Riding the Cobbles, Collected Advice

by Chikashi

Flemish cobbles

I plan to participate in the Paris Roubaix Challenge (170 km) with friends, and we have been exchanging emails on equipment preparation. I thought that I would consolidate in this post all the hints and advice collected from various sources and many of which apply equally to the other cobbled classics, the Gent-Wevelgem Cyclo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) Challenge. The compendium is really for our own benefit, but if others find it useful too, then that would be a bonus.

I have done segments of the Tour of Flanders a few times previously, so I am somewhat familiar with the Belgian cobbles. However, I have not even seen the fabled cobbled stretches on the Paris Roubaix route, and the unfamiliarity is a cause for minor anxiety.

Frameset:

Given the constant vibration, a very stiff frameset, whether because of material, geometry or both, is probably best avoided. I only have steel bikes, so steel I will be riding.

Handlebar tapes:

The organisers, and many others, recommend applying a double layer of handlebar tapes to absorb the vibration. Some recommend taping one’s wrists, hands and fingers in order to minimise risks of sprain and blisters. What actually helps is to keep your hands and arms relaxed and not having a death grip on the handlebars. However, I have found in the past, riding the Belgian cobbles (with leather bar tapes), that ironically it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a loose grip once fatigue sets in, so a comfy equipment set-up probably helps considerably. I wonder if I can get away with a single layer of a thicker, denser tape like the Lizard Skin DSP 3.2mm.

Bottle cages:

Many people advise against using carbon composite bottle cages because the bottle will just bounce out whilst flying over the cobbles. Alloy cages seem to be the equipment of choice for many, and they recommend that you bend the cage in slightly so that it holds the bottle more tightly. I generally do not believe that cold setting aluminium alloy is a good idea, and I also fear that if you can bend the alloy tube one way without heavy tools, they are susceptible to bending the opposite direction during the bumpy ride. I will stick to what I always use, Blackburn Switchback stainless steel cages. They are bomb proof, do not need bending and I have not yet lost a bottle on the Belgian cobbles.

Saddle:

Mark read somewhere that constantly bumping up and down on the saddle could depress the shell of the saddle to the seat pin. In order to try to prevent this and to dampen the vibration coming up to your bum, it is said that you should stick a sponge under your saddle. I am not able to comprehend this one, but I wonder if the sponge should be a natural one or a synthetic one, dry or soaked. Vileda, anyone?

Drivetrain:

Many say that a chain catcher is a must for the cobbles, particularly if you are riding a carbon composite frame. The chain coming off the inner chainring and chainsawing the bottom bracket is said to cause unsightly and irreparable damage to the frame. I believe a chain catcher is also marketed as a dog fang by certain brands. Sounds like a good idea regardless of frame material?

Tyres:

The organisers require a minimum tyre width of 23 mm. I understand that pros use something between 24 mm and 27 mm (tubulars). I have had a few frightful moments when 23 mm tyres got wedged between deteriorated cobbles. Not such a big deal for the rear wheel, but scary when it happens with the front wheel. One of the recommendations made by ex-pro Roger Hammond is that you fit the widest tyres your frameset will accept and run a slightly lower pressure. I plan to use 28 mm Continental Grand Prix 4 Season, inflated to about 7 bar.

Inner tubes:

The organisers recommend that participants carry 4 spare inner tubes. I presume that the organisers are being conservative, assuming that one is not using puncture-resistant tyres. However, the recommendation does indicate the level of puncture risk. 4 inner tubes for tyres of 28 mm width would mean considerable cargo bulk and weight. Hopefully, the combination of puncture resistant tyres and sealant goop injected in the inner tubes will mitigate the risk so that I will not have to carry quite so many spares.

Some, including Ben Spurrier of Condor Cycles, recommend the use of talcum powder between the inner tube and tyre in order to minimise the risk of pinch punctures. However, Jobst Brandt refutes this advice in an article published on sheldonbrown.com. I suppose that one could seek advice from Geo Trumper whether a floral scented talcum powder might please and relax your inner tubes?

Wheels:

I went to see Gilbert Cattoir, a former World Tour team mechanic with Team Lotto and a famed wheel builder, to have a rear wheel re-built after some local clowns did a dodgy job replacing the hub. The rim is a V-section ‘aero’ alloy rim from Mavic. When I told him that I plan to use the wheel for the Paris Roubaix sportive, he told me that it has the wrong rim for the job because the rim is very rigid. He told me that I ought to be rolling on wheels built with box rims because they are more supple. So, he is re-building another rear wheel, with a box rim, for me this week.

Incidentally, Gilbert hand builds all wheels for Museeuw, the Belgian bicycle brand founded by ex-pro rider Johan Museeuw, 3 times winner of both Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix and featured in the clip below about Paris Roubaix. I hope that all participants will complete the ride without serious injuries.

A Throw of the Dice from RAPHA on Vimeo.

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