The cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix provide a unique challenge and every year we see many bike and equipment changes aimed at surviving the punishment and providing a little more comfort for the pros.
This year’s race is 257km in length and features 55km of pavé, up from 52.8km on last year as the organisers have added two new sectors. There are 29 sectors in total, and as before the race starts in Compiègne and finishes in the Roubaix. So what can you expect to see changed on the bikes for this weekend’s race?
We'll mostly see the regular race bikes swapped for endurance models, mainly to allow wider tyres to be used but the geometry is typically more relaxed and longer in the wheelbase, and often with frame features or carbon layup designed to take the sting out of the impacts.
At Flanders, most riders opted for 25mm but a few (though Tom Boonen rode 28mm). The cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are much more severe than those in Flanders and so we’ll see 27 to 30mm tyres used by most teams, sometimes wider. Tyres this wide don’t fit in regular race bikes, though that's starting to change as the latest generation of some race bikes will take up to 28mm tyres. An obvious example is the Scott Foil ridden to Paris-Roubaix victory by Matt Hayman last year. That's it just below.
An aero race bike is not the natural choice and does question whether a special bike is actually needed for the race following Hayman's success. Of course, fitness and a massive dose of luck play its part in this race, avoiding crashes, flat tyres and hoping the bike holds up long enough to reach the famous velodrome. The new Foil takes 28mm tyres, is much more comfortable than the first generation Foil, and the aero design of the frame would be an advantage on the 200km of smooth roads.
Still, we reckon most riders will be on endurance bikes. Some brands have pushed their endurance bikes entirely over to disc brakes, like Giant with its Defy and Specialized with its Roubaix, which means we’ll probably see some old bikes you can't actually buy being dusted down for the race. Specialized has taken the approach of producing a rim brake version of its new disc-only Roubaix, especially for Tom Boonen, because he and the team were worried about wheel changes.
Most teams have a special stock of Paris-Roubaix bikes, wheels and tyres that are literally only ridden at this race single race, and a few recon rides the week before.The Cervelo sponsored teams have long been riding some very old R3 MUD bikes, with elongated chainstays and a longer fork to provide extra clearance. It was a bike that was sold only in very limited numbers, enough to satisfy the UCI, but isn't a regular model in its range. Might Dimension-Data be on the new R5 this year, which looks to offer more tyre clearance than the current version?
It’s the development of bikes for races like Paris-Roubaix that has benefited customers seeking more comfortable versions of the race bikes, with the likes of the Synapse, Roubaix and Domane being developed and honed for this race. Fortunately, that suitability for the cobbles makes the bikes well suited to riding on regular British roads, which increasingly resembles pave round my way.
What you really notice about the equipment is that the race is all about tyre choice. Tyres are king at this race. Wider tyres allow you to run lower pressures with less risk of getting a flat. Try running a small volume 23mm tyre at these pressures on these roads and you won’t get far. Bigger tyres also mean extra cushioning as well for a bit more forgiveness when smashing over the cobbles.
Lower tyre pressures
Beside tyre choice, the other really important decision is tyre pressure. But tyre pressure is the most well-guarded secret in the pro peloton. Most team mechanics are very reluctant to divulge such important information.
We can guess, thanks to some tidbits of info gleaned from more willing team mechanics and using a zoom camera lens when a mechanic is inflating a tyre before the race, that 70-80 psi is a common range.
Personal preference will play a big part in the actual tyre pressure. Bigger and heavier riders will want more air pressure to lower the risk of a puncture, and some riders will just want to play it safe and be willing to compromise comfort for speed on the road sections between the cobbled sectors. Some like to feel every bump and cobblestone through their hands and will go quite high.
Most of the teams do a lot of testing on the pavé before the race and you can bet they’re obsessing mostly about tyre pressure. Ride style is also an important factor, someone like Tom Boonen is smoother and better at picking a smooth line on the cobbles than less experienced riders, who might thump into every single cobble.
Double- wrapped bar tape
Those professionals are a hardy bunch, but there’s one area where they often make a concession to comfort: double-wrapped bar tape. It makes a small but noticeable difference and it’s easy to do. Some riders have a definite preference for double wrap bar tape, including Tom Boonen. He even gets his mechanic to wrap the tape right up to the stem.
Some mechanics have been seen adding strips of foam under the bar tape. Bontrager will sell you a carbon handlebar with special inserts for foam pads to provide more cushioning than a regular setup. It's a good way of getting some extra comfort without a big financial outlay or radical change to bike setup.
There have been several attempts to introduce suspension to road bikes over the years for this one race. Most recently there's the Pinarello K8-S with its soft tail rear suspension design, with a small damper unit located at the top of the seatstays.
Trek developed its IsoSpeed decoupler, a system that allows the saddle to deflect under impacts. Last year it added it to the front of the bike, with the fork steerer tube allowed to bend a small amount to deliver even more smoothness.
Specialized revamped its Roubaix bike with a spring positioned between the frame and stem, dubbed the Future Shock. It delivers 20mm of movement and is intended to isolate the handlebars from the biggest impacts.
Cushioned and grippy saddles
Deeply cushioned saddles are a common sight, and this specially modified Fizik Arione saddle, or a time trial model, is a common sight.
Grippy saddles are often spotted, either designed that way such as Prologo’s CPC technology with areas of grippy material added, or rather homemade with grip tape added to the top of the saddle.
You’d think following the course when it’s closed roads and signposted would be easy for the racers. These instructions aren’t for navigation, they're to let the rider know at what distance a cobbled sector is feed zone is coming up, and with 29 cobbled sectors there’s a lot to remember. Unless your name is Tom Boonen the route probably isn’t memorised. There might also be tactical reminders as well if a team has a plan to attack at a certain part of the race.
Grippy bottle cages
Bottles litter the course of Paris-Roubaix, either discarded by a rider but more often ejected from the bottle cage. That’s why you’ll see team mechanics adding a skateboard-style grip tape to the cages to ensure the bottles stay firmly in place.
The advent of electronic groupsets has brought numerous advantages, and one that we see played out at Paris-Roubaix is the use of extra shifter buttons attached to the centre of the bars. This allows a rider to change gear while riding in the favoured position on the tops and save having to change hand position to change gear, which is fraught with risk when the bike is bouncing around violently.
There’s no climbing on the course to speak off, so the speeds are high and a regular double chainset is the preferred option, but with a little tweak: the 39t inner chainring is often substituted for a 44t chainring.
Dropping down to a 39t chainring would be too big a gap, so most riders opt for a bigger inner chainring to reduce the drop. It keeps the gearing closer so the rider can use the inner chainring without dropping down the gear range too much. You might think the racers never drop out of the big ring but watch the race and you’ll be surprised, especially those hanging off the back of the peloton.
Where 11-28t cassettes are nearly commonplace for regular road race stages, closer ratio 11-25t cassettes get an airing for this race.
Mechanical over electronic gears
Electronic groupsets reign supreme in the professional peloton, but we regularly see more mechanical groupsets popping up at Paris-Roubaix. Fabian Cancellara personally preferred mechanical all the time, and last year Peter Sagan followed suit and opted for mechanical. When we asked his team mechanic we were told that it’s simply a personal preference, but we can’t think of any reason why an electronic groupset could be a hindrance on the pavé.
This small bits of metal first started showing up on bikes at Paris-Roubaix a few years ago, and they’re commonly left on bikes during the rest of the season. Their task is simply to try and prevent the chain dropping off the chainring and getting jammed in between the crankset and frame, but as we saw with Tom Boonen at Flanders last weekend, they’re not always that effective. Still, probably better to have one than not have one.
Extra brake levers
Not as common as they used to be, especially since the days when cyclocross bikes were rolled out for this race (yes, really) but additional brake levers on the handlebars are favoured by some. Must be a right pain for the mechanics to install but the benefit is that you can feather the brakes when riding on the tops, which is generally the preferred position for tackling the pavé sectors and saves having to change hand position when you need to make a speed correction. These brake levers have a grip tape added for extra purchase.
Go back 10 years and you’d see carbon wheels left in the team truck in favour of classic aluminium box-section tubular rims. This was simply because the pavé is so brutal on wheels and traditional aluminium rims had long proved to be up to the task, while early carbon wheels were simply not strong enough to survive.
The Ambrosio Nemesis was a very popular choice, often the most common sight at the race before carbon fibre took over. That happened after Fabian Cancellara won the race aboard Zipp’s latest 303 carbon rim in 2010. More race victories swiftly followed and now every team uses carbon wheels. Zipp had changed the game and confined aluminium wheels to the history books. Now the entire peloton races carbon wheels.
There are good reasons for wanting to ride a deep section carbon rim - there’s some 200km of racing on roads so the aerodynamic benefit at the speed the peloton rides at is significant. One change you often spot is the preference for a shallower rim compared to the very deep section wheels common on a regular road race stage.
See a rider preparing for the race, or pulling his mitts off at the finish, and you’ll often spot tape wrapped around the fingers. It’s an old trick and is intended to prevent blistering.
Last year there was some speculation that this year’s Paris-Roubaix would be the turning point in the gradual rollout of disc brakes but we don’t think that will be the case. Even Tom Boonen, who started this season on disc brakes and appears to like them, will be back on rim brakes this weekend simply because of the possibility of puncturing and getting an easy wheel change from neutral support or a teammate.
We did saw two teams using disc brakes last year, Lampre-Merida and Direct Energie, so we might yet see other teams deciding to use disc brakes. Cannondale-Drapac has a “disc brake plan” and has used disc brakes at some smaller races. It would probably need the weather to turn foul before disc brakes are considered more seriously, but the weather forecast looks good for the weekend. Dry and dusty it will be then unless we all do a rain dance…
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.