When it comes to selecting tyres and tyre pressures for Paris-Roubaix no half measures are taken. Everything is precisely chosen, maintained, installed and inflated.
With roads that would quickly ruin any normal road tyre, it’s one race where sponsored products can be left in the team van and other non-sponsor items installed. With more than 50km of this year’s 257km race being made up of the famed pave (in 28 sectors) the riders will need tubulars that are going to be as reliable as possible when pounding the rough roads of northern France.
Tyre choice is always going to come down to personal preference (for pros and amateurs) and for many it boils down to how reliable a previous tyre has been. No matter how great an advert for or review of a tyre is, if you’ve been unlucky and experienced multiple punctures on it before you’re very unlikely to head to the store and buy it again.
For professional teams at Paris-Roubaix it’s the same situation — in many cases they have free rein to throw a proportion of the team’s equipment budget at specific tubular choices.
I’m currently in Belgium at the start of Scheldeprijs, the mid-week classic between Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Scheldeprijs is always a race worth checking out if you’re a tech geek as it’s here you’ll notice kit that’s not normally used by the teams: the odd cyclocross bike tucked behind the standard team issue road bike, the new unbranded wheels siting quietly in frames. All these items are having one last airing, ridden in anger for a final time before the big race on Sunday.
The one item that stands out is tyres. Wider and heavier tyres are everywhere, many old-school-looking with white or gum sidewalls and rough lettering. Some still carry the team sponsor’s name, others don’t. Many of the team mechanics I’ve spoken with mention one brand that they choose to shod their wheels with for Roubaix: FMB.
Clearly this brand is an unsung hero of the professional cycling world. Some mechanics and teams are allowed to admit to using tubulars from FMB. Others aren’t as free to tell, but a quick wink and a nod answers the question. A quick look around and it’d be safe to say that close to half the peloton are using FMB tubulars — maybe more come Sunday — including Trek Factory Racing, Team Sky, Astana, Omega Pharma-QuickStep, FDJ and several others who shall remain nameless.
One interesting development with this small brand is the fact that they have teamed up with Specialized this year, for the first time. FMB and the big S have been working together to produce a tubular for one race; a tubular that all the Specialized sponsored riders will use. Specialized have brought their knowledge of rubber compounds to the project and FMB are teaming it with their manufacturing process. This is interesting because Specialized recently snapped up one of Continental’s former compound gurus.
Away from FMB there are still several teams that choose to stick with sponsored products. Many of the teams using Continental products seem to have stuck with what the brand has to offer, but judging by the writing on the sidewalls they are still Pro Team Issue products that aren’t available in shops. The same goes for Schwalbe. Although the tubulars look handmade, the gum walls look retro. IAM Cycling had a full team using these.
Vittoria tyres were still wrapped around the wheels of the Giant-Shimano team, and from talking to the mechanic it looked like it was staying that way for Roubaix.
One thing the Giant-Shimano mechanic told me is that many teams use (and have used in the past) quick-stop tyre sealant which quickly seals a tubular in the case of a puncture. This means the rider can carry on until the team car is close enough — or until he meets a member of staff with wheels at the end of one of the cobbled sections — before quickly changing the wheel. The weight penalty of this product is severely outweighed by the “get out of jail free” card it can deal you if you end up puncturing at a vital part of the race.
Then there’s the interesting case of Team Sky. Sky differs from every other team out there in that they don’t actually have a tyre sponsor, so when lining up for a race they can choose whatever they want, from any number of manufacturers, depending on the conditions. For Sky it looked as though Veloflex tyres were the choice for Scheldeprijs, but for Paris-Roubaix they will be using the same FMB Paris-Roubaix model as many other teams.
We’ve seen 25mm become the new 23mm when it comes to tyres in regular road races, and now in the world of cobbles, 30mm seems to be the new 27mm. Tyres are becoming wider from what many mechanic have told me, though this is causing a few problems. Not all teams can accommodate this with the bikes and callipers they are issued by sponsors. That said, it’s a trend I’m sure we’ll slowly see grow in the peloton in years to come.
At this year’s Hell of the North it’ll just be a select few experienced riders who are using 30mm tyres. One team mechanic I chatted to told me they had been sent a fellow team’s tubular choices by accident as they shared sponsors. He noticed several sets of 30mm tubulars with a certain big-name-rider’s name printed on them. I asked if he had intentions of copying for his team but he replied “no”. He’d also decided not to tell the riders for fear of them worrying about what their opposition was doing … and because if they decided they did want wider tyres he would have a ton of extra work to replace the huge number of tubulars he’d already stuck on the rims.
Tyre compounds and width are not the only two factors that mechanics and riders need to think about. Tyre pressure is also important.
In normal road races teams normally run 110psi and above, dependent on rider weight and the tyre of choice. But for Roubaix they can’t run pressures anywhere near 110psi (7.5 bar). Pressures closer to 4.5 bar to 4.8 bar (65-69.5psi) are more common, but again it depends on rider weight and weather conditions. If you’ve ever ridden a standard road tyre at this pressure you would notice how soft and slow it rolls. But this is what is required at Paris-Roubaix — the tubular needs to deform over the cobbles.
So when Sunday rolls round just spare a thought for the mechanics and the amount of time they’ve spent gluing and stretching tubulars in recent weeks, just for a single day of racing. Then again, there really is no other race quite like it.