A Tale of Two Cobbles
If you’ve never ridden on cobbles you’ll probably be wondering what all the fuss is
about. The Pavé, as it is known as in France and Belgium, is a favorite for the hard
men of the peloton, the Cancellara’s and Sagan’s. These riders hit the cobbles at
40kph without much of a care, ride the cobbles hard and you’ll float across them it is
said. So is that true, well maybe.
In Belgium all of March and April are dedicated to the ‘Spring Classics’, the Ronde
van vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris Roubaix (in France) being the most well
known. Both these one day classics offer long establish sportive rides that see large
numbers of Brits cross the channel to attend. If you catch the Eurostar in early April
you’ll see numerous carbon road bikes loaded onto cars and a look of excitement on
the driver’s face.
De Ronde – Tour of Flanders
Long Route – 220km
Middle Route – 129km
Short Route – 71km
The first of the Spring Classic sportives is the Ronde, played out on the cobbled
‘muurs’ of Flanders and set in and around the picturesque town Oudenaarde. As
with most sportives there is a choice of routes and distances, you can do the entire
route but the first few hours will be on the flat roads approaching Oudenaarde (start
time for this is around 5am). If, however, you want the experience of the region, and
be based in one location, the middle distance course, which starts and finish in
Oudenaarde is perfect.
The Ronde is not like any other sportive you’ll do, the whole weekend is like a
festival, I’ve always thought it’s like Glastonbury for cyclists. There is a lot going on in
Oudenaarde besides a bike race, bars and nightlife, Eddy Merckx museum, stalls and
performances. It’s a big carnival for the Belgium’s, and if a Belgium wins, the party
just get better.
So to the Pavé (cobbles). The Flanders Pavé is much more forgiving than the French
Pavé, it’s well maintained and generally even and smooth. You can find many tips to
coping with the vibration of the Pavé; the most helpful are double taping the tops of
you bars (you probably don’t want to be on the drops) and adjusting your tyre
pressure. Having 25-28mm tyres will help, as will riding them at 70-85 psi.
When you sign up to the ride and receive your info pack it will include a route map.
On the map, besides the usual info for food stops, is each Pavé sector giving length,
average and max gradients. Not all the hills are cobbled, there is a mixture of tarmac
and Pavé, there is also a down hill section of Pavé. You might worry that getting off
and pushing up a hill will damage your ego, well don’t worry you may have to.
Depending on the weather the Pavé can get muddy, very muddy, and the
Koppenberg which max’s out at 25% is no exception. If it rains the steep banks spill
mud onto the Pavé and make the going very tough for sportive and pro riders alike.
Once you stop it’s hard to get going again on a 20% gradient. There’s a definite knack
to riding up cobbled gradients; you need to stay seated. You need traction and as
soon as you stand on your pedals you lose that traction and the back wheel spins.
Fitting a 32T cassette may help you stay seated.
The ride finished you’ll return to the ‘Ronde Village’, this sets the sportive well above
any other I’ve attended. You can store spare gear securely for FREE, get a massage
FREE, have a recovery drink FREE, and get some well-deserved food.
The following day, for the pro race, your best choice of transport for following the
race is by bike. As the course snakes through the hills around Oudenaarde it’s
possible to ride to multiple points of the race and even get to the finishing 1km. This
gives you a unique feel for the race and how it’s developing, also as happened in
2014, you might to see ‘cat and mouse’ track style finish. After 220km it all came
down to 4 riders waiting for each other to crack and sprint first, it was Cancellara
who held his nerve and won.
Paris Roubaix – Hell of The North
Long Route – 170km
Middle Route – 145km
Short Route – 70km
Yes, on that I’ll agree! The nickname came after WW1; during the war years the
course was partly on the front line and destroyed in the constant shelling. After the
guns fell silent the race organisers and journalists ventured back along the route,
nobody was sure if there was still a road to Roubaix. The scene they discovered was
of total destruction with barely any natural features left. The next day the papers
described ‘the hell of the North’.
It’s a very different ride to the Ronde, amongst the pro riders it’s the Queen of the
Classics and the one to win. There is plenty of Pavé but the only hill you’ll climb will
be over a railway line or two.
The Pavé in France is rough, uneven and hell for your arms and fingers. You will find
yourself checking for punctures that arent there, or wondering if your frame can
take another pounding without cracking. I saw a pro rider running to the end of the
‘Trouée d’arenberg’ in 2015, bike in one hand and destroyed carbon tubular in the
other, if like myself you pay for you own wheels then don’t take your best set. On a
few sections of Pavé the stones have fallen away leaving potholes, combine this with
deep troughs left by tractors from the winter months, and the need to choose your
line carefully is a must. The crest in the middle of the Pavé is the most treasured but
during the sportive this will be busy, if it starts to slow down you’ll need to jump into
the rough edges to get by.
Again, the middle distance route will give you all the major sections of Pavé including
the Trouée d’arenberg. Probably the most well known section, it’s a straight and
narrow 2.4kms through the Arenberg Forest. The next on the list is the Carrefour de
l’arbre, 2.1kms that winds and turns before heading up a slight incline. The only
challenges, aside from the potholes, are headwinds and crosswinds. Being a flat ride
it can be draining when you are surging into a continuous headwind.
The finish, in the famous velodrome, the atmosphere is much quieter than you’ll find
at the Ronde. You have the facilities to have a massage and even take a wash in the
famous showers; each shower cubicle is dedicated to a previous winner. But what’s
really lacking is the party atmosphere, Roubaix is fairly sombre when compared to
Oudenaarde. However, that said, the ride is a challenge you’ll be glad you made.
Unlike the Ronde, you’ll need the car for following the pro race. The finish inside the
velodrome gets busy so if you want to be there get there early. We watched the pros
on a few sections of Pavé and it was impressive to see how hard they rode them.