This year the A.S.O. Paris Roubaix Challenge sportive takes place on 6th of April the day before the Pro race & features 3 different routes to chose from depending on your fitness & the amount of torture you want to undertake!(click the link above for more info & entries)
If you have got yourself an entry, by now you will be used to the strange looks when you explain to people that you are going to go ride lots of cobbles on your skinny tyred road bike. Yep they think you are a fool!
But you are not.
For these are not just any cobbles, they are the hallowed pavé of the Paris-Roubaix, the legendary battlefield that has seen over 100 years of fighting, figuratively on two wheels and literally as history has shaped Europe.
The images are etched into the minds of anyone who has witnessed them, the hollow stares of riders that have reached their limit, the broken bikes and bones and the seething roaring crowds of Belgian fans and the glorious final lap of the velodrome. It’s raw and brutal like no other race in the calendar and yet strangely beautiful.
Even for the pro riders its an event to lose sleep over, the seasoned team mechanics spend hours tuning their bikes, fat tyres, cyclocross brakes, tough rims, triple bar tape, zip-ties on bottle cages – it’s all been tried – even suspension!
The pavé are like nothing you will ride anywhere else, they are not the smooth little tablets in city centres worn by years of traffic, these were dumped centuries ago and have gotten rougher and less uniform, if anything its more like riding a staircase but horizontally.
Speed is your friend… take it slow and you will be thrown around like rocks in a cement mixer, the key is to keep an even pace, of at least 25kph – at that speed you start skipping over the ruts and bumps, it’s still not comfortable but at least you have a bit more control of your bike.
In some sections not even speed will help, and yes, I’m talking about the Arenberg. The pave here aren’t cobbles at all, they are rocks and boulders, scattered at random in a 2.4km line which is slightly uphill. The first year the organizers felt that this section would be too much and left it out of the route, thankfully for 2013 they have brought it back in for 2 of the routes, not because you will enjoy it, but because you will enjoy finishing it.
My friends and I did two laps of the Arenberg last time to ‘warm up’ the day before – based on the experience of the Foret one of our group had at that point decided to bin his entry, fortunately we rode to another section after to make sure ‘it wasn’t all like that’!
Thankfully it wasn’t & it was a great ride – once finished there is an enormous sense of achievement!
By now if you haven’t trained there is little time to make a difference, so make sure what you do counts! Upper body training is something you might not of thought about but is extremely important – daily sit ups & push ups will give you that extra core stability that is needed for the ride.
Top ten tips we can pass on -
1. Ride on the flat tops of the bars, hoods & drops hurt way more!
2. Don’t trash yourself getting to the Pave, you will need the energy!
3. It’s not ‘cheating’ to ride the dirt trail at the side of the pave – the pros do it too!
4. Stay loose! Tensing up hurts more and makes for scary steering!
5. If it rubs, clicks, bounces, creaks etc. sort if before you ride – it will only get much worse.
6. Ride faster when it gets bumpier – it helps you avoid ruts & heavy hits
7. Don’t wheel suck – if the guy in front bins it, you are going down too!
8. Keep churning that big ring – spin & you will dump your chain, then your bike will dump you!
9. Stop at feed stations – gives you a chance to get rid of some lactic acid & stretch that back.
10. When you get to the end of each cobbled section, down a gel, bar or bottle – it might be a while before you get another chance!
as always what you like to ride & what works best is a very personal choice, in Paris-Roubaix or any of the classics routes the surfaces are extremely hard on the bike and on you! From experience the items below worked well…
The bike -
A relaxed geometry is the best bet – it’s the reason why so many pro riders ditch the tour bike and ride something more upright – it takes the weight off your shoulders so you aren’t destroyed 50k in! it also helps the bike handle better on the rough stuff. longer headtube, slacker fork angles, thin seat stays all help comfort & ultimately performance… don’t worry about weight too much, your ultralight carbon bike won’t help here – make sure your bike is sturdy and comfortable and you will be fine.
Strength & vibration dampening is the name of the game here – stay away from carbon – for one it’s likely to be too stiff & will transmit every bump and rut to your arms & backside leaving you crippled, lying in a poppy field somewhere in France and secondly if & when you do hit something a bit hard the first thing to suffer will be your nice expensive hoops, even most of the pro riders don’t use them – and they get them free!
Ambrosio Nemesis on a Record/Dura-ace hub -
Its what most of the pro riders use, probably the toughest tubular road rim out there but tubulars come at a cost – remember the pro riders have a fresh wheel given to them within a minute of a puncture – you probably won’t and if you have gone tubular & it goes wrong you could be in trouble!
Hope Open Pro3 Clincher Wheelsets are relatively new on the scene but they have a burly build for winter riding and will cope with the cobbles no bother.
I rode these without issue, in fact I’ve now done over 5,000 miles on them without even having to service them once! They stayed true and held up to the vibration at higher speeds. For under £200 that is quite impressive! I’m quite light though so I’m not sure how they would cope with a heavier rider but if you do have to bin them at least it won’t have cost the earth! My tip would be to remove the supplied plastic rim tape & replace with lifeline rim tape it’s wider so it wont curl up & slit the tube open, the CX version is a good idea too as it’s a little burlier.
Go wide! Or as wide as your frame can manage, the minimum I’d recommend would be 24mm but some rider (including Pros) run up to 28mm – the extra width cushions the blows, keeps your wheels from getting pulled off course and stops them dropping into the cracks between the cobbles (something you really don’t want happening!).
Again – favoured by the pro riders, though mostly in tubular form, these tyres have won more Paris Roubaix than any other – and with good reason, their sidewalls & TPI help them flex when hit rather than bouncing & their grippy tread design keeps you pointed straight – riders looking for a win tend to use the 24mm and those looking just to survive go for the 28mm! (I used the 24mm due to frame clearance issues & it was great) They will feel quite sluggish on the faster road sections (compared to a normal tyre) but once in the rough they cope really well.
Another option is the Continental GP 4 Seasons - comfort and grip are excellent, while the added side wall protection offers some added peace of mind while traversing the pavé.
Latex is the key! Latex tubes aren’t a great choice for every day use (they tend to lose air overnight due to their porous nature) but as with good quality tubular tyres they are extremely resistant to pinch punctures & flexible enough to cope with rough surfaces, I used Michelin Air Comp inner tubes and didn’t puncture once! Patching them isn’t easy so take spares or use a tube sealant like Vittoria Pit Stop (if it’s just a small hole)
It depends on your set up but if you have carbon forks you will probably be ok with Alu stem & bars, ideally not super stiff sprinter ones though!
These are very cheap & very comfortable – I managed to get by with just the one layer of bar tape & no Gel but if I had wrapped them the narrow diameter means that they wouldn’t end up ‘too thick to grip’ like many of the bars I saw riders trying to hold!
Flipping your stem so you are more upright also helps stop the steering being ‘road bike twitchy’ and takes pressure off you neck.
When it comes to bar tape sometimes simple is best - Easton Cork tape is no frills, good quality sticky backed tape which absorbs vibrations well, maybe not so great if it gets muddy but not sure what would be!
If your hands are a little bit more delicate, or rather your wrists, elbows and neck (since that’s where the juddering travels to!) then get yourself some of this – its super plush and thin enough wrapped not to cause grip issues, the tape itself is very hard wearing and washes down easy.
if you just want the pads on their own there are the Cinelli AVS Gel pads.
Probably the most personal of choices as everyone has a different shaped bum! A good all rounder would be the Fi’zi:k Arione which offers good support, not too wide at the front & a long flat back so you can shift position – the pro tip for saddles is to get a sponge, fold it in on itself again & again & then wedge it between your saddle & seatpost – this acts like an elastomer, preventing the saddle bottoming out on the post below as you pedal over the pave.
Gearing choice is up to you, but spinning on cobbles isn’t particularly comfortable, grinding a big gear helps you maintain rhythm and keeps your chain on, and to make sure the latter happens installing a K-Edge Chain Catcher could be the best money you spend, it stops you dropping the chain into the BB area but still allows for smooth front mech shifts (though you probably won’t need to!).
Generally whatever you have got will probably do, but bear in mind it is April in Northern France so take as much warm clothes as summer stuff because you just can’t tell what the weather will do! Padding is important on any of your ‘contact points’ make sure your gloves are comfortable & padded – these dhb summer gloves are grippy & thin so you will keep control & the GORE Bike Wear Retro Tech Gloves have great padding & support to cope with the bumps!
Bib shorts are also important – too thick a pad &the friction won’t do you any favours, too thin and you will feel everything (in a bad way!) – our choice would be the Castelli
Velocissimo or Sportful Bodyfit Pro shorts, both of which are designed to deal with spring riding & developed for pro riders (Garmin Barracuda & Saxo Bank). If you want to go for the ultimate pro clothing set up then you need to get the Castelli San Remo Speedsuit as worn to victory in 2011′s race by Garmin Cervelo‘s Johan Van Summeren, it’s essentially an ultra fitted skinsuit with pockets!
Important for keeping the dust(or mud) out of your eyes & on the exposed latter sections of pave, hopefully the sun too! I’ve always worn Oakley sunglasses as the lenses offer awesome clarity & the frame shapes work well with helmets – personal favourites would be the Radar – with great field of vision, good venting & designed to work with Giro helmets or the super light weight Racing Jacket which sits closely on the face & blocks foreign objects well.
If your cages aren’t tight you will lose your bottles! And on a ride this long and flat its easy to dehydrate- so make sure yours are secure – probably the best for this job are the Arundel Stainless cages , these are so tight you might have to fight to get your bottle out but at least you will still have one! If you want something cheaper & lighter i used the Elite Custom Race cages and didn’t have any issues.
Other thinks to check & take
Make sure EVERYTHING is tight, bolts, quick releases, bottom brackets, cranks etc. it all gets a beating and will try it’s hardest to escape! I had my Chainset work itself loose at the ultratorque bolt riding the Arenberg and my Front mech twisted into my wheel!
New brake blocks are a good idea too (good advice for any event) and probably the best you could get are the Swissstop Green pads which are the best pads to use if it gets wet & just as good in the dry thanks to a softer compound.
Many pro riders use support tape to stop muscle & ligament damage, we recommend using RockTape as it’s stretchy, holds it’s shape & stays sticky even in the wet. The tape is best applied to the back of your neck, wrists & shoulders or anywhere that you have weakness/injuries.
Zip ties, spare cables, chain links and plenty of spare tubes are always a good idea, and if you are using a bike computer make sure it’s taped or tied down!
So… now you know what you need & what to do, get out there and ride bumps!