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How Luke Rowe rides the Spring Classics

Joe Robinson
2 Feb 2018

Team Sky's Luke Rowe guides us through how he prepares for the cobblestones of Roubaix and Flanders. Lead Image - Russ Ellis

Doing well at the Spring Classics takes a special kind of rider – usually someone who is that bit heavier, that bit more powerful, that bit more rugged. 

Team Sky's Luke Rowe is one such rider. While most of his season is spent riding in support of General Classification men such as Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, the spring is when his own ambitions for glory can come to the fore.

Despite the team having several riders capable of doing well at the Spring Classics, Rowe, alongside fellow Brit Ian Stannard, is foremost among them and is given the role of team leader at these races.

To be a contender at these races, however, takes more than just talent. It's also about meticulous preparation, an ability to accept pain and getting the bike properly set up for the conditions.

Below, Luke Rowe talks us through how he prepares for the cobbled Classics.

Bike change

Fabian Cancellara was a trailblazer for deep section carbon wheels on the cobbles

No other races require you to modify your bike as much as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – it's no accident that so many bike brands actually have a dedicated model developed specifically for riding on cobbles.

The differences range from small details such as bottle cages right through to more fundamental factors such as gear ratios.

Rowe says he prefers to keep his bike as close to his usual set-up as possible, but says a good number of changes are unavoidable.

Luke says:

We get offered to ride a completely different bike with suspension but I opt for our usual set-up just changing a lot of the componentry.

The team will start with the small things like more sturdy bottle cages to prevent your bottle from popping out to bigger changes like fitting a cat lever brake or adjusting the gear ratios appropriately.

At Roubaix, riding a bigger inner ring is a good move. You can find yourself slipping out of the big ring because of the road surface so by riding with a 42 or 44 inner ring you will not drop to much speed if your chain slips.

A popular choice to go for is two rolls of bar tape to offer your hands and wrist that extra bit of cushioning but it doesn't matter how much you use, the cobbles will still hurt.

Besides this, the biggest change you can make to your bike – and the area where the accepted wisdom has changed most in recent years – is in your tyre and wheel choice.

Only recently has it become standard for us professionals to use deep section carbon wheels with 28mm or even 30mm tyres. Fabian Cancellara was probably the first and we all followed. 

It's not uncommon to come into the Velodrome or Oudenaarde with cracked rims. I have broken many wheels and you can feel it shudder when you brake but you just race on.

Preparing for success

Rowe racing up the mythical Kappelmuur

The Spring Classics season presents a unique challenge compared to the rest of a professional cyclist's season. 

The body is asked to ride at near maximum capacity for in excess of seven hours while also producing upwards of 30 short, sharp efforts of less than five minutes to negotiate the pavé sections. No sooner have you cleared one than the next one comes into view.

Rowe believes the perfect approach to training is to focus less on structured rides staring at the power meter and more on all-out efforts that leave everything on the road.

Luke says:

To prepare for the Classics I need to build up my short, intense efforts ranging from one to five minutes, unlike the rest of the season when you are typically working on 10- to 60-minute efforts.

For that you have to train specifically and the best approach is to focus on making a big, hard, punchy effort and then recovering, and repeating that about 40 times.

You also do not want to focussed on things like power and heart rate, as the purpose of the exercise is to deliberately push yourself to the limit.

For example, there is a loop near my house in Wales which took 50 minutes to complete when I was 12 and takes 30 minutes now and it includes three or four punchy climbs which is perfect preparation before Flanders.

I will go out for a long ride and then on my way home hit that loop three or four times at full intensity. There's nothing like seeing a climb and just smashing yourself up it.

A painful game

De Vlaeminck making it look easy

It was often said that Roger de Vlaeminck did not ride over the cobbles, he glided. 

The four-time winner of Roubaix and one time winner of Flanders was an expert of the rough roads and seemingly made it look easy. Since then, many have tried to emulate his style with Tom Boonen arguably the only one to come close. 

Luke says:

You can do as many reconnaissance rides as you like to try and find the best lines on section of pave or cobbled climbs but essentially it is just brutal and there is no secret to making it easier.

When it comes to race day there will be people all over the climb or section of pave which makes it nearly impossible to choose that line you thought you had found.

Yes, the faster you enter the cobbles the more you seem to skim across them but that can change quickly. You may think you are on the right line then whack, you hit a massive stone.

You wish that there was some kind of hidden formula but there is no secret. Whether you are an amateur or a professional it is going to hurt.