Riding the stones of Paris-Roubaix

We drove for about an hour to where we were going to start our ride on the cobbles. Previously, we were scheduled to ride the Paris-Roubaix Randoneer ride, but smarter heads prevailed. Specialized realized that if they threw a bunch of editors onto the course, with about 4000 other riders, there would be mayhem. The fitness range of editors varies from the fit to those who ride sporadically. Plus, we would have no support and if we had a problem, we’d be on our own. Personally, I was happy that Specialized decided we’d ride the day before the randoneer so we could have our own support, take our time and have Musseeuw and Planckaert join us. When would I have an opportunity to ride with a three time winner of Paris-Roubaix, as well as another Belgium hard-man and second place finisher Jo Planckaert? We rolled out of town, about 25 riders strong. The first miles were along narrow country roads and with each turn of the road a memory of Paris-Roubaix came back to me. Obviously not as a racer, but in 2004 I rode in the race referee’s car. Back then the weather was cold and miserable, however, today was a different story. The temperatures were in the low 80s and sunny, and not a cloud in the sky. As we rode down the country lane I got an opportunity to slide up next to Museeuw for a photo-op and a few quick words. I asked how fast they would be racing during this particular section, a slight downhill on narrow country road. His answer, “60 to 70 kilometers an hour.” We were doing about 25 miles an hour. It was at this point the photographer asked me to ride a little closer to Museeuw so he could get the shot. “Not so close,” said Museeuw and extended his fingers, like curb feelers on a car, toward me with only his thumb still gripping the brake hood. That was cool, Museeuw gave me the brush off! After a few shots, I drifted to the back of the peloton and waited for the cobbles.

I didn’t have to wait long. Painted on the ground is PR with an arrow pointing the direction of the course, so riders can come out and ride this fabled race. Suddenly, the directional arrow pointed to the left and onto what barely passes as a road – it was cobble time. I hit the bricks going a little faster than I would have liked, but I remembered reading somewhere that speed helped the rider glide over the stones. I was apparently not riding fast enough for that to happen. I slammed into the cobbles and the Roubaix SL bucked like a hooked marlin. My immediate thought was, “Damn, I’m going to die.” I thought for certain pieces of the bike would start falling off and that I’d end up laying in the ditch, bleeding and broken. Instead, the bike took the pounding that each cobble threw at it. I tried to ride a straight line for fear of knocking a following rider down if I swerved too much. This provided to be a worthless strategy as the bike had a mind of its own and ping-ponged from one side of the lane. I was merely a passenger. Soon my skin began to itch due to all the vibrations. Then my knuckles felt like they were being jabbed with tiny needles. To add to the pain, my hands now started to burn due to the friction of the gloves and the carbon bars continually rebounding into my palms. Just when I thought, “Screw this!” and stop, the cobble section would end and the road began. A stretch of road has never felt smoother after riding cobbles.

Our group would regroup after each cobble section to make sure everyone was accounted for. I took a look at the SL and it was holding up like a seasoned veteran. The longer wheelbase and more upright positioning on the bike made the ride on the cobbles more bearable. I shudder to think about riding the stones on a standard geometry bike. I’m sure some teeth would have been rattled out of my gums. I asked Planckaert what was the secret to riding the cobbles and he told me to have a loose grip on the tops of the bars and let your fingers “dance.” It was too late for that. My left hand was bleeding from a popped blister and my right hand as equally blistered, just not yet bleeding. My hands looked like they’d been in a fight, not a dance.

After 50 miles of riding and 15 of it on cobbles, our ride came to an end. I was surprised at how good I still felt. The day previous, Andy Pruitt (author of Andy Pruitt’s Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists and bike fit guru) did bike fits for all the editors. He moved my saddle forward a bit, as well as lowering my saddle .7 of a centimeter. Small changes, but I wondered how I would feel on the ride. All I can say is Pruitt has the well deserved reputation as a bike fit master. Feeling more comfortable, I felt I was able to produce a couple more watts of power. And that’s the theme of the Roubaix SL bike. If you are comfortable, you will ride faster. So many of us see the positions of our racing idols and try to emulate the low stem, pushed back saddle, and flat back look. The reality is that most of can’t and shouldn’t be riding that way. In fact, there are several pros that have benefited from raising their stems and taking a more upright stance on the bike. The Roubaix SL, with its relaxed geometry and Zertz inserts, makes the ride smoother, faster, and more comfortable, whether you are riding the stones of Roubaix or your local roads. Pruitt’s fit, along with the features of the Roubaix SL, made the Hell of the North an experience I will not soon forget.


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