This year's Tour de France takes the peloton across the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, known well to cycling fans for the presence of some of the worst roads found anywhere in the sport. In April, this department of France hosts the pointy end of the Paris-Roubaix classic, known as the Hell of the North (and the Queen of the Classics) for its legendary trips over cobblestones, including long stretches, poor conditions and some of the most unpleasant stones you'd ever think twice about riding your bike across. And now these same stones will be known for hosting Stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France.
Cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Photo by Chris Fontecchio, Podium Cafe
Paris-Roubaix and the other cobbled classics in Belgium are a subculture within the sport of cycling -- and to be honest, my favorite races of the year. In spring, the slippery, bouncy stones combine with often nasty weather to create a massive spectacle of cycling: riders covered in mud, slipping out, sometimes having to walk their bike, huge gaps opening up on what look like flat roads, intricate tactics and throngs of cycling-mad fans lining the road regardless of conditions. If you haven't watched the Classics before, do yourself a favor. Honestly.
The basic truth about riding on cobblestones -- which I did in earnest this past spring for the first time -- is that riding over a bumpy, uneven surface kills your bike's natural momentum and requires you to ride much, much harder to maintain your speed. On a normal, paved road, the lack of serious friction can combine with the air vacuum a large pack creates and pull you along almost effortlessly at times, or at least at far less effort than you otherwise would have to muster. Riders who plan to contest the sprint and want to save their energy for that last all-out burst can hide out in the pack all day and minimize their energy losses. Well, on the cobbles there is no place to hide. If you don't pedal hard, your bike won't be moving for long.
Whatever tricks there are to mastering the cobbles are generally only of help to the chosen few. Two things riders often say are that you should look first to the center of the cobbled path for the easiest line, and that you might want to be close to the front, not behind 150 guys, if you want to be able to see the road beyond the next five feet. I would say that in Belgium the crown of the road was more often than not preferable, but the few places we checked out in France lived according to no set rules about where your best line was. And as for being up front, when you have 100 guys all thinking they need to be one of the first ten riders to hit a cobbled stretch, well... you do the math. The minutes before a cobbled stretch can be some of the most intensely competitive moments in the sport.
Apart from picking a line and pedaling harder, the stones can really upset a rider who isn't used to them. The vibrating is intense, and lasts for up to 4km, four long, slow kms. Obviously they go at something like double my speed, but I remember coming off the long stretches and practically having to peel my fingers off my handlebars, unlocking the death grip I'd held for the last ten minutes. We rode one sector which I believe is the last one appearing on stage 3, the Secteur Bernard Hinault, which I will always remember. My brother and I were riding merrily along a quiet street, following the Paris-Roubaix route signs, when they suddenly pointed left into a field. Only when I started turning did I see the ancient trail of cobblestones, looking like they'd been freshly unearthed just hours before. It's an experience unlike anything else... and not one riders like Alberto Contador will be looking forward to while trying to stay in contact with the Tour -- and some of the world's best cobbles experts like Fabian Cancellara and George Hincapie and Juan Antonio Flecha, who will be on hand to mix it up on the day.
In truth, while the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix separate the weak from the strong with extreme prejudice, the mini-Paris-Roubaix in store at the Tour probably won't amount to much more than a good show. The cobble stretches chosen by the Tour are few in number and not among the worst of the worst (read about them in detail here). Furthermore, the race rides ends with about 12km of normal streets for guys who lost touch on the stones to catch up. They will contain an element of danger -- the cobblestones have broken innumerable bikes, tires and a few collarbones over the last century. If it rains that day, look out. But assuming decent conditions, the famed pave will shake up the riders without unduly stirring the race. That's for later.