How to Ride the Cobbles?

We presented you earlier the top reasons to ride on cobbles. But how should you do it? Watching tons of videos and reading similar articles, most of the tips appears to depend from rider to rider.

Beyond individual preferences, we would like to present you some essentials that almost everybody should benefit from. And some typical tips you don’t have to follow and are therefore put in the form of a question.

Tip 1 – be open-minded!

Do certainly not think it’s gonna be horrible, it’s gonna hurt when approaching a cobbled section. You should see it more as a point from where your riding sensations and style will be different for some time. It’s a place to challenge yourself, a place to develop your technique. And no, your bike won’t get damaged!

Tip 2 – find your own style

Indeed, the style appears to depend strongly on the rider. If you would be able to have some climbing lessons by Marco Pantani, he would certainly teach you always grab the bar deep below, ride only out of the saddle and with a big gear. I heard about what the cobble-legend Peter Van Petegem told Nibali and Contador in their respective preparations for the fearsome stage of the Tour de France 2014. Apparantly Nibali took the most out of his lessons. But watching Tom Boonen winning Paris-Roubaix, his style differs strongly from what Van Petegem teaches. So the very most important tip is: do not listen too much to what you are hearing from other riders, it’s always worth to try something different.

Tip 3 – Down with tyre pressure, up with size

25mm tyres are very common today and 25mm should be the absolute minimum width you take on a cobbled journey. You should always decrease the pressure by 1 to 3 bar. A 25mm with more than 6 bar is simply not a good idea.

Tip 4 – always ride in the middle

A typical Belgian pavé sector (like the ones in northern France) is high in the middle and low at the side. Make sure to always ride exactly in the middle, where the pavé is more fresh and the stones therefore more even. Resist under all circumstances to ride beside the cobbles in the berm. The side of the road is often full with sharp objects like glass or metal scraps.

Tip 5 – keep the tension high

Never let the bike just roll – keep the chain tension always high. It’s not just the fact that your chain will not fall off, but the dynamics of your ride will change under load. This will decrease the load of the front wheel and the momentum of your turning legs will stabilize you as moving system. And lastly, you will not just sit like a potato bag on the saddle, what your back is going to thank you.

Tip 6 – faster is smoother

The faster you go, the less cobbles you will hit. Instead of rolling over every stone, your bike will bounce from the tops of a stone to some stones further. The ride is considerably smoother the faster you go. A good reason to go as fast as you can!

Question 1 – hold the bar firmly or loose?

Often mentioned as the right way to do grab your handlebars is to not to grab them too tight; let the bike dance a little bit. For me personally, this doesn’t work out, and seeing the footage of Tom Boonen on the cobbles, he seems to have a tight grip too. In this case, you certainly have to grip the bars very tightly but to let elbow flex easily to provide suspension.

Question 2 – high or low body tension?

Museeuw found Wiggins sitting to tight on his bike when riding cobbles. But here again, one has to find his own style in my believe. Adding more core strength will stabilize your bike and protect your spine and hips. But maybe you will find yourself blocked to steer and react.

The Base Training Myth

We’re picking up a topic recently launched by the excellent GCN channel on youtube and asking the question do we have to spend all this time in the saddle? The chance to get the same benefit from a whole lot less training sounds seductive.

Some facts and some thoughts.

Some days ago, I found this video on GCN’s you tube channel. You may want to watch it first, but I will repeat the key points anyway.

As I begun with road cycling, I did not care about training schemes and nutrition and all of this. All I wanted was to ride. And fast. So I rode. Fast. My training sessions were rarely longer then 2 or 2,5 hours, but I kept always some competition in mind: beating my time at this climb, sprinting to this sign, beating my maximum speed on a descent…

So eventually I became a decent junior racer and mixed up with other, mostly more experienced racers. More and more it became clear that my training methods were rather unique in the sense that I spent much less time in the saddle doing much less base training than the others. So I saw the possibility to develop further doing what everybody else seemed to do: 99% base training.

The effect was, surprisingly for me, the opposite. Even if long rides >120km weren’t a big issue anymore, results from races kept decreasing. Ever since I struggle to find the shape of my early years.

So could it be that I was taken in by the base training myth?

So the main objectives of your training should be

  • long retention of an optimal intensity,
  • increase of stress tolerance,
  • acceleration of recovery.

To understand and achieve those goals, one should know about the different training zones and use target oriented training. According to my book (and many others), the base endurance is defines as a zone of general aerobic endurance with the intensity of 65-75% VO2max and has the goal to achieve or keep physical health and fitness, enhance regeneration after intensive and extensive stress and to build up psychic tolerance, notably in competition.

So does this mean I have to do a lot of it?

Yes and no. Notably, any training longer then 10 minutes is base training and has the described effects!

Any training should always keep your goal in mind: if you want to train for your local amateur race of approx. 2 h duration, then doing 6 h base training rather then some hard intervals is certainly counterproductive. But this is obviously not the case if you want to finish a 6 h mountain sportive like La Marmotte.

After reading a lot of this subject, I strongly receiving the impressing that not base training is the myth, but the perception of most of the cyclists is just wrong. Many of them are certainly thinking that one is better who rides longer. If some fellow is telling you he has done some 300km last weekend when you were doing just 120km, his weekend will be seen by most of people as the better training. But what if you’ve done a hard race of 90km saturday and a regenerative ride of 30km Sunday? Or just some really good intervals?

10 reasons why you should absolutely ride on cobbles!

Call them pavés, kasseien or cobblestones, classics season is coming and they will again play a main role in races like Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen and, of course, Paris-Roubaix.

But while many of us do consider Paris-Roubaix as the queen of the classics, remarkably little people are riding cobbles themselves. Most people I ever met would rather do a long deviation to not have to attack some hundred meters of good old medieval flandrien road architecture.

But they should! And here are the top ten reasons, why:

10. It’s a part of road cycling

Like it or not: cobblestones are, just like flat roads, steep hills, wind sections, sprints, the big mountains, time trials and shaved legs, a part of road cycling. The Tour de France, actually the most prestigious bike race, has recently included pavés and many people are blustering over it. But in order to find the best overall cyclist and not the best mountain rider (like the Giro does) or the best time trial rider (like the Tour has done before), they included something which plays a big role in many of the spring classics: cobbles. And they are right about it!

9. No, your bike will not fall apart

Unless there’s nothing wrong with your bike or you’ll show up with your time trial bike with deep section rims and pumped up to max 20mm silk tyres, it is very unlikely that the cobbles will harm it. Just take a look what Martyn Ashton and many of his fellows are doing with their road bikes. Your road bike is a tough companion and it can definitely handle some cobbles.

8. You don’t need special equipment

Every year, the weeks before Paris-Robaix, the bike industry is presenting us a huge amount of specially prepared cobble-bikes for the queen of the classics. Suggesting that only with such a superbikes the hell of the north can be survived. This may be the case for a race including 60km cobbles, with some of the most horrific sections the world can deliver in it. For even the worst what I can find in my home area (that’s Ronde van Vlaanderen territory by the way), and what I would rate with a 4 of 5 stars Paris Roubaix rating, you will be perfect with just 25mm high quality tyres and a slightly reduced pressure.

7. It’s a challenge

Do you like to challenge yourself, your mates or maybe the whole strava community? You’re looking for your records on climbs? So here’s another way to improve yourself or to defeat your enemies.

6. Increase your core stability

An often mentioned term these days. Riding on cobbles is demanding for every muscle in your body. You have to push hard with your legs to keep momentum, you have to stabilize your arms and be flexible at the same time, and a good core stability is crucial. As novice you will quickly learn that to exert abdominals and gluteus protects your body from the impacts and makes you go more quickly and, surprisingly, more comfortable over the cobblestones.

5. Spice up your training routine

Adding new elements to your weekly training brings the all to often needed variety. It is proven more than once that, while a certain routine is necessary, new impulses are often required to give your physical and mental form a new boost.

4. Improve your bike handling

A real cobbled section is skill demanding. While every good cobblestone rider has a portfolio of very own tricks and techniques, some things are common for everybody. If there are descends, turns or both included in your section, then it becomes often very tricky. Especially in bad weather. To learn to master all this means to improve your bike handling, what just cannot be wrong even for normal roads.

3. All other roads will feel as smooth as silk

Once finished some cobble sections, every other road will feel like paradise. Are you grumping about the bad conditions of your local roads? Try some good old flemish kasseien and humility and gratitude for the miracles of modern road works will be brought to you!

2. Be a complete athlete

Be honest: as you saw Vincenzo Nibali blasting the whole GC contenders on the rainy stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France, did you thought what a moron ? Certainly not. What do you think of another cyclist who never rides climbs because he just does not like it? Chances are you’re a nice guy, but you think at least I would miss something. Exactly! Even if you’re not very enthusiastic about it, gaining some cobble skills will make you eventually a more complete cyclist. And there cannot be anything not good about this.

1. It’s fun!

Did you like your first climb? I do not mean has it made you happy/proud/satisfied?, I mean did you like the feeling when doing it? I bet not. The reason why you might like or even love it now is the same reason you might like to eat chili peppers, sit in a roller coaster or watch horror movies: your nucleus accumbens. It’s a part of your brain stimulating you with pleasure as a reward of something. So biologically you don’t really love climbing, what you love is finishing a climb. Most of all endurance athlete’s are saying that the best part of their sport is coming home from it. That’s where their brain is giving them happiness as a reward for their previous suffering. So consider how much of a rush it can be to finish some dirty, cold, sharp edged, painful cobble sections!

Include every now and then some pavés in your rides and some day you will eventually like it!