John Deering, co author of best seller “How to be a Cyclist” shares his top 5 tips on how to ride and survive the cobbles of Flanders & Roubaix.
The rarefied atmosphere of the high Alps and the border-hugging passes of the central Pyrenees are where the iconic pictures of the Tour de France are traditionally set. Think of Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault as duelling teammates, Robert Millar or Marco Pantani dancing forever upwards, or Miguel Indurain thundering relentlessly on. Behind them: deep blue skies, steep green valleys, patches of immovable snow and jagged forbidding peaks.
The 2014 Tour de France left us with a different indelible image. It was the filthy cobbles of northern France, borrowed from the spring classics that defined this year’s race. It was here that Vincenzo Nibali skipped away with aplomb where his rivals skittered and stuttered out of contention one by one. He proved to us all that professional cycling is still as much about skill and heart as it is about power-to-weight ratios and summer skinsuits.
A Sicilian climber, Nibali also showed us that you don’t have to have been moulded out of Flandrian mud to be a king of the cobbles. It’s something we can all learn and even enjoy if we put our minds to it. Yes, even you Chris Froome, even you Alberto Contador. Read and learn.
Five Techniques to Beat the Cobbles
This is by far the most important adjustment you can make to your riding style to bring you success on the rough stuff. When you leave a beautifully silky stretch of asphalt and hit – and it really does feel like you “hit” – a section of pavé, every last atom of your being will be screaming at you to fight it. Your muscles tighten, your hands grip, your jaw is set. This may be one of the most counter-intuitive things you’ll ever do, but you’re going to have to relax. Let those elbows bend, take the tension out of your neck. The toughest thing of all is your hands. You need to find a way to hold the bars securely to keep your front wheel on the straight and narrow without hanging on for grim death. Let the bars dance in your hands a little without letting them pop out. Hold the hoods, the drops, the tops, whatever suits you, everybody’s different, just let the tension go.
Weight on your feet
It’s a good idea to shift a gear or two to give yourself something more substantial to push against when you enter a sector of cobbles. This isn’t an instruction to smash it as hard as you can and blow up within moments, you should aim to continue with the same speed. What you’re actually doing is taking more of the weight on the balls of your feet, giving your backside something of a breather. Most people aren’t able to spin neatly over the cobbles in a Nibali style, the bumps just tend to boot them out of the saddle, so pre-empt that by not sitting quite so firmly on it and let your feet do the work.
Acceleration is a matter of some awkwardness on the cobbles. In the 2014 Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France stage over the same so-called roads, Belkin’s flatland specialists Sep Vanmarcke and Lars Boom stretched the field by riding as hard as they could through each sector. These weren’t attacks in the traditional sense of the word, but sustained efforts making the most of the speed they brought into those sections. Stay off the brakes, take the corners as quick as you dare and let your bike as quick as it wants on the descents. Momentum is everything.
Judge your effort
If you want to avoid the opposite of momentum, the crushing inertia of losing speed like Wile E Coyote running through a freshly laid bed of quick drying cement, do not underestimate each section. In Paris-Roubaix, you could be on one seemingly innocuous section for ten minutes or more of hell. At Flanders, bergs like the Oude Kwaremont drag on and on and on. Unlike a normal hill, you can’t ease for a moment and recover your mojo, you’ll be at a dead stop quicker than you can say Chris Froome. Push hard, yes, but don’t go beyond yourself. There is no point in blasting through three quarters of a section only to blow your doors off and limp along bumping over one cobble at a time.
Look further ahead
It’s easy to get sucked into looking down at the pitfalls immediately in front of your front wheel. This will eventually see you mired in the individual bumps and holes and shake your rhythm until you resemble less a Phil Collins and more like a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs. Once you’ve picked your line, force your eyeline up to the middle distance and concentrate on keeping your neck relaxed and your head steady. This is a key element to finding some consistency over the rough stuff. Master this and one day this whole charade might even begin to feel almost normal.