Part 3 of the Spring Classic Series – Paris Roubaix 101

  1. Part 1 – Introduction to the Spring Classics
  2. Part 2 – Why watch the Spring Classics

Naveen John takes us on an incredible picture journey of the Paris Roubaix – the excitement of the race, the history, the bikes and the race itself.

One of the best introductions to the Paris Roubaix we have every come across!


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Paris-Roubaix (P-R) is a one-day bicycle race held in Europe annually in the early spring and hence called a Spring Classic.

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It is referred to as the Queen of the Classics since it is one of the oldest (first held in 1896) and toughest bike races in the world. 2013 marks its 113th edition

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The race takes place in Northern France in the region indicated by the red box

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A long strenuous slog: The race is about 260km long and it starts about 80km north of Paris in Compiegne (pronounced comp-ee-enn) and finishes close to the Belgian border in Roubaix (pronounced roo-bay). The numbers in the map above (that count down towards the finish) indicate the cobbled sectors or pave (pronounced paa-way)

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A unique race: The race is infamous for its smattering of numerous, brutal, leg tenderizing, short sections of cobbles that exact a severe toll on both riders and equipment.

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Grading the cobbles: The pave of Paris-Roubaix are graded anywhere from 1 to 5 stars on the basis on length, irregularity, general condition and position in the race – 5 starts being reserved for the toughest sectors. A race can have between 20-27 cobbled sections between 300m to 3700m in length. Above, members of Friends of Paris-Roubaix, which is into conservation of the pave, work to keep the cobble sectors “raceable”.

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The weather in Northern France can run amok and make a brute of a race even more unforgiving! A smattering of rain means slippery cobbles and a downpour on the eve of the race turns the course into a slip ‘n slide

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A dry course and riders are choking in clouds of dust while hurting in oxygen debt

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The Classics rider: The predominantly flat course favors big, powerful riders. Heavier riders (we’re talking muscle mass here!) conserve momentum better (momentum = mass x velocity) and are less rattled by the jarring cobbles. These hard men of the peloton are referred to as Classics riders.

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The crux of Paris-Roubaix: How a rider (and his team) tackles the pave or cobble sectors, is key to determining the outcome of their race

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Positioning: The team of the race favorite (and in some cases the favorites themselves) crank up the pace (touching 60kph) leading into cobble sectors. It’s literally a race within a race to get to the front (and a slog to stay there), all just to enter the cobble sectors in front (read: out of trouble!)

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“Why ride up front or on the front? As the peloton hurtles into these decisive cobble sectors, being in the front is categorically “safer”. Riders can see further up the road and pick the best racing line over the cobbles – of which there aren’t many. As Fabian Cancellara demonstrates above, sometimes riding the gutter offers the smoothest racing line.

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At other times, as Tom Boonen expounds above, riding the intact crown of the pave offers the fastest racing line.

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Taking a bad line: George Hincapie ruing his bad luck after his steerer tube snapped — leaving him rudderless. Such is the penalty of taking a bad line – say, into a dislodged cobble – which could mean an untimely pinch flat or a mechanical.

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or even worse, a crash. A former American professional cyclist, Bob Roll, compares crashing on the cobblestones at Roubaix to “being fed into a meat grinder.” Ouch!

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Paris-Roubaix puts unique demands on the rider and it’s no less demanding on equipment. Bikes and equipment are specifically designed and field tested in these harshest of conditions and the end result trickles down to the casual rider. Bike manufacturers design bikes that can withstand the pounding of the cobbles and still keep the rider comfortable (and conscious!) throughout this demanding race.

You can read more about P-R specific bike tech here

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On the pave, riders run wider tires, ranging from 25-28mm (compared to 23mm in regular road races on asphalt). Wider tires are run at lower tire pressures, ranging between 55-80psi (compared to 90-120psi in regular road races on asphalt). Tire pressure depends on rider weight, course conditions, tire size, tire casing rigidity, etc.

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Teams sometimes discretely use non-sponsor equipment during P-R and sponsors will turn a blind eye in the case of a demanding race like P-R, especially when the official sponsor doesn’t manufacture a product that meets the specific demands of the race. Dugast is a French tubular tire maker whose tires have stood the test of time at P-R. Above is the picture of an unnamed French team using a Dugast tubular re-badged as a Hutchinson — which is the teams official tire sponsor!

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The Selection: With the equipment dialed in and the race tactics all planned out, the rider has to remain calm and execute. It takes between 1-5 minute all-out efforts (read: mini time trials) for the front of the peloton to traverse the cobble sectors. The sections of pave act as a sieve, sifting out the weak, the inattentive and the misfortunate, indiscriminately. The favorites draw out other favorites until a final selection is formed. The selection is essentially a small select group of the strongest rider(s) in the race. In this sense, Paris-Roubaix is a race of attrition and a confirmation of the law of survival of the fittest, the smartest, the most persistent – the hard men!

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The Roubaix velodrome: Ironically, P-R ends with a lap and a half on a smooth concrete velodrome in Roubaix. The finish line either sees a solo rider with a gap on chasers behind or a small, select bunch, settles the matter in a sprint.

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The winner of Paris-Roubaix gets a cobblestone trophy for his effort and his name is etched in the annals of the sport. In the picture above, the 2011 winner, Johan Van Summeren can barely lift the winner’s cobble over his head after his exhaustive 6+hr effort on the bike at 42+kph average speed.

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You can follow P-R coverage over at


Cricket is cute, Paris-Roubaix is…well, Paris-Roubaix!

More Paris Roubaix 2013


Image Sources

Pic 1: Cancellara leading the peloton,
Pic 2: Roger De Vlaeminck leading the peloton,
Pic 3: Paris, Compiegne and Roubaix,
Pic 4: 2013, P-R race route,–Roubaix
Pic 5: Carrefour de L’arbre close-up,
Pic 6: Mons-en-Peleve worked on by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix
Pic 7: 2005, P-R crash,
Pic 8: Johan Van Summeren on his way to winning 2011 P-R,
Pic 9: Mario Cippolini in the mid-90’s,
Pic 10: The Arenberg Trench sector,
Pic 11: Saxo-Bank leading Cancellara into a cobbled sector,
Pic 12: Cancellara riding in the gutter,
Pic 13: Boonen riding the crown,
Pic 14: George Hincapie snapped steerer in 2006 Roubaix,
Pic 15: Saxo-Bank recon crash,
Pic 16: 2013 S-works Roubaix,
Pic 17: 28mm tubular,
Pic 18: Dugast re-badged as Hutchinson,
Pic 19: Boonen, Pozzato and Hushovd make the final selection,
Pic 20: Tom Boonen rides solo into the Roubaix Velodrome for his 4th P-R crown,
Pic 21: Johan Van Summeren lifts his cobble trophy,
Pic 22: banner, Steephill.tvJens Voigt and Hincapie post-P-R,

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About the Author

Rohan Kini

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT CYCLING I love riding my bike. Whether it's a simple commute, a high-intensity road race, a jaw-grinding brevet, fixie rides thru packed Indian city or a kick-ass technical single track – I love it all. Apart from riding bicycles, I love being all geeky and know everything there is to know about bicycles, technology, bike fit, and service. I started BUMSONTHESADDLE to share this passion for cycling. DISCIPLINE: Partial towards MOUNTAIN BIKING but love it all CURRENT BIKE(S): Specialized Rockhopper, Specialized Tarmac, Pure Cycles Original DREAM BIKE: S-Works Epic HT & S-Work Roubaix OTHER PASSIONS: Technology, Photography, Baking, Travel, and Reading

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