Paris-Roubaix is the most daunting, feared and thrilling race on the pro race calendar, pitting the racers against a 257km course with 54.5km of the toughest cobbled around around northern France.
It’s a race that requires a special set of skills and a big dose of luck. And due to the cobbles, we typically see some different bikes and equipment compared to every race of the year in an attempt to provide a bit more control and compliance in the face of the savage pave.
Before we get into the details of the changes we can expect to see to the bikes and equipment this Sunday, what it’s actually like to ride? I strapped a GoPro to my chest and rode the five star rated 2.3km Trouée d’Arenberg, probably the most iconic sector on the route. Here’s the video:
Race bikes typically get swapped out for endurance bikes, which feature longer wheelbases, slacker head angles and increased tyre clearance for bigger tyres. Gone are the days of using cyclocross bikes to fit wider tyres, with most bike brands now providing an endurance bike for running wider rubber.
Manufacturers have been using this race (and Tour of Flanders) to develop and show-off the latest endurance bikes for many years. Designed to meet the needs of the pros, these are bikes intended to win on Sunday and be bought on Monday by regular cyclists who want the extra comfort and relaxed handling these sorts of bikes provides.
All that said, it’s important to remember there’s a lot more flat road riding than cobbles. Matt Hayman proved the worth of aero by winning the race in 2016 on a Scott Foil aero road bike with the only change being 28mm wide tyres.
The speed of the race is why Specialized has given its brand new Roubaix an aerodynamic makeover. The entire Quick Step and Bora team, sponsored by Specialized, will be racing the new Roubaix, including Peter Sagan. Here’s a look at his bike.
But with the latest generation of road and aero bikes now providing wider tyre clearance than ever before, largely due to the shift to disc brakes, don’t be surprised to see some riders opting for a regular road bike setup instead of dedicated endurance bike.
Wider tyres and lower pressures
This is the race where you see the wide tyres being utilised. It’s common to see tyres ranging from 28 to 30mm wide, but we have seen tyres as wide as 32mm tyres in the past. Simply put, bigger tyres provide a smoother rider and increased traction over the cobbles.
Lower pressures are key to getting the full benefit of the wider tyres, and most riders and mechanics will keep this a closely guarded secret. It does depend on rider weight and personal preference to a large degree, and some riders are definitely fussier about tyre pressure than some. You can expect somewhere in the region of 65-75psi.
Tubular, not tubeless
Tubular tyres still rein in the pro peloton and it’s no different for this race. The reason tubs are still so popular is simply that it’s possible to continue riding on a flat tyre as the tyre won’t detach from the rim. Johan Vansummeren proved this point when he won Paris-Roubaix back in 2011, riding the last 4km on a flat tyre.
Tubeless is improving all the time - Alexander Kristoff won the recent Gent-Wevelgem spring classic on new Vittoria tubeless tyres and finished on the podium at Tour of Flanders. He's a hot pick to win Paris-Roubaix and if he does, he's likely to be riding tubeless tyres.
There have been suspension road bikes developed for this race in the past. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Andre Tchmil between them won Paris-Roubaix on three occasions using the RockShox suspension fork some 20 years ago, and Bianchi developed a full suspension road bike in 1996 made from titanium.
Such ideas never really caught on though, largely to do with compromises in key performance metrics like weight and stiffness, and pretty basic suspension technology, but the developments in frame design and suspension performance since those early attempts are giving rise to the second generation of suspension road bikes.
Trek’s Domane doesn’t feature suspension but has a seat tube and steerer tube designed to increase the amount of compliance, while Bianchi adds a special Countervail vibration cancelling material to the carbon layup to reduce discomfort.
So suspension has been used to great success in this race before Sagan repeated it last year with the Specialized Roubaix.
A few years go, when disc brakes were just an inkling in the eye of the industry, it was often speculated that Paris-Roubaix would be the ideal stage for disc brakes especially if it rained. Only it never rains at this race, there hasn't been a wet and muddy edition since 2002. So the main benefits of disc brakes, performance in the wet, hasn't been realised.
But disc brakes are spreading through the peloton and several teams have fully committed to disc brakes for the 2019 season. Both Specialized sponsored teams, Quick Step and Bora, will be riding disc brakes with the new Roubaix. The Belgian team has already won a stack of races this year and they’ve all been on disc brakes.
Katusha has been riding disc brakes this year, and EF Education First will be riding disc-equipped Cannondale Synapse endurance bikes.
Peter Sagan bucked this trend last year, demanding a one-off rim brake version of the disc-only Roubaix from sponsor Specialized. It looks like he’ll be on disc brakes this year, but we’ll know for sure on Sunday morning.
Grip tape on bottle cages
The cobbles do more than rattle your eyeballs, they can also eject water bottles from their cages. To hopefully prevent this most mechanics will add strips of gripper tape to the cages to ensure the bottle stays in the cage.
Race notes taped to stem
Unless a pro knows the route really well, it’s common to see distance markers, for the cobbled sectors and feed zone area, written on a bit pf paper and tape to the stem or top tube. It provides an easy glance at what’s coming up and can be used if a rider has special instructions to attack or go to the front at a key stage of the race.
Double bar tape
Double wrapped bar tape is a classic trick for providing a bit more isolation from the vibrations. Some riders will wrap the bar tape right up to the stem as well to provide a wider area for gripping the bars. Some mechanics might also add gel pads underneath the bar tape in key areas to provide extra comfort.
Extra shift buttons
Nearly all teams now use electronic groupsets and one big advantage of wires over cables is the ability to add extra shifter buttons to the handlebars. Since riding on the tops is usually the preferred position on which to ride the cobbled sectors, a couple of buttons just next to the stem makes it a lot easier to change gear by avoiding having to remove your hand to reach the gear lever.
Paris-Roubaix is a flat race and one common detail is to swap the 39t inner chainring for a 44t. This reduces the gap to the 53t big ring and means if a rider does need to drop into the smaller chainring it won’t be such a massive change in cadence. Powering over the cobbles in the big ring takes serious power and some riders like the option of a slightly smaller inner ring.
Most bikes will have a small chain catcher, a little arm extending from the front mech clamp, to hopefully stop the chain dropping onto the bottom bracket shell if it does skip and bounce off the chainring.
It’s no guarantee though. In 2017 Tom Boonen, riding the Tour of Flanders, was forced to the side of the road when his chain got jammed between the inner chainring and the frame, the chain catcher clearly hadn’t worked.
Given its lack of hills, it’s a race where 1x would seem a natural choice. Don’t expect to see many on 1x though we suspect Trek-Segafredo's Mad Pedersen will be riding SRAM’s new Red eTap AXS groupset with a single chainring, as he has already this season.
Riding technique, speed and line choices
As important as the bike and equipment setup is, also equally important is riding technique. Riding cobbles is tough and tricky with the bikes bounced around and crashes and falls are common.
Speed and line choice, and your position on the handlebars, are key considerations. High speed helps to smooth the cobbles to an extent, the idea being that the tyres skim across the cobbles rather than crashing into each one, helping to maintain momentum.
The pros will also pick a big gear and try and roll it over, which helps to maintain better control on the bike than spinning a smaller gear over the cobbles which can lead to being bucked about in the saddle.
Line choice is important. It's why the teams and riders work so hard to be at the front heading into a cobbled sector. Be at the front and you can pick the smoothest line and weave around holes and upturned cobbles, but find yourself near the back and you don’t have the same luxury. You're also more likely to get held up behind crashes, so being at the front is vital.
Many of the cobbled sectors have a very pronounced crown which usually is the preferred line choice, as it’s a little smoother and flatter than the steep bank either side. The gutter is also sometimes a bit smoother but it’s here that mud, water and stones gather and can be hazardous and raises the risk of puncturing a tyre.
Drops, hoods or flats? Each of the three positions can work, buy you’ll see the riders often preferring the flat tops. Riding on the tops gives you good control and you can bend your arms to help absorb the impacts.
What do don’t want to do is grip the bars too tightly. You want to maintain a loose grip that lets the bike move around underneath you and doesn’t pass all the vibrations into your body. Clamp the bars too tightly and you’ll soon be struggling to hold onto the bike due to very sore hands, wrists and arms.
Riding on the tops makes it tricky to change gear and brake, however, but since almost all bikes are using electronic groupsets it’s common for small shifter buttons to be placed on the tops of the bars near the stem.
On some of the more challenging sectors with corners, the riders will often go for the drops, to be able to reach the brakes and maximise control over the bike. We’ve also seen extra brake levers, cyclocross-style, attached to the centre of the bars so a rider can brake on the tops but they are more rare than they used to be.
Have you ridden the Paris-Roubaix course and who are you rooting for tomorrow?
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.