Riding the Paris-Roubaix pavé: it's all about the bike… and the tyres… and the…

Riding across the pavé in the tyre-tracks of legends, having the right bike setup smooths out the bumps. Well, some of them

by David Else   April 6, 2012  

This coming Sunday (April 8th) the pro peloton will be pounding its way across the infamous pavé in this year’s Paris-Roubaix road race. Last Sunday (April 1st) the amateurs had a chance to sample those same jagged cobblestones, thanks to the Paris-Roubaix Challenge sportive. Given the date, it might have seemed a foolish idea to ride 95 miles across northern France on a zig-zag route with 19 pavé sections, but it turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable - though unsurprisingly tough - day out on the bike.

My story begins back in November, when a casual comment that “I wouldn’t mind sampling the pavé one day” led quickly to a friend booking the hotel and ferry, and then telling me all I had to do was get my entry in.

So it was time to start training again, as my intended winter rest period went out the window. I mixed speed sessions on the Turbo with some long hard rides on the road - often in cold and wet conditions - but convinced myself it was worth it, as the Paris-Roubaix weather can be notoriously miserable with rain, sleet and sometimes even snow turning the cobbles to quagmire. It’s all part of the legend, and part of the reason why the race is known as the Hell of the North.

But even more time-consuming than the training was deciding what bike and kit to use. My first step was to get some advice, so I spoke to everyone I knew who’d ridden the cobbles before, and also posted a message on the road.cc forum (which is still going here: http://road.cc/content/forum/48339-paris-roubaix-challenge-cobbled-roads-uk). I got a huge amount of useful feedback, and took the best bits to help me build up a bike that was - it turned out - perfect for Paris-Roubaix.

Frame

The key decision was the frame material. I originally considered using my Giant carbon sportive bike. Carbon is strong - and good enough for the pros. My bike is not pro standard, but it’s light and responsive, with relaxed angles and a long-ish wheelbase, with (I hoped) just the right amount if flex to take out the worse of the vibrations. But there was a downside: carbon stands up less well in the case of a crash. And the chance of a crash in the Paris-Roubaix is pretty high. It wasn’t just cracking my frame that I was worried about; I was worried about cracking it during the ride and not being able to finish.

So the next option was my old Marin aluminium winter training bike. It’s a hybrid-style frame with a long wheelbase, with plenty of clearance for big tyres, and I’ve used it successfully on a couple of cyclo-cross sportives (as well as just general playing around off-road) so I knew it would be relatively comfortable. But then my inner pessimist kicked in. Aluminium frames have been known to crack, especially on a bike that’s been used and abused for several years like this one. Although it seemed perfectly fine, once again I didn’t want to risk a crack appearing when I was halfway down the Trench d’Arenberg.

Next, I turned to steel: light, strong and reliable, with a bit of give for the worse of the pavé. My dad offered me the loan of a classic hand-built MB bike from the 1980s. The bike had sentimental significance and my dad was delighted to see it ridden on a Classic route.  Things were looking good, but the clearances were too tight for the larger tyres I planned to ride, and that option had to be abandoned as well.


 And here it is…

Then I got a stroke of luck, and was offered the chance to borrow a Road Won titanium frame from specialist Ti outfit Qoroz. With its long wheelbase, compact geometry, sloping seatstays and carbon forks it proved comfortable on several off-road outings, and impressively lively on the road. It was light too, and I was confident it had the strength to cope with the worse of the pavé - and a pretty good chance of surviving a crash should the worse happen. Even better, it had the clearances I needed to fit in some larger tyres. Which brings me to…

Wheels & Tyres

To cope with the pavé, I considered a wide range of wheels and tyres, including a tubs and sprints, cyclo-cross tyres, and tubeless combo of Fulcrum 3s and Hutchinson Intensives.

But in the end, I kept it simple and used a favourite pair of hand-built Mavics: an Open Pro rim on the front, with an Open Sport rim on the rear, teamed up with 105 hubs and 36 spokes in both wheels. Not the lightest option, but pretty bomb-proof, with a reputation for reliability that’s almost as venerable as the Paris-Roubaix itself.

Onto these wheels I fitted a pair of 28mm Schwalbe Marathons. Yep, the commuter favourite, but the extra width allowed me to run the tyres at 75psi front 80psi rear. My theory was that this would be soft enough to absorb the worst of the vibrations on the pavé, but still high enough not to feel sloppy when riding on the road sections. Meanwhile, I reasoned, the Kevlar anti-puncture strips and strengthened sidewalls would protect me from punctures - especially impact (or ‘snakebite’) punctures, the most common cause of flats on a course like this.

And, dear reader, I’m delighted to say it worked. At every section of pavé, the side of the road was lines with other riders mending punctures. Whether it was luck or judgement, I don’t know, but I covered the 95 miles without a single puncture. And where other riders were being vibrated to pieces, the 28mm fat-boys took out the worse of the bumps and allowed me to pound across the cobbles without having my internal anatomy rearranged.

Top marks must also go to my wheel-builder. Despite the hammering, my wheels were as true at the end of the ride as they were at the start. Having a good wheel-builder is far more important than having a good tailor.

Chainset

The transmission on the bike was a standard compact with a 10-speed cassette. There were no significant hills on the course, so I stayed mainly in the middle of the range. I used a SRAM rear mech, a Shimano front mech and SRAM shifters.

Other stuff

Following advice from others on the road.cc forum and elsewhere, on top of the wheels and tyres, I made a few more adjustments to my bike to cope with the rough conditions.

I used old-style Shimano 2-bolt SPDs pedals with the extra base-plate around the clip, to spread the load of the vibrations coming into the soles of my feet. I also fitted a comfortable old saddle with a bit of extra padding where I reckoned I would need it most.
On the front end, I used double thickness handlebar tape, and also put sticking plasters around my fingers to prevent rubbing from the shifters when riding on the hoods.

I used some fairly basic bottle cages made of plastic that completely enclose the bottle and stay shut with a rubber band. I replaced the rubber band with a piece of old motorbike inner tube, and it held the bottles in place perfectly. Likewise I used a mini-pump that was securely held in place by a Velcro strap. In contrast, the pavé sections (and even some bits of road) were littered with bottles and pumps that had vibrated loose. I even saw a whole saddle lying in the verge.

The ride

And what of the ride itself? It was hard, but immensely rewarding. To quote Geraint Thomas after that incident-ridden early stage in last year’s Tour: “I enjoyed every minute of it, to be honest”.

The start was cold, but the weather was dry, and by mid-morning the sun came out to turn the early patches of mud into dust. The most memorable sections were, of course, the classic Arenberg Trench and the right-angled bends leading to the famous Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Even with all my special adaptations on the bike, the constant vibrations eventually took their toll, and last 20 miles were especially draining, with pavé sections coming right to the bitter end, and the nagging northerly wind never letting up. But with gritted teeth (plus, in my case, a large caffeine gel with two painkillers on the side) I kept up a decent speed as I finished at the legendary Roubaix Velodrome, where a half-lap of the track polished off a most formidable ride.

My finish time was 5hrs 3 minutes - about 40 minutes behind the winner - not bad for an old geezer, if I say so myself.

And finally…

Would I do it again? Maybe. The Paris-Roubaix Challenge was a fantastic event - well-organised and with a great atmosphere - while riding the 100-year-old classic route in the tyretracks of so many legends is an amazing experience for any cycling fan.

Would I use the same bike and set-up? Definitely. I reckon I got the bike about as comfortable as it could be, without paying a price in loss of performance. Of course, it would be unrealistic to say it all came down the titanium frame. The biggest factor in getting through unscathed and in a half-decent time was probably the tyres. But the overall package of frame, tyres and wheels - and even that double bar-tape - gave me the confidence to ride the cobbles assertively, the peace of mind not worry about damage to rider or machine, and the freedom to really enjoy the Hell of the North.

19 user comments

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Who said it's not about the bike? Wink

Well done that man! Five hours?! Good grief. Surprise

Tour of Flanders next year? Big Grin

Rob Simmonds's picture

posted by Rob Simmonds [249 posts]
6th April 2012 - 10:53

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Great time! Some going over cobbles. Well thought out perfect setup. Nothing beats titanium for a comfortable ride and I haven't noticed any advantage of 'stiff' carbon over Ti in my sprints. Once a pro team uses Ti more people will suddenly see the light. Big Grin

MercuryOne

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [932 posts]
6th April 2012 - 11:07

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Think it was a great choice of wheels and tyres. No hills so weight not really a problem, but as you pointed out comfort is a major issue - and who wants to be fixing punctures every 20 miles? Great ride.

jaunty angle: bikes and communications
http://ragtag.wordpress.com

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posted by ragtag [137 posts]
6th April 2012 - 11:36

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The article is interesting but I can't help feeling that making all those modifications and using a different bike is sort of missing the point.

No doubt it was still a hard ride - those cobbles are uncomfortable to even drive over.

But if you aren't doing it on something fairly close to a racing bike setup where do you draw the line ? Is it turning it into Purgatory rather than Hell ?

Once you start down that route you might as well just go the whole hog and use a full suspension mountain bike.

Is it about a bicycle ?

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posted by abudhabiChris [469 posts]
6th April 2012 - 17:18

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Isn't this the "shandy drinker's" version? The "real" one being the VC Roubaix event that runs every two years in June - used to be 265km but now this year will be reduced to 205km. When you hit Arenberg after 180km and still have nearly 3 hours of riding to the Velodrome is a whole different world of pain. FWIW running Marathons is complete overkill - I'd recommend a 25mm Krylion or Ultremo DD because of the more supple casing

Make mine an Italian with Campagnolo on the side

posted by monty dog [344 posts]
6th April 2012 - 20:19

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abudhabiChris wrote:

Once you start down that route you might as well just go the whole hog and use a full suspension mountain bike.

Plenty of past Paris-Roubaixs have had nearly that. Go check your bike history of PR and you will see a Bianchi that had full front and rear suspension. Zabel raced one.

3 or 4 PRs won using rock shock on front of racing bikes.

All the Pro teams make modifications to their bikes for the race, why not the fun rides?

posted by Decster [244 posts]
6th April 2012 - 21:45

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Decster wrote:
abudhabiChris wrote:

Once you start down that route you might as well just go the whole hog and use a full suspension mountain bike.

Plenty of past Paris-Roubaixs have had nearly that. Go check your bike history of PR and you will see a Bianchi that had full front and rear suspension. Zabel raced one.

3 or 4 PRs won using rock shock on front of racing bikes.

All the Pro teams make modifications to their bikes for the race, why not the fun rides?

I know that perfectly well - Museuuw rode the Bianchi too, but that was 15-20 years ago. Not many teams have used Ti compact touring frames and 28mm Marathons...

My point was that if you've modified the bike beyond a certain point then at what degree are you having such a different experience that it is no longer comparable.

If you ride the pave and go to great lengths to avoid the pain and suffering you may have fun doing it but is it not somewhat missing the whole idea ?

Although I realise that any setup is going to involve pain and suffering.

Is it about a bicycle ?

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posted by abudhabiChris [469 posts]
6th April 2012 - 22:40

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Quote:
If you ride the pave and go to great lengths to avoid the pain and suffering you may have fun doing it but is it not somewhat missing the whole idea ?

Aren't *you* missing the point? David's plan was to pick the bike that he thought would be the quickest for him, which is exactly what the pros do. As it was, he got it more or less spot on, he reckons, and ranted home in 5 hours.

Pros don't use Ti frames (the Road Won isn't a touring bike, look at the pictures) because they're paid to advertise Carbon bikes, and they ride tubs not clinchers so 28mm marathons are out. but they'll change anything else they can to get an advantage. what's the difference? you wouldn't ever end up doing it on a FS mountain bike because that's not ever going to be the quickest bike to do it on. it's about balancing how much pain and suffering you can take with how fast you can go on a given setup.

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posted by Dave Atkinson [7036 posts]
7th April 2012 - 0:16

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As pics we got at the start last year show, Europcar binned road bikes altogether and went for CX ones...

http://road.cc/content/news/34521-paris-roubaix-tech-round

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7487 posts]
7th April 2012 - 0:27

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Simon_MacMichael wrote:
As pics we got at the start last year show, Europcar binned road bikes altogether and went for CX ones...

http://road.cc/content/news/34521-paris-roubaix-tech-round

Outrageous they should be thrown out of the sport for ever for not suffering to the absolute max Crying

posted by Decster [244 posts]
7th April 2012 - 10:35

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I appreciate it's not directly relevant but last weekend I rode the mid length Flanders sportive, 136km of mixed terrain, plenty of cobbles. I rode it on my Genesis Croix de Fer CX bike set up with Conti Gatorskins at 80psi. No punctures, no problems (well beyond my slow pace I guess). I did the baby Flanders last year on CX tyres and this year was a huge step up in pain and terrain (and the farthest I've ridden in a day). I enjoyed being on the cobbles and frankly isn't that the point, whatever you ride, its for the challenge, the enjoyment, the achievement. No point in me getting a pro set up bike, I'm not good enough to get the benefits that the tech would bring so I choose the set up that I thought would enhance the experience for me. It did, I had a great time and even met some bloke called Keith Bontrager whoever he is!

Shut up legs

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posted by slow-cyclo [74 posts]
7th April 2012 - 19:44

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didnt trek murder keith a few years ago along with gary klien and gary fisher? maybe he was the one that got away?

posted by russyparkin [550 posts]
7th April 2012 - 20:24

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Yep he certainly seemed very alive though keeping a low profile, perhaps he was worried they would try to repeat the attempt

Shut up legs

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posted by slow-cyclo [74 posts]
8th April 2012 - 9:26

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velonews wrote:

The biggest tire award goes to Europcar, who fitted tires close to 30mm on Colnago cyclocross bikes. Sebastian Turgot rode the setup to second, by a tire-width.

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posted by Dave Atkinson [7036 posts]
8th April 2012 - 16:57

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So my 28mm tyres were *narrow* compared to what the Europcar boys were running. And I think I heard the TV commentators say several other teams were on 28s. Not Schwalbe Marathons, admittedly, but then I couldn’t help noticing there were a lot of punctures in yesterday’s race. I respect everyone else's view, but if I do the Paris Roubaix Challenge sportive again, I’ll definitely ride those tyres again, or something similar. I didn’t have the luxury of a following team car with spare bike, so not fixing flats at the side of the road was well worth the small extra weight penalty. I don't want to blow my own horn, but with the package of frame, wheels and tyres described in the feature, I reckon I hit the sweet spot between performance, comfort and puncture protection - and that got me a top 10% finish time and around 25th place for my age group (admitedly ancient), which I was very happy about indeed.

David Else

posted by David Else [273 posts]
9th April 2012 - 14:37

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I reckon you cracked it David - nigh on 20mph average over 19 pave sections - I wish I was that quick.

Dodging the saccadic masking

posted by notfastenough [2607 posts]
9th April 2012 - 18:31

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Great write up David

abudhabiChris wrote:

But if you aren't doing it on something fairly close to a racing bike setup where do you draw the line ? Is it turning it into Purgatory rather than Hell ?

We did it on kit that we funded with no support crew!
Our choice was based on our ability to fix ourselves and get going again!

My choice of kit was similar to David's but I went a a whole step further, Steel Frame Cross with Disk Brakes and 28 mm Marathon Plus Tyres.

So I had it easy?

The bike weight meant I had to work an awful lot harder and the cobbles hit harder!

Would we have done it on light weight race kit, ohhh yes if we had a full support crew loaded with spare wheels/tyres and bikes!

I do however feel that calling it Paris-Roubaix is a con, I will be returning next year to do Paris-Roubaix, not Saint - Quentin Roubaix!

Ohhh and I will be doing it on a heavy cross bike with bullet proof tyres again Smile

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posted by john.berry [20 posts]
10th April 2012 - 10:08

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The big problem with frame and tyre choice is presumably the compromise aspect: you need a road bike with fast thinner tyres on the road sections and suspension with fat tyres on the cobbles. Two bikes would be ideal but impossible, hence finding the right compromise is the primary problem to address, not just what's best on cobbles.

I would have thought the marathons were a good choice for the cobbles but too slow on the road, weighting the compromise too far towards the pave. He did a fantastic time anyway, so might be wrong there, but must have been hard going on the road. I'd have gone for Conti four season 28s on 32 spoke 3 cross conventionally built wheels, a bit more of a nod toward the road sections, which seem to be being ignored here.

posted by bikeylikey [155 posts]
21st June 2012 - 10:09

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Yes, absolutely, it’s all about compromise - as I say in the main feature and comments above. And yes, there’s more tar than pave on the Paris-Roubaix. But I wasn't ignoring the tar. It's just that the pave is far more important. In fact, how you handle the pave determines the outcome of the whole ride (just as it does for the pros).

Riding the Marathon tyres wasn’t particularly ‘hard going’ on the road. Because the route was mainly flat, they maybe added 5 minutes to my time overall compared to lighter tyres. But if riding lighter tyres had caused me a puncture, that would’ve have been 15 minutes lost.

Obviously every rider will have their own preferences, but I reckon I got the compromise just right.

David Else

posted by David Else [273 posts]
21st June 2012 - 11:17

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