Ride The Cobbles!

So you don’t have to! Riding the old flemish and french roads has had a certain poetic quality since the bicycle was invented after Napoleon’s era. The old conquerer never could have guessed we’d be celebrating the 101st Paris-Roubaix in 2003, riding his bumpy roads at around 40 kms an hour. Had his men had bikes, they’d have taken Moscow by surprise!

But they would have been bigger men than Napoleon. Watch the final of Flanders and Roubaix and you’ll notice that most of these guys look different from the odd Tour de France rider.

Some compare the cobble sections to climbs: they’re about 1-4 km in length, and you need an extra effort to conquer them. But unlike a climb, it helps when you’re a little heavier and taller. Six feet tall and going around 75+ kilos, that’s what you’re looking for. You need the extra weight to stay on your bike. And you need to be able to push a bigger gear.

Entering a flat cobble section, I immediately switch to say 53×18. This will bring you home at all times, even when there’s a little climb in it. You could switch up, but you don’t want to go to a lighter gear while riding, because your bike will shake so much your chain might fall off in the process – if you can use your hands at all. Should you encounter a steeper climb, you could shift your front gear back to 39 or 42. It’s very much like cyclocross or MTB, you could even compare it to a D-downhill.

So, I put my hands on top of the handlebar (not on the side, you won’t need your brakes anyway and your hands will let go to easy) and take a deep breath. In the meantime: take a good look around. Scan the area in front of you (like Arnie does in Terminator!), preferably look as far as a 100 mtr. When there are a lot of other cyclists on the track, it’s not much use watching the guy who appears right in front of you: he’s slower than you anyway, so he has not chosen the right path. Look if there’s someone going real fast and see what route he chose.

But the most important thing is steering, or rather NOT steering. Your front wheel will almost automagically choose the right path, provided you don’t hold it too tight. It seems odd, but letting your bike go where it wants to go will reduce the risk of falling down. As an extra advantage, your wrists and shoulders won’t suffer that much from shaking. And you will be able to watch the road in front of you. This ride will definitely not go in a straight line, and ever so often you will need to switch to the other side of the road.

Of course you will have to watch the cobbles as well, because a pointy one or a wide gap could give you a flat. But don’t fear for your spokes and wheels. Just think SPEED. Your bike will suffer more from going slowly. The faster you go, the less you will be harmed by the bumps.
It’ll be like flying…

Mostly, the road is worst in the middle. Traffic tends to push the rocks tighter to the sides, meaning you’d best ride to the left or right of the road.

One more thing about choosing the small gutter sections: do it only when you’re sure you can easily go back to the road. Sometimes the gutters just deepen and end without warning, and you need a hell of a jump. Often the gutters have a small pointy block every couple of meters, put there as placeholders for the cobbles. These will definitely give you a flat tire. And, most important: It’s too narrow. When there are riders in front of you, you won’t be able to overtake them. It’s just so cool to overtake the guys who ride the gutter, while you’re on the cobbles!

Last year, after the Karel Martelstreet in Flanders, I took a 2 minute lead on my companions. The section is 3 km long. But I’m six feet and 84 kilos. And I love the cobbles. See, it helps!

– Robert van Willigenburg

Photos courtesy of Peloton.nl

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