This article was first published in another form on 6th April 2018
The 2021 edition of Paris-Roubaix takes place this Sunday (3rd October 2021), with the first-ever women's edition on Saturday, and we asked David Millar, head honcho at Chpt3 clothing, for a former pro’s insight into tackling the pavé.
Quick quiz: how many times did David Millar finish Paris-Roubaix during an 18-year pro career that saw him win stages and wear the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours?
Answer: once. But there's a bit of a story to it…
“In my final year, 2014, [Paris-Roubaix] was one of my primary objectives – to finish, that is,” says David. “257km, 28 cobbled sections totalling nearly 60km, and two laps of a velodrome [the route and distance can vary slightly from year to year].
“I did it all, apart from the last lap. I stood in the middle of that most famous of velodromes, helmet off, knocking back a Fanta, face covered in dirt, feeling a bit of a hero... until my wife told me I had one more lap to do. One more lap? That pretty much summed up my final year – it wasn't exactly a blaze of glory. Still, I love that race.”
So how do you set up your bike for getting to that velodrome as fast as possible and in some degree of comfort?
“Everybody is scared of Roubaix but actually, if you have your bike set up perfectly, you really glide over the cobbles once you’re at a certain speed,” says David.
“The biggest thing is the wheels and the tyres. You need wheels that are strong enough to survive the battering and can also cope with a 27mm tyre. Most riders use FMB or Dugast tyres because those are the only companies that make really trustworthy, fantastic tubulars designed for that purpose. You can run 5-6 bar (73-87 psi) and you’ll be amazed at how much easier that makes the pavé.
“A lot of guys used to run mechanical shifting because the vibrations would trigger the electric, but I think that electric has got so much better now.”
What about your riding technique?
“The rule of riding pavé is to relax your grip – you don’t hold on tight. To do that you need a much wider grip – more like a tennis racket grip – so you have a bit more tape on your handlebar to make it bigger, and you strap up your wrists to stop the really small vibrations.
And that will get you to the finish line in A1 condition?
“No. No matter what you put on your hands, they’re going to get rubbed raw because having that relaxed grip means the bar is always vibrating under your hand.”
We know of plenty of amateurs who have ridden over the cobbles wearing two pairs of shorts for the extra depth of padding…
“If I was an amateur, I would probably do that. I’m amazed that amateurs can do it because they don’t have the huge setup behind them – the equipment, the mechanics, the team support – that the pros have. If you have the proper set up it can be pretty comfortable.
The weather can be a big factor in any bike race, but even more than usual in Paris-Roubaix where the pavé could be dry and dusty or wet and slippery.
“It’s an odd one when it’s wet in that it’s easier for the skilled guys because a lot of the riders without the bike handling skills are immediately eliminated – they can’t handle it,” says David. “That means the race goes much slower, so it’s physically less demanding but psychologically massively more so because of the technique involved.”
Wet conditions add an extra element to the equipment required too.
“These days you can have waterproof stuff that’s also aero,” says David. “You might have staff strategically placed by the side of the road with kit to hand up to you.
“The big guys just throw outer clothing away after they’ve used it and get it replaced. You don’t worry about handing stuff back to your car, you just throw it to the side of the road so a few lucky spectators might hit jackpot!
“If you’re a spectator, make sure you’re positioned just before the finale because riders will start ditching stuff in the last hour!”
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.