How To Ride The Cobbles
By Koen De Kort
When talking about racing on cobbles there is one race that comes to everyone’s mind – Paris-Roubaix. Unfortunately that particular race hasn’t been my race at all the last 6 years. Paris-Roubaix has given me punctures, broken derailleurs and lots of crashes. This last Roubaix was especially nasty and it gave me a hole in my knee through which I could see my kneecap and grazes all over my face. I still cherish my cobble-trophy I won in 2004 in the U23 Paris-Roubaix like no other trophy I have. I remain a big fan of the cobbles, I enjoy every race we do on them and I think I have some experience to share about riding on them.
In no other race there are as many cobble sections as in Paris-Roubaix, but there are lots of other races that have shorter or fewer sections including Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Drenthe and even this year’s Tour de France.
Most teams use different bikes on the cobbles for a few reasons, the normal road-bikes are so stiff and uncomfortable on bad roads that it makes riding them on the cobbles virtually impossible. Road bikes are made for speed and not for comfort and I am not necessarily looking for comfort when riding on the cobbles. I want to go as fast as possible, but you can’t race a Formula 1 car in a rally either. The comfort usually comes from the usage of other materials and different geometry of the frame including a longer wheelbase and bigger distance between the ground and the cranks. The other reason of using different bikes is that it gives more clearance for the tyres. Whilst I usually race 21mm tyres in normal races I rode on 27mm tubulars in Paris-Roubaix. Even if the tubulars would fit in my normal bike the slightest wobble in one of the wheels would make it touch the fork and I don’t think a single wheel will manage to complete the full race without getting somewhat of a wobble. In rainy editions of Paris-Roubaix the wheel clearance gets even more important as there are enormous amounts of mud on the cobbles that will easily clog up in the forks if there isn’t enough room.
A good idea to make the bike a little more comfortable on your hands riding cobbles is by putting two layers of bartape on the handlebars, aluminum bottle cage that can be closed very tightly so you don’t lose your bottles as soon as you hit the first cobblestone and a bigger small chainring, for instance a 45, so you can spin your legs a bit more by riding on the small chainring without having the chain clapper too much. With about 6 bars or 87 psi in the tyres the bike is ready to be used to race the grueling cobbled sections.
Riding the cobbles in the race is all about position in the bunch. You definitely want to start every section in the front. Most of the cobbled sections have been there for centuries and after all the cars and especially tractors have driven over them, the sides of the sections have sunken in a little and the middle bit pushed up. The sections have changed over the years to form a ‘W’ in shape. By far the best place to ride is the absolute middle of the road, the bit that has been pushed up over the years, most sections have got some grass growing there or some dirt piled up which makes it the most even and smoothest place to ride. The place where the tyres of the cars and tractors have sunken the cobbles it’s nearly impossible to ride. It’s extremely uneven there with potholes and half turned over cobblestones and when it rains you have to be a gymnast on the bike to not crash and even then you won’t be able to ride fast. The very sides of the sections are occasionally good to ride on as well, especially if there is dirt to ride on. The problem is that there are lots of potholes and mud puddles on the sides so you have to constantly watch out where you are going. Riding with a bunch over the already narrow cobbled sections makes it even more difficult because there are basically 3 lines at most to ride over any section. As soon as you go off these lines to pass someone it costs a lot of energy and you will have to push your way back into a spot on the maximum 3 good lines. Just before every section there is a sprint to start the section in a good position, once you are in a good position on the cobbles you can take it relatively easy. Especially with the first 10 sections in Paris-Roubaix it’s harder to start the cobbles in a good position than actually riding the section itself. If you start in a bad position and riders in front of you lose a few meters, it costs a lot of energy to move off the ideal line and pass them.
On cobbles you tend to ride a big gear. It just feels good and it’s easier to keep constant pressure on the back wheel so it doesn’t start bouncing. Of course this is a good thing but it will cost you a lot of energy doing this for a long time so it’s important to ride on a smaller gear early on to save your legs. Especially when you try to save your legs, riding on the (bigger) small chainring is a good idea, try to keep pressure on the back wheel but keep spinning your legs. When going all out on a cobbled section ride the big chainring but, as always, too big a gear is never good!
The most comfortable way to ride these painful roads is with your hands loosely on top of the handlebar. Don’t grip your handlebar tightly because it will give lots of friction in your palms and will inevitably result in blisters. All you have to do is rest your hands on the handlebar and not grip them at all, the less friction the best. Even when you do everything right it still hurts your hands a lot, so putting tape on your hands for extra support and comfort is definitely a good idea. Wrap some tape around your fingers and pay special attention to your thumb – it helps. Having your hands on top of the handlebar is the most comfortable but also least aerodynamic position. Trying to hold your hands (loosely again!) in the drops at certain times saves energy because of the more aerodynamic position but will hurt your hands more, your choice.
Last but not least, riding on the cobblestones hurt me a lot less since using the product of one of our team sponsors: the Reskin bike patch. You protect your perineum against friction by applying this silicon coated lycra patch. It really helps a lot against saddle sores and, in my experience, works even better than chamois cream. In case you don’t like the Reskin bike patch or you can’t get hold of it, definitely use chamois cream because it will get pretty sore down there riding cobbles.
There’s something special about conquering these terrible roads and for some strange reason riding this unnatural terrain makes it a sick sort of fun!