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Carved in stone: The appeal of Cobbled Classics

Ellis Bacon
21 Mar 2018

We examine the enduring appeal of cobblestones, and their part in two of the sport's greatest races: The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix

If our previews for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix weren't enough to keep your appetite whetted, we decided to take a deeper look into the very heart of the appeal of the Cobbled Classics. Any number of pieces of advice from any number of pros, local fans, experienced sportive riders or wizened old men aren’t going to help you. Riding across cobbles hurts. A lot.

The wind, rain, cold and difficulty of the so-called Cobbled Classics, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, are the crux of their appeal, to riders and fans alike, according to Roger Hammond.

The retired British pro – a seven-time cyclocross national champion and two-time road-race national champion, with a third-place finish at the 2004 Roubaix to his name – was a stalwart of such races between 2000 and 2012.

‘The average person sitting at home watching a flat stage of the Tour de France might think, “I could do that,”’ says Hammond.

‘But that’s not the case when watching something like Flanders or Roubaix, or a mountain stage at the Tour. And in the same way that someone like Alberto Contador looks forward to a mountain stage, specialists look forward to the Carrefour de l’Arbre or Arenberg Forest sections of Roubaix.’

The ability to ‘look forward’ to bouncing across the most brutally surfaced roads of northern France is a special trait that few riders possess.

The rest of us wince at the thought of your brain bouncing around inside your head, teeth chattering as a result of both the jarring surface and the bitter cold the races can be run in, and, worst of all, the very real risk of a serious accident.

Hammond tries his best to sympathise with those who are unable to ‘float’ across the cobbles like an insect that skates across a pond without breaking the surface of the water.

‘You have to relax,’ he says. Easier said than done, of course, when your knuckles feel as if they’re bursting out of their own skin, and all you want to do is pull over and crack them back into the shape they started out in.

It’s ludicrous, in this age of asphalt, to think that bike races should intentionally seek out the roads of yesteryear with no motive other than to challenge the riders and entertain the spectators.

Flanders was first run in 1913, 10 years after the first Tour de France, but Paris-Roubaix started considerably earlier. Its first outing in 1896 was won by Germany’s Josef Fischer, who is one of only three Germans to have won the race, along with Rudi Altig in 1964 and John Degenkolb in 2015.

In fact, there’s only ever been one German winner of Flanders, too: Steffen Wesemann, in 2004.

On the whole, these races are dominated by Belgians. Roubaix may be in France – just – but you wouldn’t know it when you see all the Belgian tricolores billowing across the route: a hangover – quite literally – from the Tour of Flanders, which takes place the week before, but also an indication of the fervour there is for such races here.

Kings of the Stone Age

‘I’m absolutely exhausted when I finish commentating on a Roubaix,’ says Anthony McCrossan. For him, as a TV commentator, a race like Roubaix always keeps him on his toes.

‘There’s just so much going on at once. You know you’re going to get a story and that it’s going to be an exciting day.’

Like all the best commentators, he knows when to keep schtum, too.

‘The real mystical moments are the Arenberg and the velodrome,’ he says. ‘In other races, you’re doing all you can to help bring what’s happening on the screen to life, yet when Roubaix heads into the Arenberg, I’ll often let people hear the noise and feel the excitement for themselves.’

While the treacherous Arenberg Forest is one of the most famous stretches of cobbles in cycling, you’d be hard-pressed to convince Johan Museeuw of its entertainment value.

It was here in April 1998, a week after winning Flanders, that the Belgian favourite crashed heavily, shattering his left knee. The resulting infection from the injury made it even more serious, and at one point it was thought that he might have to have his leg amputated.

What better riposte, then, after two years of painful rehabilitation, than for Museeuw to return to Roubaix in 2000 to win for a second time?

He provided one of the most enduring images of the race’s modern era: arriving in the velodrome as the lone leader, he unclipped his left foot from his pedal just before the finish line and theatrically lifted up, and pointed to, his recovered knee in a gesture that said, ‘I’ve conquered this race again.’

He retired in 2004, having won a third Roubaix title in 2002 to add to his three Flanders titles, but more recently has admitted to doping during his career.

That should have thrown a huge black cloud over his achievements, yet he remains as popular as ever in Belgium.

Museeuw was usurped, however, by a new ‘king of the cobbles’ in the shape of Belgian Tom Boonen, who appeared almost from nowhere to finish third at Roubaix in 2002 behind Museeuw and Wesemann.

He went on to win Roubaix in 2005, and again in 2008, 2009 and 2012. In 2016 he would have become the record holder for most Roubaix victories – five, but finished a close second to surprise winner Matthew Hayman.

At the 2017 Paris-Roubaix, Boonen's final race before retirement, the fairytale wasn't to be and he finished 13th.

Another prolific winner is Fabian Cancellara, Roubaix champion in 2006, 2010 and 2013, and Flanders winner in 2010 and 2013. Such was Cancellara’s dominance at Roubaix in 2010 that he was accused of having a motor hidden inside his bike frame.

Commissaires even cut open his bike to find out. 

Dishing out the punishment

Each year, the cobbled Classics season kicks off with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in mid-February – a ‘mini Flanders’ that takes riders over similar short, sharp cobbled climbs, starting and finishing in Ghent.

The following day, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne gives those who have missed out, results-wise, another chance to show their early-season form – although heavy snow can force the cancellation of both.

Snow per se doesn’t cancel cycling events, but icy sections and deep snowdrifts means that the riders’ safety can’t be guaranteed. Come April, the weather for Flanders and Roubaix is balmy by comparison.

Weather aside, it’s nevertheless easy enough to see how Roubaix got its nickname: ‘The Hell of the North’.

The frequent punctures, crashes and beatings dished out by the cobblestones combine to ensure that only the luckiest riders arrive at the finish in any fit state to stand or speak. Many starters never make it to the end. 

Efforts have been made over the years to lessen the effect of the cobbles on the rider, from mountain-bike RockShox suspension forks – France’s Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle won back-to-back victories riding them at Roubaix in 1992 and 1993 – to Canadian Steve Bauer’s ‘stealth bike’, a slack-geometried, long wheel-based frame Bauer built especially for him in an effort to iron out the bumps and ruts of the 1993 edition.

He finished 23rd on it; he’d finished 17th the year before on a standard bike…

An extra roll of handlebar tape is about the only concession most riders make over a standard machine, although Boonen in fact uses double bar tape all-year round. That’s just how ‘cobbles’ he is.

Many riders have said that the only way to win Paris-Roubaix is not to rely on equipment or gimmicks but to think about it and prepare for it year round; that you have to have a mantra that nags at you like an annoying child: Pa-ree-roo-bay, Pa-ree-roo-bay, Pa-ree-roo-bay.

Only then might you be ready, and only then is your fate in the lap of the gods when it comes to whose wheel you might be following, or the angle that your wheel strikes the next stone, which could mean an inopportune puncture or the ignominy of a spell on the ground.

The filth and fury

Allow yourself to enter the world of Paris-Roubaix, and quickly the ‘wet or dry’ argument will come up, and for once it has nothing to do with leg-shaving. Rather, it’s the question of which is best: a wet or dry Roubaix.

The former means mud – lots of mud – encasing everything, leaving riders with a pair of ‘skin goggles’ when they peel their shades off at the finish in the velodrome, and means riders disappearing into comically, cartoonishly deep puddles when they crash along the way.

A dry event, conversely, means dust: the kind that gets everywhere, like sand at the beach, finding its way into components, shoes, mouths and eyes, kicked up behind the speeding peloton and the following team cars.

Spectators step back and shield their faces as the race swoops through – a Kansas-like whirlwind that threatens to carry off anything and everything that stands too close.

‘I always looked forward to a wet Roubaix,’ says Hammond, ‘but I never actually got to ride one.’

It would have allowed him to put his cyclocross experience to even better use, although dry editions of Roubaix and Flanders were more than tough enough to test him.

‘My cyclocross background definitely helped me,’ he says. ‘I still rode cross throughout my pro road career as I knew it would help me in the Classics.

'That’s what’s good about cross: you learn to assess the ground beneath you. Just like in cyclocross, if you’re not slipping and sliding on the cobbles, you’re not going fast enough.

‘You mustn’t panic, but as soon as you start sliding, the hardest thing to do is not fight against it,’ advises Hammond, who today has the role of guiding his charges as directeur sportif of Dimension Data.

‘It’s a natural instinct to slam on the brakes and try to decelerate as quickly as possible, but that is the classic way to crash in a Classic.

'I’d always keep my hands on the top of the bars when riding the cobbles, which meant that it was harder to be able to grab my brakes.

'That sounds silly, but instead all you do is just drop back a bit from the wheel in front to give yourself a bit more room to manoeuvre in case the person in front goes down.’

Hammond thinks before offering his final piece of advice for aspiring cobblers: ‘I suppose what you really have to do is just learn to accept that when riding on cobbles your bike isn’t going to be in contact with the ground most of the time.’

Floating indeed.

Cobble crunchers of the past

Roger De Vlaeminck

Considering he had to race against Eddy Merckx (who himself won Roubaix three times and Flanders twice),
De Vlaeminck  deserves his nickname ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’ for winning four titles between 1972 and 1977.

Coupled with his 1977 victory at Flanders, De Vlaeminck’s Roubaix successes mark him out as one of the greatest cobbles riders of all time.

Johan Museeuw

‘The Lion of Flanders’ was as dominant as they come in the Cobbled Classics during the 1990s and first half of the 2000s, winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix three times each.

Even a later admission of doping has failed to dampen the Belgians’ love for Museeuw – the spectacle of his riding having seemingly overshadowed his wrongdoing.

Fabian Cancellara

The Swiss star shrugged off the surreal accusations that he’d used a hidden motor to power his way to victory at the 2010 Paris-Roubaix.

That was his second victory at Roubaix: the first year he pulled off the Roubaix-Flanders double, before doing it again in 2013, putting him at the top of the tree of the crop of cobbled Classics experts.

Tom Boonen

‘Belgium’s Beckham’ is adored by cycling fans and the general public alike, but this is no preening celebrity: with four Roubaix titles and three Flanders wins to his name, as well as the green jersey at the 2007 Tour de France, Boonen was the real deal.

One more victory at ‘The Hell of the North’ before retirement would have made him the most successful Roubaix rider of all time, but not getting a fifth doesn't diminish his achievements.

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