Knowledge Level: Intermediate
If you are planning on heading out to Belgium and Northern France for the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix sportives or tackling cobbles closer to home at the Ronde Van Calderdale, here is our guide for how to set your bike up and tips for riding the cobbles.
Although your bike is going to take a battering, don’t be worried about riding your carbon best. It’s far tougher than many people think. The only issue you may have is clearance for wider tyres. However, many cobble aficionados swear by the ride that steel or titanium offers. Whatever frame material you ride, bike fit is key as it’s going to be a long hard day in the saddle.
A pro-compact (52/36t) chainset and 11-28t cassette gives low gearing for the steep cobbled climbs but won’t leave you spinning out on the flat. For flat cobbles, this set-up also allows you to stay in the big ring, maintain more chain tension and reduce the risk of it bouncing off.
The pros choice of tubulars isn’t really a practical option for us mere mortals without following mechanics armed with spare wheels. Tubeless tyres offer similar ride characteristics, remove the risk of pinch flats, allow you to run lower pressures for improved grip and comfort and the sealant will also seal minor punctures. Look for wider tyres (28 mm) with a rounded profile as they will give you a plusher ride.
The pros will ride deep section carbon wheels but you probably don’t want to risk your Sunday best on the cobbles so more robust alloy rims are a better bet. Road tubeless is the way to go if you are looking to tackle the rough stuff and a wider rim gives a better profile with the bigger tyres.
Bars and bar-tape
Double wrap tape makes a massive difference for soaking up the bumps, gel pads give even more cushioning and bars with flatter tops give a more comfortable hand position.
Bottle cages and bottles
Old fashioned alloy cages can be bent inwards slightly to hold your bottles more securely. Choose 500 ml bottles as they are less likely to bounce out and a wrap or two of Duck Tape around the bottle will make them even more secure.
These are long backside battering rides so make sure your saddle is comfy, you are wearing decent padded shorts and you have applied plenty of chamois cream.
Saddlebags and frame mounted pumps are all likely to come loose on the cobbles so stash all your spares, tools and fuel securely in your jersey pockets. If you are using a bike computer or GPS, make sure the mount is 100% secure.
Extra brake levers
Many riders like to tackle cobbles with their hands on the bar-tops but, on flat or downhill sectors, this can leave you worryingly far from your brake levers. The solution is a single (normally rear) or pair of cyclocross style bar-top brake levers.
Cobble technique tips
Ride cobbles with your hands either on the drops or on the bar-tops. It is too easy for your hands to get bumped off if you ride on the hoods.
Speed is your friend and will allow you to skim over the cobbles. Think of a cobbled sportive as a long interval session, attack on the cobbled sectors and then recover when you get back on the tarmac. On cobbled climbs, especially if it has been wet, don’t try and spin too low a gear as you will struggle to maintain traction.
Don’t tense up, allow the bike to move underneath you and don’t over-correct slight slips and avoid grabbing your brakes. Keep your elbows soft and, although you should keep a firm grip on your bars, you shouldn’t be seeing white knuckles.
Ride the crown
On the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, there’s often a distinctive crown and this is the best place to ride. The cobbles will be less worn and there won’t be so many gaps. The verges and gutters of the cobbles can be really tempting, especially when you’re getting tired, but they are full of puncture causing debris and wheel swallowing holes. At Flanders, there is often a smoother un-cobbled line to the side but this is likely to be congested and you came to ride the cobbles didn’t you?
Avoid changing line
Try and hold a straight line, especially if it has been wet, as any sudden changes in direction can easily cause your wheel to slip. The particularly applies if you are riding on the crown as dropping off it can easily lead to a tumble.
Unless it is bone dry, on cobbled climbs, stay in the saddle. Drop your chest down towards your bars to keep your front wheel down and shift forwards on your saddle. Don’t worry about your cadence dropping, just keep on grinding.
Get to the front
Do some research where the cobbled sectors are and try to be on the front of any group when you hit them. This will give you a clear run, allow you to pick your own line and will prevent you getting stalled by anyone ahead having problems. Expect a bit of a battle though and for the pace to rise as other riders will be trying to do the same thing. If you are not up for that, just back off and create some room for yourself that way.
Expect the worst
If you are following another rider or a group of riders onto the cobbles, be on your guard and expect them to ride unpredictably, to stall or even to crash. Give them more room than you would on tarmac and be alert.
As the best technique for tackling cobbles is to ride them hard, along with building good stamina, you also need to ensure you include some higher intensity efforts to replicate the demands of the pavé.
This VO2 Efforts Ride is ideal and, by increasing the amount of Zone 2 riding before and after the efforts, can form part of a longer endurance ride.
For midweek sessions on your indoor trainer, these 5-minute Ramped Intervals will definitely build your strength, power and mental toughness.
If you are able to find some cobbled or rough roads, practicing riding on these and even doing reps will develop your technique, handling skills and test your bike set-up.