Your bones are rattling, your bike is making strained noises and your hands are numb from the vibrations. You could only be one place; on the cobbles of the Spring Classics. The cobbles or pavé of northern France and Flanders can be split into two types depending on which side of the Belgian/French border you are on. Both are challenging and both require some cunning to conquer.
First is the pavé of Flanders. This tends be treacherously laid down on hills (or ‘helligen’ as they are known in Belgium) and are typically used by farmers for most of the year apart from on one weekend in early April.
The second type is Paris-Roubaix cobbles. These are an altogether different beast. Far rougher than Flanders pavé, Roubaix cobbles will throw you around like a bucking bronco. Nevertheless, they do have the advantage of occurring entirely on the flat whereas Flanders' cobbles almost always take you up a hill with at least a 10% gradient.
Preparing both yourself and your bike to tackle these paved roads takes some care so here are our top tips for surviving the cobbles this spring.
Tyres and tubes
Whether you are in Flanders or northern France you are going to want to make the ride as smooth as possible. One of the easiest and most effective ways to a accomplish this is to use wider tyres. Opting for 28mm or wider tyres will smooth out the ride while also providing you less chance of trapping your wheel between cobbles.
There are a couple of options for tyres that offer a wide base, puncture resistance and suppleness. One of which is the Vittoria Corsa G+ Isotech Foldable Clincher Tyre. Really the top of the class when it comes to tyres, the Corsa G+ Isotech tyres have a kevlar reinforced sidewall, a G+ Graphene tread and a PRB 2.0 breaker for excellent flat protection. These tyres provide a great compromise between puncture-protection bulk and fast and snappy-feeling tread.
Remember, only about 16% of Paris Roubaix's total distance is actually on the cobbles and Flanders has an even smaller percentage of cobbled climbs, so you are still going to want a tyre that rolls well on the road.
Finally, adjusting your tyre pressure will help to absorb some of the impact of the cobbles. Running your tyres at their maximum 120 psi will result in you bouncing off the cobbles like you are riding a space hopper. Dropping to 90-100psi, depending on your weight, will help to absorb some of the impact of the bumpiest cobbles.
Reduce vibration with handlebar positioning
In terms of comfort over the pavé your contact points with the bike and its contact point with the road are the areas that can make the biggest difference. When it comes to your hands and the handlebars making sure your positioning is correct can help to alleviate the discomfort caused by cobble-induced vibrations.
Professional riders will normally opt for one of two hand positions on the bars. The first and the most popular is holding your bars on the tops. This position allows you to loosen off your grip slightly while still maintaining full control of the bike. It also allows you to use the bending of you arms as a kind of suspension while riding in a more upright position.
The second position is in the drops for much the same reasons other than you maintain a more aerodynamic but possibly less comfortable position on the bike. The added advantage of both of these hand positions is that you reap the biggest benefit from your bar tape's padding as opposed to the hoods where the thin plastic covers offer little vibration relief.
On the handlebars themselves the age-old technique is to double wrap your bar tape. This can look cumbersome while also being expensive. A far cheaper, more aesthetically pleasing and frankly more comfortable option is to choose thicker bar tape and use gel inserts on key areas under the tape.
Read our tips on how to wrap your bar tape.
Specialized's BG Phat Bar Tape is perfect for placing under the bar tape on the tops and drops to help to alleviate vibration. The gel inserts can be cut to size to fit whatever your preferred hand positioning is.
One final tip is to tilt your handlebars up slightly. This will help to reduce the strain on the area between your thumb and index finger when you are attacking the likes of the Kwaremont and the Arenberg Trench.
Ride with speed and pick your line
The top tip offered by three-time Paris Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara Is to attack the cobbles at speed. The slower you ride the more you feel your wheels rolling over each individual. Traveling at speed will help you to glide over the cobbles, reducing the pain to a minimum.
Another tip offered by the pros is to push a big gear. This is more relevant for Roubaix that Flanders as most of us mere mortals will have to drop into the lowest gear just to make it up the hills. At Roubaix however, pushing a big gear will help you to ride smoothly while also maintaining balance.
Picking a line through each section is just as important as how you set up your bike. While most of us like to conjure images of ourselves riding heroically down the middle of each section, in reality you will look for any sign of anything smoothness after about 100 metres.
The pavé sections often have small footpaths or gutters running alongside them which provide some respite. If it is a particularly wet day these tracks and gutter quickly devolve into sludgy pits of mud, making them impossible to ride along. If you are forced to ride along the cobbles, picking a line directly up the centre is your best bet as the sides are often churned up by tractor traffic and poor irrigation.
Secure your equipment
For anyone that has ridden Flanders or Roubaix before, one of the staple sights of the sportive is a wide array of water bottles lying pitifully by the road side. While the pavé is shaking your bones, it is also shaking every part of your bicycle too. Using metal bottle cages will allow you to bend them in ever so slightly to maintain a strong grip on your bidon.
The same goes for any mudguards or saddle bags. Make sure all of your kit is securely attached to your bike before you set off to avoid any on-course embarrassment or worse, cause an easily avoidable accident.
Take supplies (tyre boot, at least 3 inner tubes, chain link, tyre levers, mini pump)
Unfortunately rattling over the pavé can cause your bike to fail mechanically. Taking a well-equipped multi tool in your saddle bag or jersey pocket is essential. Tightening any bolts or fixing more serious issues like a broken chain may well be the type of small mechanical issue you have to deal with by the road side.
As for your tyres and tubes multiple mishaps can occur of a varying degree of severity. Taking at least three inner tubes, tyre boots, tyre levers, mini pump or CO2 canisters are all recommended. This range, stored in a saddle bag will allow you to fix most tyre problems such as punctures and small rips in your tyre wall.
Some riders take a spare tyre, however, if your tyres are worn to the extent that they need completely replacing you've likely got more serious problems to deal with.
Prepare your bike beforehand
Before you arrive in France or Belgium make sure everything on your bike is working properly. The cobbled roads of Flanders are not a fun place to find out you have a underlying mechanical problem, so make sure your bike is in tip-top condition before setting off. Booking your bike in for a service before you leave is a good idea, just to make sure you don't get any unwanted surprises.
Have fun and take it all in
While reading through these tips may fill you with apprehension or perhaps even dread at the thought of tackling the pavé, being well prepared will ensure that you have a day to remember. Riding the hallowed ground of two of cycling's most iconic races is an experience every keen rider should seek out.
Hitting the Arenberg Trench or the Patterberg at top speed and feeling your bike creak and shake will fill you with a sense of passion and adrenaline that many riders do not find anywhere else. That is why thousands come back year after year. Finishing on the famous Roubaix Velodrome or on the long road to Oudenaarde provides an enormous sense of accomplishment and reverence for what are undoubtedly two of the highlights of the cycling calendar.
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