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A bumpy road ahead: the appeal of cobbles

Frank Strack
7 Apr 2017

The cobbles of Roubaix are totally unsuited for bike riding – which is exactly why you should try them, says Frank Strack

Dear Frank

A friend is proposing a trip to ride the cobbled roads of Roubaix. It sounds like a terrible idea – while I enjoy watching the pros do it, I’ve no desire to risk blisters, frostbite and broken bones myself. Could you explain the appeal?

Jon, by email

Dear Jon

I’ve always felt that I’d be a natural at riding the cobbles, the same way I’ve always been sure that had I been born into the Star Wars universe I’d be a Jedi.

We hold these sorts of beliefs about ourselves steadfastly through the mounting lack of evidence to the contrary.

As it turns out, I was right about the cobbles. A youth spent riding rigid mountain bikes over single-track trails and road bikes over gravel roads in northern Minnesota was just enough to make the cobbles of northern France seem that much less terrifying. My Jedi reflexes helped too. 

I’m not sure where you live, but I’m guessing it isn’t in Flanders, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking this question.

You’d be asking a question more like, ‘Why do non-Flemish riders notice rain and wind? And why are they all so soft?’ 

Most of us think of Flanders as being a region in Belgium, but the historical country of Flanders flows over into northern France.

The roads on which Paris-Roubaix in France is held are every bit as Flandrian as those that host the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the other cobbled Classics in Belgium.

Country borders, as it turns out, were drawn by politicians not cyclists.

The cobbles you find in these regions are nothing like the ones you may have seen in city centre alleyways.

Savage cobbles

These are savages. On my first trip to Flanders, a friend and I followed a cobbled lane on foot out of Lille city centre to an old ruin of the original walled fortress.

This cobbled lane was so rough that our feet hurt from walking over them. We shuddered at the thought of riding a bike over such roads.

Later, we were surprised to discover that the cobbled lane we had walked on was smooth compared to the roads of Paris-Roubaix.

In other words, your apprehension is well-founded. What I can’t understand is your reluctance to experience what it’s like to ride them, even if you hate it.

I’ve been out to the cobbles a few times now, and there is no denying it, they’re terrible. To begin with, the cobbles are as irregular as they are rough.

The gaps between them are inconsistent and span from one to several centimeters. The gap is normally filled with a blend of dirt and shit.

We imagine it’s more dirt than shit, but the data is inconclusive. The bike follows a seemingly random trajectory as the wheels are deflected by the stones.

Counterintuitively, the slower you ride, the more the bike is thrown about, yet the more the stones throw you about, the more power it takes to maintain your velocity.

Every cobble is like a boxer punching a bag, forcing your bike to slow down.

Your power is what overcomes the slowing effect of the relentless boxer beating away at your wheels. The question is: are you the boxer or the bag?

The rider, then, has two strategies from which to choose. First, ride as fast as possible to force the wheels to bound along the cobbles like a stone skimming water.

The faster you go, the smoother the ride. The second is to ride in the gutter where you can escape the stones for the comforts of smoother dirt.

The problem with the gutter is that it’s filled with mud, dirt and abrasive runoff that can cause a puncture.

Judgement call

For the professionals, the two strategies are balanced through an alchemy of experience, judging their strength and weighing the risk of puncturing in the gutter.

Based on the condition of the pavé and the strength of the rider, you will see the pros opportunistically choosing between the crown and the ditch at either side.

To ride the cobbles is to hold a savage duality in your heart: when you’re on a secteur, all you can think of is getting to its end as fast as possible.

The relief your body experiences when the intense vibration stops and you return to smooth tarmac is among the most visceral feelings the human body can experience.

Yet the thrill of feeling your bike descend into a chaos of movement at full speed at the entrance of the next secteur is indescribable.  

The thrill of riding them, especially the thrill of transitioning on and off the secteurs, is an itch that continues to need a scratch. It is unlike anything else you will experience on two wheels.

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