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Paris-Roubaix Tech: Wider tyres, mechanical gears and other modifications

Paris-Roubaix is a peculiar race, and requires some special bike modifications

Paris-Roubaix is a very special race indeed with the 52km of cobbled roads requiring some special modifications to the bikes. Wide tyres, close ratio gears, extra bar tape and even disc brakes are some of the key changes made to the race bikes for the Hell of the North.

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This is Tom Boonen’s spare bike, a Specialized Roubaix SL4. The Roubaix has been in service for a number of years and only gets brought out for special occasions. Boonen sticks with the same Dura-Ace Di2 he uses on his regular race bike, with the main change being a 53/44t chainset and 28mm Specialized branded tubular tyres.

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Boonen is a rider that prefers two layers of bar tape and it's taped right up to the stem as well. Course details are taped to the top tube, but surely he knows the route like the back of his hand? Knowing the course and the cobbles are surely part of the secret to winning this race, right? Oh, and luck. A huge dose of luck is needed as well.

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Heinrich Hassler, who finished 6th, made an interesting choice for the race. He started aboard a Scott Foil aero bike (the same bike that Mathew Hayman won the race on) with 25mm Continental Competition ProLtd tyres for the first 100km of so or smooth roads, then switched to the Scott Solace fitted with the 28mm version of the same tyre before the race hit the first cobbled section. 

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The Scott Solace is the company's go-to endurance bike, and it's also available with disc brakes, though the team was sticking with the non-disc version.

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There had been much speculation for the past  six months about Paris-Roubaix being the turning point for disc brakes in the professional peloton, but in the end, only two teams actually used disc brakes. Direct Energie was one of those teams, using a BH G7 Disc road bike (pictured above) with Shimano hydraulic brakes and Dura-Ace/FSA gearing.

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Lampre-Merida was the other team using disc brakes in this race. The bike was officially the same weekend, and Mat was there to get the first look. You can read that article here. 

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Bora-Argon 18 rider Sam Bennett was racing an Argon 18 Gallium, with Vision Metron 40 carbon fibre tubular wheels and a Dura-Ace Di2 and FSA groupset. Vittoria doesn’t make the classic Pave tyre anymore, but it looks to be working on a new version, which we must presume will make use of the graphene technology that the company has introduced to its new Corsa and Corsa Speed tyres, introduced last year.

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The prototype Vittoria tyre looks to be based on the Corsa tyre but with a very different tread than anything in the current tyre range. 

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The centre section has the same stripes as the current Corsa, but the shoulders have small angled sections, which we can presume will be there to provide a bit more grip in the corners. How much difference that actually makes in the traction department is open to debate.

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Even though Vittoria doesn’t make the Pave tyre any more, we still spotted a few bikes with them fitted, including some of the Bora-Argon 18 spare bikes. It’s an iconic tyre and a few years ago was a hugely common sight at the spring classics. It’s a 28mm tyre with distinctive green sidewalls and chevron tread pattern. 

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Sam Bennett has a busy handlebar. He opts for additional brake levers, so he has more speed control on the tops, with a grip tape applied to the levers to ensure his fingers don’t slip. Once upon a time, you’d see a lot of these extra brake levers, but they seem to have fallen out of popularity this year.

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BMC’s Taylor Phinney (back in action after his horrific injury in 2014 that nearly threatened to end his career) neglects sponsorship duties and chooses a Specialized Power saddle, which has a distinctive shape: it’s much wider and shorter than conventional saddles. There’s not even an attempt to disguise the fact he’s riding a Specialized saddle. The rest of the BMC team was using Fizik saddles because they're sponsored by the Italian company to ride them.

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There's really no climbing at Paris-Roubaix (though it is definitely not flat) so still close ratio gears are the order of the day. Lots of 53/44t chainsets with 11-25t cassettes were spotted on most of the bikes.

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The maximum tyre clearance of a Dura-Ace brake caliper is 28mm, so to accommodate a wider tyre such as the many 30mm tyres we spotted, these BMC bikes were fitted with what appears tobe a Shimano R451 brake caliper which has a longer reach than Dura-Ace. 

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Bar tape wrapped right up to the stem was something we spotted on quite a few bikes. It simply offers the rider more choice for where to place their hands when rattling over the cobbles. Aluminium handlebars and stems are common too.

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While some bikes had single or double wrap bar tape, Topsport Vlaanderen–Baloise’s Preben Van Hecke (the Belgian national champion) has got creative. Or rather his mechanics have. His handlebars have double wrap tape on the tops, and single wrap on the drops. 

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Here’s Preben Van Hecke custom painted Merckx Merckx EMX-525 race bike, to match his national champs jersey. The bike is named after the number of race victories by Eddy Merckx and was launched back in 2012. It makes few concessions to comfort, and tyre clearance looks extremely close. He’s also another rider to opt for mechanical Dura-Ace. 

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There were a lot of bikes with mechanical Dura-Ace groupsets. There are riders like Fabian Cancellara who prefer mechanical year-round, and we saw it too on Peter Sagan’s bike. It’s there a good reason for it this switch from the more common Dura-Ace Di2, or is it simply personal preference for this tough race? 

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For many riders that stick with Dura-Ace Di2, these optional shifters buttons fitted to the centre of the handlebars were a common addition. 

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No fancy bottle cages for this race, instead metal cages are popular as they better retain water bottles than most plastic or carbon cages.  Metal cages can also be adjusted, so you can ensure the bottle is very securely clamped in the cage.

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The Lapierre Xelius SL race bikes of the FDJ team were also fitted with Shimano long reach brake calipers

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Shallower carbon fibre wheels are quite common as well, with many switching from the 50mm rims used on regular road stages to 35mm rims. It’s not about weight, but rather the hope that the shallower rim provides a bit more compliance than a deeper section rim. 

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While endurance race bikes are hugely popular for this race, many stick with the aerodynamic advantage. There is of course much more smooth road then than pave in this race. It certainly worked for Mathew Hayman, who rode a bike pretty much identical to this Scott Foil to victory. The direct mount brakes, with the rear hidden behind the bottom bracket, provide clearance for the 28mm Continental tyres the ORICA GreenEDGE team use.

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Having anything rattling around on your bike can be intensely annoying, so a small strip of electrical tape over the valve prevents it rattling against the carbon rim.

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Here’s the Bianchi Infinito CV that Sep Vanmarcke so nearly pushed across the finish line first, but despite his valiant effort, it wasn’t to be. The Infinito CV bike is made for rough surfaces, with a special vibration damping material added to the carbon layup to take the sting out of riding over cobblestones. 

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Vanmarcke was also riding prototype Vittoria tyres as well but, but they have a very different tread pattern to the other Vittoria prototype tyres we spotted elsewhere, with a pattern reminiscent of the old Pave tyres.

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Vanmarcke was one of the few top guys to use a single additional brake lever fitted to the handlebar. He also uses sprint shifters on the drops. 

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Edvald Boasson Hagen evidently get on with an Enve stem, so he uses a PRO Vibe stem with the logos taped over. 

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Something else we spotted on many of the Dimension Data bikes is the lack of a top headset cap. You can actually see the exposed bearings. Presumably this is to allow the rider to get the front end as low as possible, rather than any other performance benefit that comes with binning the top cap. Don't try this at home.

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Where we did spot plastic bottle cages, many had tape wrapped around the wings to adjust the fit, essentially to make the bottles a tighter fit in the cage so they don’t pop out.

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Quite a few Speedplay users opted for the Pave, a model of pedal that has the plastic body stripped away to supposedly provide better clearance when the cleats are covered in dirt and mud. 

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Not bike tech as such, but many racers tape up their hands or fingers to reduce soreness or prevent blisters from occurring. Many raced without gloves, as wearing gloves can increase the chance of chaffing when gripping the handlebars over the cobbles.

David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. 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, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes

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