It’s the Classics season in Europe, a time of cobblestone roads, crosswinds, and fascinating tweaks to the pros bikes to hand the rough farm roads of Belgium and northern France. We’re taking a look at some of the little adjustments pros make to their normal bikes to make all those miles bouncing over the cobbles and climbing up the hellingen a bit more bearable.
The cobbled classics are in full swing. The first cobble races of the season start at the beginning of March with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Over the next few weeks, races build into a crescendo with smaller semi-Classics, used by pro teams to test their riders and their gears on the roads used in the Monuments that cap off the spring campaign, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. As some of the oldest races on the calendar, the two races have seen plenty of changes, though their identities remain largely unchanged since their inception over 100 years ago. Both send racers of sections of cobblestone, or pave, though each race presents these in different ways.
De Ronde. At just over 100 years old, the Ronde van Vlaanderen features over a dozen small bergs, or climbs, that are still made with cobblestones. Volunteers and local organizations have banded together over the year to protect iconic roads like the Paterberg, the Koppenberg, and the Oude Kwaremont from being resurfaced and to preserve the character of the race. These bergs may not be towering alpine climbs, but their rough surface and short, steep pitches are incredibly taxing on riders’ legs, especially over the massive 260 kilometer course. Many of those climbs are taken twice of even three times throughout the race, with fans sticking to one spot to see riders more often, or racing along dusty farm tracks to catch the race passing elsewhere.
The Paris-Roubaix, known as the ‘Hell of the North’ or the Queen of the Classics, offers a different challenge. It’s route from the northern outskirts of Paris to the small industrial town of Roubaix are almost entirely flat; there’s hardly a climb in over 250 kilometers. Instead, the 29 cobbles secteurs are littered with bigger, rougher, and more jarring stones than those you’ll find at Flanders, and as a result, many riders make more modifications to their bike for this race.
Until the last ten years, most racer made few changes to their bikes for Roubaix.They enlisted what few changes they could to reduce the beating their bodies endure over the stones of both Flanders and Roubaix, often adding a second layer of bar tape, taping their wrists and knuckles, and running as wide a tire as they could fit into their frames. Often, that wasn’t much more than a 23 or 25c tire. The occasional rider would use a cyclocross bike, which offered a way to run wider tires and more forgiving geometry, but that was rather infrequent,
All of that has changed in the past half decade, with more and more brands designing bikes that offer more vertical compliance, more tire clearance, disc brakes, and a geometry designed to offer the rider a bit more support. These bikes often use a taller head tube, slightly longer wheelbase for more stability, and a carbon layup that allows for more vertical flex in the frame to offer more relieve for the rider. Maybe the biggest difference is the ability to run 25, 28, even 30c tires at lower tire pressures for a smoother ride and more grip. With the prevalence of disc brakes, some riders are even able to stick with their normal aerodynamic, and less forgiving, bikes while still being able to fit a wide 27 or 28c tire. When Matt Hayman won the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, he didn’t do it on Scott’s cobble or gravel-specific frame; he did it on their aero road bike, the Foil.
That said, most teams and riders will hop on their Classics bikes, and most continue to add little tweaks to take that specificity even further. You’ll still see double-wrapped handlebars and taped wrists, but new tech means new ideas, too. Many riders will add satellite shifters to their bars, allowing them to shift not only from the hoods, but also from the tops and from the drops with wired or even wireless buttons.
Another Classics favorite is grip tape, the kind you’d see on a skateboard, added to the inside of water bottle cages. Even those get swapped out; instead of light carbon cages, many teams install regular aluminum cages that can be bent down for a tighter fit to prevent losing bottles.
Gearing also gets tweaked at these races. With the steep, sharp climbs of Flanders offering plenty of fatigue, riders will use a 53/39 crankset paired with an 11-30 or 32 cassette to have a little extra room to shift on the 15, 20, even 25% pitches of the hellingen. Alternatively, there’s not much need for a 39 at Roubaix; instead, riders will put on a 55 or 54t big chainring and run a 46, 48, or 50 small ring, just to give the legs a bit of a break when necessary. Many will never shift off the big ring, and many run a chain catcher adjusted very close to the chain line to make sure they never drop a chain over the rough cobbles.
Maybe the biggest adjustment any rider can make is to the tires. Many riders opt for 27c tubulars, though there have been sightings of 28s and 30c tires this spring and over the past few seasons. Additionally, they run low tire pressure for more comfort, often down to as low as 55 psi, depending on the weight of the rider. Nearly every brand has tried to find the perfect tire for cobbles, which can offer up kilometer after kilometer of rough, sharp rocks and plenty of debris in the gutters, too.
We love seeing all the nerdy, techy adaptations added to bikes this time of year, and if we see anything cool, we’ll share it on our Facebook and Instagram. To see what gravel bikes we’ve got set-up like the pros, stop in and see us!