Monday, 7 February 2011

How to ride the Queen of the Classics


Picture by Jered Gruber
Paris-Roubaix. The majestic race mean different things to different people. The race draws hundreds of thousands of international spectators and an even broader television audience. Some 270 kilometres on the roughest cobbled roads in the world, over six hours on the bike. Many riders fear the cobbles, knowing that their bodies will be beaten. The more experienced riders do not fear the cobbles but the panic they cause as the riders and teams battle for the lead positions before the sectors begin. The possibilities for grim conditions frame the races with a uncertainty the riders hate.

Riders train together for months prior to this and other classics, it takes time to establish the respect, trust and the experience needed to float over the cobbles as a team.

A win will change a rider's career for life, placing him in the history books, a better economic future and eternal fame. An attack can earn a rider respect, something the crowd appreciates, and it can keep a sponsor happy.

Everything can be lost in a second if the rider does not have the proper attention needed. A flat or a mechanical failure at a critical time, can make a rider loose the race. Most of the riders just try to survive the race, while a small number of riders give all they have on that particular day, in that particular week, for the glorious win. This week, the first in April, is probably the hardest week in cycling. Ronde van Vlaanderen, approximately 250 kilometres of cycling in Belgium and the Paris-Roubaix the weekend after, expose the riders for potentially pain beyond recognition.

Climbing can be brutal

Picture by Jered Gruber

The equipment
Mechanics prepare the bikes with meticulous accuracy, some bikes get two layers of handlebartape, some get three, just to give the riders a better shock absorbing ability. A thicker handlebar also make the rider not clinching the handlebar too tight when riding on the cobbles, this can cause problems with his arms as well as hampers the steering. Some riders tape their fingers as well, blisters can easily occur.
A tight bottle cage might come in handy as the cobbles easily can throw a bottle out.

Many use different bikes than the traditional road bike. A road bike is usual as stiff as possible, something that will make your journey over the cobbled sections a bumpy experience. A bike can absorb some of the shocks coming. but much can be done with a different geometry of the bike, not necessarily different materials. Different geometric also opens for a longer wheelbase, which again make the distance from wheels to crank larger than normal. This might come handy if the conditions are wet. The rain turns the sand into mud and if there's one thing you don't want into your gear system. Longer wheelbase also gives the riders a possibility to change the tubulars. Riders use thicker tubulars when riding on cobbles, normally around 27mm.

How to ride
Finding the least treacherous route is crucial, that could be on the top of the cobbles or at the side in the hard sand or grass. Since the roads have been used for many years by tractors the sides of the road are somewhat sunken while the middle of the road is peaked. The sides of the cobbled road could be full of potholes and large distances between the cobbles, adding the uncomfortableness.

When riding you will benefit from riding a bigger gear than normal. The tricks is to relax as much as possible while riding in those bigger gears, floating over the cobbled sectors. The first thing you should do when the cobbled sectors are done, unless you're on an attack, is to shift to those lighter gears, spinning the lactate acid out of the legs.

Washing off the Paris-Roubaix Grime

Picture by Jered Gruber

The showers at the Roubaix Velodrome are famous. The riders use them to rinse off the worst dirt, and they do so in the presence of other historical riders. The showers look like animal pen, the grim concrete look and the painting on the walls is falling off. On every pen, a small golden plaque states a winner's name and the year he won it. Apparently, Eddy Merckx' plaque is quite popular, it keeps getting stolen.

Tom Boonen once said that: "..when I stand in the showers at the Roubaix Velodrome, that's when I start preparing for next year's race."

That's it, the most prestigious Classic race in the world. The winner get a cobbled rock, his name on a golden plaque, but more importantly; a place among the very best of riders.

Jered Gruber was kind enough to give me his permit to use his pictures in this post. Check out more of his fantastic pictures on Flickr here.


  1. wow, excellent pics! love specially the one with the contrast of the cobbles and the red cofidis rider.

  2. Hi Janne; indeed those pictures are magnificent. My favorite photo from Jered, so far that is, is the one at the top. It is the first picture I saw by Jered and it's the one photo I relate to the Paris-Roubaix. Jered Has a special eye and catch the special light and angle of photos.

    I was very happy when he agreed to let me use some of his work.