Equipment tweaks that will boost your ride on the pavé, and over poorly maintained UK roads too

Riding over the cobbles is a lot of fun – in a masochistic kind of a way – but it’s hard on both your body and your bike. The pros and their mechanics have plenty of tricks for tackling the pavé successfully and you could make use of some of them to add comfort to your own bike, whether you’re heading out to do a cobbled sportive or you’re just trying to cope with potholes at home.

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The frame

Most big bike companies have an endurance road bike that’s designed to damp vibration and soften bumps more effectively than a standard road bike, and many of these make an appearance in the cobbled classics.

Trek Domane SLR 6 - riding 1.jpg

Trek, for example, has its Domane with an IsoSpeed decoupler that allows the seat tube, and therefore the saddle, to move independently of the rest of the frame.

Some new versions of the Domane also have a front IsoSpeed decoupler that allows a specially shaped carbon fibre steerer tube to bend slightly between the two headset bearings.

Check out our review of the Trek Domane SLR 6 here.

cavendish roubaix - 1

Loads of other framesets are designed to add comfort over rough and uneven roads: Specialized Roubaix (this is Mark Cavendish's Roubaix from a couple of year's ago pictured above), Cannondale Synapse, Giant Defy, Bianchi Infinito, Scott Solace, Merida Ride…

These bikes tend to offer a slightly more upright riding position than traditional race bikes, although the pros usually go for the lowest, most aggressive position possible.

John Degenkolb won the 2015 Paris-Roubaix on a 2014 Giant Defy Advanced SL, a frame designed to offer plenty of give with features that include skinny seatstays that attach to the seat tube at a very low point, and a top tube that’s designed to increase the frame’s compliance. On the other hand, Mathew Hayman won last year's race on an aero Scott Foil, a standard road bike but for the 28mm tubulars he used.

You might not have to cope with cobbles on your commute or your weekend ride, but a bike frame that’s designed to add comfort to your ride might still be a worthwhile investment.

Check out our Buyer’s Guide to Sportive and Endurance bikes here.

Double handlebar tape

Many pro riders use a double-layer of handlebar tape for the cobbled classics. Doubling up helps to provide more cushioning from the vibration and also fills your palm more for easier grip. This is useful because all the bumping can tire your hands and forearms and make holding the bars much more difficult than usual.

Paris Roubaix 38.jpg

Some teams, including Sky, also fit gel pads under the tape for even greater cushioning. Most of the padding is fitted to the tops of the handlebars although it’s also sometimes put on the drops too.

Doubling your bar tape is a lightweight and cheap way of adding comfort to your everyday riding. After the first time, it costs no more than using a single layer of bar tape because the inner layer is very unlikely to wear out (or, at least, it’ll require changing far less often than the outer layer).

Wide tyres, lower pressures

Most pro riders use 25mm wide tyres on asphalt these days and switch to something wider for the pavé.

A larger tyre increases the size of the cushion of air between you and the road and that’s important on the cobbles. The Flanders cobbles tend to be relatively uniform in size and well maintained – mostly – but in Paris-Roubaix… well, the size of the cobbles varies massively and there are holes all over the place so you’re in for a very, very rough ride. Wider tyres help.

Luke Rowe Pinarello  - 21

Most riders use 27mm or 28mm tyres for Paris-Roubaix – FMB’s Paris-Roubaix 27mm tyres are everywhere – although 30mm tyres have become more common over the past couple of years too.

Teams are often cagey about the tyre pressures the pros use. I say 'cagey', they actually act like they're in MI6. A lot of work goes into getting the wheel/tyre combo right for the individual riders and they’re reluctant to say anything at all. We’ve asked the Team Sky mechanics about tyre pressure before, both on the road and on the cobbles, and they wouldn’t tell us a thing.

Cervelo R3 MUD bikes (8)

Judging from the info we have managed to glean, most riders will be riding at 5-5.5 bar (73-80psi) over the cobbles. That’s low compared to normal road race pressures because riders want the tyres to cushion the ride to avoid jolting, and to mould to the cobbles better.

Some teams say that they age their tubular tyres for several years prior to use in the classics because they believe new tyres tend to puncture more easily. The tyres are said to become more supple with age. According to the tyre companies we've spoken to, that's not true.

If you're heading to a cobbled sportive or if your local lanes are poorly surfaced, take a tip from the pros and fit some wider rubber, as long as your frame, fork and brakes provide enough clearance.

Check out our article explaining why you need to switch to wider tyres.

Satellite shifters

Many riders who don’t customarily use satellite shifters run them for the cobbled classics.

Satellite shifters allow you to change gear on an electronic drivetrain via a button rather than via the normal shift levers. Specialist climbers frequently have satellite shifters fixed to the top of the bars while sprinters often have them on the drops where they’re easily accessible when gunning it out of the saddle.

di2 shifters - 1

If you’ve never ridden the cobbles you might not realise why satellite shifters are a benefit here. It’s hard to explain just how ridiculously bumpy they can be. It’s nuts! Sometimes it’s really difficult to shift your hand position on the bars and occasionally it can be hard even to reach out to the levers with your fingers because you don’t want to compromise control.

By offering another gear changing option, satellite shifters can be a valuable asset on the pavé. Some riders even run satellite thumb shifters on the drops and more satellite shifters positioned up by the stem.

Satellite shifters might be a neat addition to your own bike if you’re lucky enough to have electronic shifting, but if your local roads are so bumpy that you need these shifters because you daren’t alter your hand position on the bars, you need to write a stern letter to the council!

Saddles

Some riders change saddles for the cobbled Classics, going for something with more cushioning.

Team Sky’s Elia Viviani, for example, switches from a regular Fizik Arione to the Arione K1 with more padding. It's actually designed as a triathlon saddle.

Fizik Arione k1.jpg

Other riders prefer to stick with their tried and tested favourite.

If you’re not getting on with your own saddle comfortable, check out our reviews and find yourself something better.

Aluminium handlebars

A lot of pro riders use aluminium handlebars all the time – one of our contacts at Trek recently told us that most of the Trek Segafredo riders use a £30 Bontrager Race VR-C alloy bar for durability – and many of those who usually use carbon switch to aluminium for the cobbled races.

cavendish roubaix - 1 (2)

This is Mark Cavendish’s bike from a cobbled stage of the 2015 Tour de France, fitted with an aluminium bar from FSA.

Chainrings

There are several famous climbs in the Tour of Flanders, like the Koppenberg, Paterberg and Kwaremont, but Paris-Roubaix is relatively flat so riders tend to use quite a large inner chainring, usually a 44 or 46-tooth.

paris roubaix 2013 - shimano 9000 dura-ace

A larger inner chainring keeps the chain tighter so it’s less likely to get unshipped by bumps from the cobbles and pretty much every rider uses a chain catcher for more security.

Some teams use outer chainrings that are built stronger for the classics.

If you think you could do with swapping chainrings yourself, it’s a pretty straightforward job although you’ll need to adjust your front derailleur and perhaps swap your chain too.

Bottle cages

It’s very easy for bottles to jump out of bottle cages over the cobbles. As well as losing drink, an escaped bottle is a hazard.

Luke Rowe Pinarello  - 18

Many riders who regularly use lightweight carbon-fibre bottle cages switch to aluminium for the cobbled classics. Aluminium cages are more durable and you can bend the metal just a touch to provide more pressure.

 

paris roubaix 2013 - tacx cages

Some teams put grip tape on the inside of their cages to provide more friction. It’s very easy for you to do this yourself if you have problems keeping your water bottle in place.

Extra brake levers

Although not all that widespread, some riders fit additional brake levers to the tops of the bars because they like to position their hands up there for the cobbles.

brake levers - 1

These are on Tony Martin’s bike from the 2015 Tour de France.

You’re unlikely to need these for normal road riding, although you might like to have them for riding in traffic, for example.

Disc brakes

Team Lampre-Merida and Direct Energie riders used disc brake equipped bikes during last year's cobbled classics, and several riders have used disc brakes on the road since the reintroduction of the UCI's trial at the start of this season, so it looks likely that we'll see disc brakes on the pavé again in 2017.

Merida Ride Disc 5000 - riding 2.jpg

Most teams use bikes from manufacturers that have disc brake models on the UCI’s List of Approved Models of Frames and Forks, among them Giant, Canyon, Specialized, Merida, Trek, and Focus. In theory, that means a large proportion of the peloton could be using disc brakes over the cobbles, although we'll just have to wait and see the level of take-up.

One of the key benefits of disc brakes is that they perform almost as well in wet conditions as they do in the dry. That could be a real benefit in a race like Paris-Roubaix which can quickly become very muddy if it rains.

Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.

37 comments

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Colin Peyresourde [1839 posts] 1 year ago
6 likes

I did virtually all of that and then ruined it by wearing my full fingered gloves with no padding. 

But the end of the Sportive I had stigmata marks. "Jesus, what have you been up to?" They kept saying.

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CXR94Di2 [2237 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Either get a frame that takes 45mm tyres or ride a full suspension mtb

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Rapha Nadal [903 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I did none of the above and got on fine.  On an alu frame with 23's pumped up to 100psi.

Each to their own though.

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brooksby [3597 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

There's a road I have to go on in the mornings (King Street in Bristol) and I never realised how awful cobbles can be; I could get off and walk the hundred metres, but, y'know: *walking* the bike...?

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Wolfcastle50 [45 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

I'm riding round Queen Square in Bristol everyday on my commute to practice. But its not getting any easier.

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Trickytree1984 [56 posts] 1 year ago
11 likes
Rapha Nadal wrote:

I did none of the above and got on fine.  On an alu frame with 23's pumped up to 100psi.

Each to their own though.

God you're hard

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IanMunro [47 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

A clutch rear mech would seem a more obvious addition over some of those entries.
Just look at all the riders who dumped chains at Rio.

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P3t3 [429 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
CXR94Di2 wrote:

Either get a frame that takes 45mm tyres or ride a full suspension mtb

Exactly, if you are not a pro tied to obscure rules why not just use something that actually works! The test of the article is merely hopeful...

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Bob Wheeler CX [104 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

80psi still seems hard, especially riding on the hoods

 

go down to 55 and hold onto the gel tape over those increasingly rough b roads

 

some of the more nutty roadies out there must have wrists like a speed typist

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beezus fufoon [972 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes
Bob Wheeler CX wrote:

some of the more nutty roadies out there must have wrists like a speed typist

they don't call it bike porn for nothing

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huntswheelers [139 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Some good tips .... And then the article ended with....Groan.... Disc brakes get mentioned......Zzzzz bored now with that, time for an agreed brake spec for world tour races etc. ....All on discs or none on discs then this add on drip feed disc brakes promotion will stop

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Edgeley [540 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

During Bike Week for the last few years our local campaign group has been running a fun ride round all the cobbles we can find in Oxford.   Starts at Headington Quarry, and hence is the Quarry Roubaix.   Bit of a hoot followed by beer.

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Anyone seen my ... [32 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Wolfcastle50 wrote:

I'm riding round Queen Square in Bristol everyday on my commute to practice. But its not getting any easier.

 

But unfortunately it won't help.  Nothing I've experienced in the UK will - except perhaps riding over chewed up farm tracks with pot-holes.  Because that's what you're in for.  I thought the same living on cobbled streets in London.  But the 'cobbles' are actually stone bricks - you won't be calling them cobbles by the 9th April - which are sunk into mud: over time they get pressed in, twisted, broken by tracked vehicles, and - worst of all, completely lost.  

I prepped my Litespeed as best I could, but the sounds it was making when I hit the cobbles made it sound like it was going to break.  I would recommend decent wheels though.  Harry Rowland built me a set of 36 spoke Open Pros with Miche hubs for GBP240... I'll be using these with 27mm tyres: Contis. 

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Rapha Nadal [903 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Trickytree1984 wrote:
Rapha Nadal wrote:

I did none of the above and got on fine.  On an alu frame with 23's pumped up to 100psi.

Each to their own though.

God you're hard

Tell me about it.

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Bike Science [11 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Surprised that there's no mention of tubeless tyres. I rode Roubaix last year on 30mm Schwalbe S1's with about 50PSI in the front. They appear to be almost impossible to puncture even after hitting big, scary cobbles all day. Highly recommended.

 

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Shamblesuk [172 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes

I rode P-R a couple of years ago. Gel under bars - tick. Tyre pressure reduced - tick. Gloves - tick. Ride down the middle - tick.

None of that prepared me for the 'cobbles'. The Arenberg is simply appalling. My tip is not a techy one. it's HIT THE COBBLES AS FAST AS YOU CAN. If you dawdle on them they are much, much worse.

By the time we got to Hem I was gingerly moving between hoods, drops and even two fingers round the brake lever. It's excrutiatingly painful. It was only when I hit the cobbles faster, did I start to feel like I was getting to grips with them.

Also, TORQUE EVERYTHING UP. The sight of evicted bottle cages, seatpacks and bottles strewn across the first sector was incredible.

That said, given that I also did the E'tape, and fell off 3 sectors in, it remain my greatest cycling memory.

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Anyone seen my ... [32 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Shamblesuk wrote:

I rode P-R a couple of years ago. Gel under bars - tick. Tyre pressure reduced - tick. Gloves - tick. Ride down the middle - tick.

None of that prepared me for the 'cobbles'. The Arenberg is simply appalling. My tip is not a techy one. it's HIT THE COBBLES AS FAST AS YOU CAN. If you dawdle on them they are much, much worse.

By the time we got to Hem I was gingerly moving between hoods, drops and even two fingers round the brake lever. It's excrutiatingly painful. It was only when I hit the cobbles faster, did I start to feel like I was getting to grips with them.

Also, TORQUE EVERYTHING UP. The sight of evicted bottle cages, seatpacks and bottles strewn across the first sector was incredible.

That said, given that I also did the E'tape, and fell off 3 sectors in, it remain my greatest cycling memory.

There were lots of riders riding along the path on the Arenberg... I considered it, but then thought 'what am I here for?'  It's ploughed and fenced off for the race.  And you're right, it is appalling. Steel bottle cages, bent in hard.  No saddle bags, just stuff yer pockets, and strap spokes to your top-tube.  You might need them (hence no fancy wheels)...

You don't need to carry that much food, the ride is not that long at 170km and it's flat.  There are plenty of stations along the route - every 40km of so - if you want to stop. 

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ErgoKnees [6 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Even with gel or double bar tape I'd like to see tips on preparing your arms for the vibration they'll get. I had to change from riding the tops to riding the hoods because my arms were tender under and within the muscles from the shaking.

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Anyone seen my ... [32 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

That Team Sky bar tape is a mess. Tell me that's not a photo of  a team bike?

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tsarouxaz [117 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes

Have you really seen rubish roads yet??

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BehindTheBikesheds [2405 posts] 8 months ago
1 like

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

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Yorkshire wallet [2263 posts] 8 months ago
5 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

The rate of accidents has not been proven to decrease with a decent pair of gloves. Let people ride gloveless you helmetless hypocrite. 

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Rich_cb [797 posts] 8 months ago
3 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:

The rate of accidents has not been proven to decrease with a decent pair of gloves. Let people ride gloveless you helmetless hypocrite. 

You're missing the bigger picture.

With a good pair of gloves on you will no longer fear grazed palms.

You'll therefore ride like a lunatic and almost certainly die.

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Plasterer's Radio [431 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

The rate of accidents has not been proven to decrease with a decent pair of gloves. Let people ride gloveless you helmetless hypocrite. 

LOL. Calm yourself, dear.

Avatar
alfreddo [8 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

Not sure if I’d be calling gloveless multiple PR winnerTom Boonen an idiot but I appreciate that you’re probably more experienced on the cobbles than he is...

Avatar
BehindTheBikesheds [2405 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

The rate of accidents has not been proven to decrease with a decent pair of gloves. Let people ride gloveless you helmetless hypocrite. 

Gloves protect the part of the body that hit the ground first most often, they have a proven safety benefit, they also offer cushioning/lessen the effects of bumpy rides compared to ungloved, don't be a pillock.

Avatar
BehindTheBikesheds [2405 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
alfreddo wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

Not sure if I’d be calling gloveless multiple PR winnerTom Boonen an idiot but I appreciate that you’re probably more experienced on the cobbles than he is...

Well I'm more experienced than he is on the road for sure, maybe those who don't wear gloves would have a performance benefit and also be able to avoid certain aspects that cause a lot of pain.

Difficult for you I'm sure but have a think about it.

Avatar
alfreddo [8 posts] 8 months ago
1 like
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:
alfreddo wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

Yet again ignoring gloves, seems to be the trend of idiots who have no idea of safety and the cushioning benefit of a decent pair of gloves and just don't bother wearing at all (as per the pics here)

Not sure if I’d be calling gloveless multiple PR winnerTom Boonen an idiot but I appreciate that you’re probably more experienced on the cobbles than he is...

Well I'm more experienced than he is on the road for sure, maybe those who don't wear gloves would have a performance benefit and also be able to avoid certain aspects that cause a lot of pain.

Difficult for you I'm sure but have a think about it.

You’re ‘more experienced on the road’ than an ex-World Tour level pro cyclist with a 15 year career. Hmm...

Avatar
Yorkshie Whippet [643 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes

Re no gloves;

Tom Boonen rode P-R without gloves and won it!

Go figure.

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fenix [1089 posts] 8 months ago
1 like
Anyone seen my Cervelo wrote:

That Team Sky bar tape is a mess. Tell me that's not a photo of  a team bike?

It only has to last a couple of hours and the mechanics have a lot of work to do for a cobbled race. I agree it's not the best.

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