If there's ever a day for sponsors to look away, it’s Paris-Roubaix. The race is like no other in terms of the abuse it doles out to both rider and machine, and it requires special measures to give the racers some semblance of control and comfort.
“If you specifically talk about Roubaix, the frame is important, but it’s not the most important thing I – believe it’s the wheels and the tires,” said Bjarne Riis, Saxo Bank team owner. Out of the 25 teams that started the race, we visited a dozen to check out tires and talk the tricks of keeping air in them during the brutal 258km event.
Boutique rubber & custom hoops
Of the top three finishers, two — first and second — rode tires from FMB, Francois Marie Boyaux, the last French tire artisan, who makes a tire named and specifically constructed for Paris-Roubaix in a small shop in northern France. Boyaux had two more finishers in the top 10, while rivals Dugast appeared to have at least two. The other teams used tires bearing the name of regular sponsors, although most were custom models not available for sale.
The whole of Saxo Bank started on FMB's 27mm Paris Roubaix tubular glued to Zipp's 303
“I go for 100 percent security, so I'll be on 28mm tires no matter if it’s wet or dry,” said HTC-Highroad’s Bernard Eisel, who used a pro-only model from Continental with latex tubes. “I'd use normal aluminum rims if there were a lot of headwind or really bad weather, because the braking is better, but with weather like this, I’ll try it again with carbon wheels.”
The majority of the top 10 started and finished on carbon wheels. Garmin-Cervélo’s Johan Van Summeren rode Mavic’s new wheel, dubbed M40 for its 40mm rim height, to victory, while runner-up Fabian Cancellara used Bontrager’s Race XXX Lite climbing wheels, which according to Trek team liaison Ben Coates were stock and not changed in any way to deal with the cobbles.
Garmin-Cervelo used Mavic's new M40 wheel with 27mm FMB Paris Roubaix tubular
“We have one special set that's designed for bigger tires,” said Lars Teutenberg, HTC-Highroad’s technical development manager. “That’s the only carbon wheel we'll use [here].” While carbon wheels were more prevalent than ever at the 109th edition of the Hell of the North, Ambrosio’s aluminum Nemesis could be found in just about every team's armoury — if not as a starting wheel, racked on the cars for the inevitable carnage the cobbles wreak upon wheels and tires.
Dealing with pressure
One interesting practice that's prevalent in the peloton but not widely reported, and especially important for a race like Paris-Roubaix, is the extra attention paid to tire pressures. “I think I'll start with about 7 bar ( 100psi),” said Eisel prior to the race. "The tire loses a little bit while racing but that’s a good thing, so you have more comfort when you hit the Arenberg." Most of the other HTC-Highroad riders start with 5-6 bar ( 70-90psi). “It depends on the weight of the rider,” said Teutenberg. “There’s quite a difference between Mark Cavendish and some of the others.”
HTC-Highroad run between 5 and 7 bar (70-100psi) in their tires, depending on rider weight and personal preference
Many teams measure the leakage of air from their race tires air over time and track it, so as to know when they'll have the optimal pressure during the race. It's generally agreed that it's most important to have the ideal pressure on the last quarter of the course. “It’s a tribal knowledge that's figured out over time,” said Coates.
He added that just filling the tires up and leaving them in the sun and checking them later is no way to figure out how quickly or slowly a tire leaks air. Instead, the Leopard Trek mechanics are constantly checking pressures and taking notes both after the riders do specific training, like that for Roubaix, and after races. Coates said Leopard also used sealant for Roubaix. He wasn’t sure of the brand but said it "looked like Stan’s [NoTubes.com]".
The cobbles of Roubaix take an incredible toll on bike and rider so finding the optimum tire pressure is vital
“We’re still working on it because every tire is a little different,” said Eisel of estimating leak-down and starting pressures for the race, which starts with close to 60km of rolling terrain on regular roads with 5,000ft of climbing. “We pump it up and measure what we lose in one hour, two hours, so we know. In the end, if it feels fast… you really aren’t thinking about pressure.”
This technique is tough for regular riders to apply to their own riding and racing. However, testing different pressures and finding what’s optimal for different road conditions and riding styles is important for every cyclist. And while many of the ‘pro’ series tires aren’t available, both FMB and Dugast offer the same tires they sell to the teams racing Paris-Roubaix to regular riders as well.