How to take on the cobbles like… Tom Boonen
The recently retired Tom Boonen was king of the cobbled Classics for years with four Paris-Roubaix wins and three Tour of Flanders wins. Greg Van Avermaet has picked up the baton proving to be a champion over the Roman roads, but there’s a whole lot more to riding the rougher terrain than simply fitting a pair of 28mm tyres and crossing your fingers.
The robust requirements of the pavé call for a bike and a body prepared to take a bit of a pounding. For many this means bagging a bike that’s built for the job, with suspension adaptations. But for others it’s a case of adapting the bike and the technique to overcome the cobbles. Here are some tips…
Pick your line and stick to it
Take a look at images from the Classics and, no matter what the era, the leaders will be the guys with their focus fixed firmly forward. Stay alert and aim for the smoothest of lines. Not all cobbles are the same. Avoid rougher sections and look for the quicker parts.
Away from the cobbles it pays to get cross
Cyclo-cross is a great exercise for bike handling and off-road skills. Many cyclo-cross racers have had success when turning their hand to the Classics, most recently Zdenek Stybar with two Roubaix podium places. It familiarises the rider with the rigours of a rough ride, plus it’s fun!
Ensure equal torque distribution
With grip being an important factor, it’s crucial to pedal smoothly, especially on climbs — staying seated and pushing the pedals in a circle rather than stomping. This can keep that grip to get the power down rather than bouncing over the cobbles.
Double the bar tape
Many pros add a second round of bar tape when it comes to the cobbled Classics to help dampen the vibrations. This makes the ride more comfortable and keeps you in control as it stops your hands going numb. Pros also resort to taping the pedals too, again to absorb some of the shock and give the cleats additional purchase.
Reduce the pressure
Reducing your tyre pressure is a widely practiced move among elite racers facing the formidable pavé. This is a benefit for comfort as well as performance. While the lower pressure is a nicer ride, a reduced tyre pressure of 70-80psi is also faster, as the tyre deforms over the cobbles rather than bouncing, which is ultimately a loss in energy.
The Golden Rule: don’t get cobbles collywobbles
Crucial to maintaining control (and emulating the actions of the best pros in events like the Paris-Roubaix) is to stay relaxed. The biggest mistake is gripping the bar too tightly and tensing up. Keep to a light grip with your upper body relaxed too and work on steering with your body weight not your arms.