But cobble riding is a skill you can learn just like any other. And with practice it will get easier. The key is good preparation. With the right technique, equipment and training you can take on the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix Sportives with confidence.
Every year, in March and April, the cobbled roads of northern France and Belgium play host to the spring classics. For over a century in legendary races such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, professional cyclists battle for a place in the history books. The now familiar sights of dust clouds rising into the air, grimacing faces, crashes, punctures, tears and celebrations, all keep us coming back for more year after year. And some of us are even inspired to try it ourselves one day. But just how do the pros conquer the cobbles? There are three areas you need to focus on: Technique, bike setup and training.
With an uneven, low-grip surface, the cobbles will no doubt present you with problems as you venture onto them for the first time. The secret to navigating a section of pavé is a relaxed grip on the bars, high speed and cadence, and minimal braking.
1) Absorbing the shock
Avoid tightly gripping the bars with locked arms. Instead, use your arms as shock absorbers with a light grip on the tops or drops and a slight bend at the elbow.
2) Go fast
Simply put, the faster you go the easier it is. Try to maintain a low cadence and a high speed. Doing so ensures your bike glides over the pavé while allowing you to easily react to changes in pace and gradient.
With the tight 90° corners commonly found on the cobbles in Paris-Roubaix, good cornering is essential. Position yourself ahead of time and pick your line. Very often there will be a banking on the inside of the road which can help slingshot you around. Avoid braking into the corners and allow your momentum to propel you through.
4) The Crown or the Gutter?
The gutter is the groove on the side of the cobbled road. It is usually quite smooth, but debris and spectators can make it dangerous to remain there for too long. Safer yet is the crown, the central section which is often less broken up by traffic. Although bumpier it’s generally the safest place to ride while giving you the full pavé experience.
5) Position in the group
Upon entering a cobbled section in a sportive you are generally better off riding at the front. This allows you the freedom to choose your line. Crashes are common and it’s best to assume that those directly in front of you may come a cropper at some point. If riding behind others, it is recommended you leave enough space to dodge any potential falls.
6) Sit back
Stay seated where possible with your weight shifted toward the back. This ensures maximum traction for your back wheel on these slippery stones.
The cobbles can wreak havoc on your body and bike. Wide tyres and low pressure will give you a more comfortable ride.
7) Tyres and pressure
If your frame accepts wider tyres, 28mm - 30mm are generally the preferred option. They should be inflated to the 65 - 85 psi range, or slightly lower when conditions are wet. The cobbles are no place for 23mm tyres inflated to 120 psi. Your back and joints will thank you later.
Where possible try to ensure you ride in the big chain-ring. This will ensure adequate chain tension is maintained over the rough terrain thus reducing chain slap. Cobbles always favour the powerful riders. So the bigger the gear you can comfortably turn, the more efficiently you can navigate a cobbled section.
9) Extra bar tape
It may sound like a small thing, but an extra layer of bar tape on the tops can make a huge difference to your hands. Some people even add a layer of foam or rubber underneath. Both protect against the constant hammering your hands take from cobbles.
The right kind of training can go a long way toward making your time on the cobbles more enjoyable. As does knowing how to position yourself once you hit the cobbles.
10) Practice short intense efforts
Cobbled sections tend to be short, around 2km at most. In training, short sharp efforts of 4 - 5 minutes at threshold or above should be undertaken. Taxing those upper zones in training will allow you to hit the cobbled sections with intensity and maintain it.
11) Strength training and low cadence
On flat cobbles a lower cadence of 75-80 rpm stops power loss and bouncing. It also takes weight off the saddle and will make you more comfortable. While climbing on cobbles your cadence can go as low as 40 rpm. This requires great physical strength to maintain, and you should train before at low cadences. For example, try powering up short climbs in your area without getting out of the saddle. Keep repeating in a higher gear each time.
12) Huge endurance base
The other thing to keep in mind if you’re tackling cobbles as part of a sportive, is the big mileage involved. Riding cobbles fresh is very different to riding them after you’ve already had 150km in the saddle. The longest distance in the Tour of Flanders is a whopping 237km. So make sure you’ve banked a lot of base miles in your training.
And one final piece of advice, which is the most important one….
Pray it doesn’t rain.