There's more to it than 28mm tyres
With Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne coming up this weekend, the cobbles are coming, which means that pro mechanics are working feverishly to prepare their riders’ bikes for the demands of the pavé.
You might think that all that needs doing is to fit some 28mm tyres, then off you go, but there’s much more to it for riders in search of Classics glory.
1. Double wrap bar tape
While 250km of racing over roads that you’d think twice about driving down will take a significant toll on the legs, many pros also double (or even triple) wrap their bar tape in an attempt to provide extra cushioning for their hands, wrists, and shoulders.
This is also often complemented by gel inserts positioned underneath the bar tape, which provide a little extra protection from the cobbled terrain, especially as frame manufacturers generally concentrate on providing a comfortable rear end for their bikes, occasionally neglecting to provide any extra cushioning at the front.
2. Bar tape on pedals
One less obvious place to put some extra bar tape is on your pedals, but that’s exactly what we saw a few Lotto-Soudal riders doing at last year’s Paris-Roubaix. This not only has the same effect as putting extra bar tape around the handlebars (i.e. vibration dampening), but should also help to stop the cleats from slipping around in the pedals and even popping out when riding over really rough road surfaces.
Of course the other pedal modification we’ve seen is rider’s using pedals that have been specifically designed for racing in muddy and wet conditions, such as the Speedplay Pavé pedals that Fabian Cancellara has been using for a number of years.
3. Wider tyres
The classic bike modification for the cobbles is to fit wider tyres. Back in the day, riders would flirt with 25mm tyres run at a lower pressure for extra comfort and traction especially in wet conditions, but with wider tyres now being the norm for most road racing, we’re seeing riders using 28mm or even 30mm tyres for the Classics.
This has even got to the point where BMC Racing needed a special version of their BMC Granfondo endurance bike to cope with the wider rubber, while Sylvain Chavanel attracted attention among his peers in last year’s Paris-Roubaix with his Schwalbe tubeless tyres.
For Paris-Roubaix in particular, many pros shun their tyre sponsors in favour have hand-sewn tubular tyres made specifically for the event, with FMB and Dugast in particular having some star name clientele.
4. Lower pressures
Of course there’s no point using 28mm tyres for extra comfort and grip then pumping them up to 120 psi, so all of the pros will be running their tyres at lower pressures, particularly if the rain begins to fall.
Most professional riders are fastidious about their bike setup, but no more so than for the cobbles, where they will know exactly what psi they want their tyres pumped up to. In general most go for 65-85 psi, although this could be lower if there’s a forecast for rain.
5. Big small chainring
It might now have a an uphill cobbled sector, but Paris-Roubaix isn’t going to rival the Tour of Flanders for climbing any time soon, so many pros opt for a bigger small chainring, usually meaning either a 53/42t or 53/44t setup, with the small chainring only being called into action if it’s a muddy day and the going is tough over the cobbles, or during lulls in the pace between sectors.
A few riders will also decide to fit a bigger outer chainring, usually a 54t or 55t, which will really come in handy for fast races, particularly if there is a south-westerly wind blowing in Paris-Roubaix.
6. Different wheels
Back in 2007, Stuart O’Grady punctured in the Arenberg Forest, got a spare wheel from neutral service, regained contact with the front group, then rode away for a glorious solo victory. Impressive enough anyway, even before you consider that the wheel he was given from neutral service made its way out of the factory in 1986.
While most of the riders will opt for carbon wheels, we will still see quite a few opting for higher spoke count aluminium wheels in an attempt to avoid mechanicals, while team cars will also often carry aluminium rather than carbon wheels so as not to ruin too many pricey deep section wheels.
7. Remote shifters
One major benefit of electronic groupsets is the ability for riders to position shifting buttons in multiple places on their handlebars, giving the ability to change gear without needing to move their hands to the brake levers.
We’ve seen multiple setups over the years, but the standard option is to have sprint shifter on the inside of the drops, and climbing shifters on the tops to allow riders to respond to attacks when riding over the cobbles with their hands on the tops of the bars.
8. Top mount brake levers
Another modification favoured by riders who tackle the cobbles with their hands on the tops is the top mount brake lever, something which was seen on John Degenkolb‘s Giant Defy when he won Paris-Roubaix in 2015.
Having a brake lever in this position allows riders to adjust their speed over the cobbles without changing their hand position, a vital ability to have when you’ve got riders crashing in front of you and spectators stepping into your path to get pictures.
9. Chain catchers
A dropped chain at a vital moment could be the difference between victory and an anonymous finish five minutes down in 37th place. And given the rough ride that your drivetrain gets over the cobbles, it’s a testament to modern groupsets that we don’t see chains coming off left, right, and centre as soon as any race hits the cobbles.
One reason for this is that many teams choose to fit a chain catcher, which stops the chain being juddered off the chainrings and getting stuck around the bottom bracket.
10. Grip tape on bottle cages
The rough ride of the cobbles also takes its toll on bottle cages, and the vibrations will often work loose bottles sending them rolling across the road. To avoid this many teams fit steel bottle cages instead of their normal carbon-fibre ones which can be shaped to give a secure hold of the bottle.
This is often complemented by grip tape, which might do no good whatsoever to the bottle, but should keep it securely held in place to ensure that a rider will be well hydrated come the end of the race.