Paris-Roubaix Tech

Mavic support Roubaix

Five points on the tech side ahead of this Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix race. The Tour of Flanders has pavé but things are a lot worse in Paris-Roubaix, these roads are simply brutal and unlike any other race on the pro calendar.

Tip and tricks from years past are reapplied. Mechanics spend days, if not weeks, getting ready for just this one race. Unique equipment is used, even team cars are adapted. Here’s a look at five things related to the tech side.

Tyre pressure
This varies a lot depending on the conditions. If it’s wet then it’s “as low as you dare” with 4.5 bar /65 PSI not uncommon, especially since many riders are on wide 28mm section tyres. If it’s dry then more air is added to ward off the “snake bite” puncture caused by a sudden impact against an object that presses the tube flat between the edge of the hostile object and the rim. The race does actually pass through the village of Saint Python after all.

Team mechanics
The mechanics are the unsung heroes of this race. They have a lot of work for one race. There will be eight riders with their eight bikes of course. But typically a team will follow with 16-24 spare bikes, with up to eight racked onto one car where possible to ensure riders get cover. A team leader might have two spare bikes waiting for him on the roof of the lead team car. Maybe 60 spare wheels are brought. Some of these are old and are given to team helpers who are posted at key points in the race. If a rider punctures he will often try to ride on for a short while in order to get a wheel from one of these helpers.

Neutral support
This is one race where the neutral service is essential to cover the moments when team cars can’t be there. Cars are detoured around some cobbled sections and at other times the cars can’t get past the riders spread all over the cobbles. More often than note the Mavic guys attend a race and are never needed. This time their problem is being in demand too often.

They’ll be present this Sunday with four cars, four motorbikes as well as a roving van to supply the motorbikes with extra parts along the way. In total they will bring 200 wheels, some of which are quite old. In 2007 Stuart O’Grady punctured in the Arenberg section and tool a spare wheel from the neutral service and rode this to the finish to take the win. The wheel in question was from 1986.

Special bikes…
There’s a lot of hype about special bikes. I suppose I’m contributing to this but in actual fact riders don’t need radically different bikes, just a few modifications go some way to making it more comfortable. As mean as the cobbles are, the majority of the racing is on wide and flat tarmac, you’d lose out if you went too far towards an offroad bike. In the past we’ve seen riders use suspension and other convoluted ideas, today we see special frames.

Much of this is driven by sponsors keen to show alternative products as “race ready”, that if a bike can survive this race then it’s ready for the wider consumer market. For example the Pinarello Kobh has slacker geometry and apparently improved crash resistance making it suitable for the race… but it’s a frame really aimed at weekend riders thanks to it it’s more easygoing position.

…Special cars
Finally, don’t forget the cars. The roads are rough for four wheels too. You wouldn’t normally take a family car on these roads and that’s just what a team car is. If you did venture on the cobbles, you’d probably try to pick your line and creep forward very slowly at times. But if you’ve got a rider up the road with a puncture, it’s full gas for the car, maybe the race is at stake. As such cars get the cobble-proofed too. The oil sump is usually the lowest part underneath the chassis and it can get a protection plate to prevent damage. Suspension is tweaked. Alloy rims are swapped for plain steel ones, even the tyres might be changed. And don’t forget the roof-racks where sometimes a toestrap or two comes in handy to keep valuable assets even more secure. Indeed just as some new bikes get showcased, some teams will also use 4×4 or offroad versions from their vehicle sponsors for the day.

14 thoughts on “Paris-Roubaix Tech”

  1. I ended up driving my Mazda 5 on the Gruson section last year. You’re right, you don’t want to drive fast on there.
    I also saw/heard one of the Liquigas cars smack its underside on the cobbles at the Tour last year. The exhaust was trailing after that. The crowd cheered, the DS driving just shrugged, laughed and carried on.

  2. With so much focus on tech these days, it was interesting (well for me at least) to note that Cancellara chose not to ride with Di2 in Flanders. Obviously, this kind of regressive decision is not shouted about by sponsors, but I think just goes to show that no matter how proficient and complete a product it may be pitched as, there is still lingering doubt amongst the pro’s as to it’s universal suitability to races….

  3. Don’t make ’em like they used to eh? I’ve been reading a lot about riders using old wheels and tyres for this race. Is it because they are stronger and the rubber harder? 1986 is pretty darn old for a race wheel!

  4. Owen: yes, that happens every year.

    beev: I wonder why. I saw that too and it could just be because he’s traditional and didn’t want to worry about electrics or because he likes the feel. Didn’t stop him from changing bikes.

    Jez / Tomass: it’s true. I think it’s more that Mavic keeps some old 36 spoke wheels lying around and brings them out every year for the race. You can reglue the tubs on every day and yes they are a bit heavier but you won’t notice. It didn’t do O’Grady any harm.

  5. Regarding old wheels, it’s true. I spent some time in Mavic’s Annecy service course a few years ago and was shown the Paris-Roubaix wheels. Pretty amazing. One of those off-the-bike cycling experiences I’ll always remember.

  6. I wonder if any riders will opt for tubeless clinchers for the race? Seems like this would be a good opportunity for manufacturers to display the virtues of the product (comfort, pinch-flat resistance, etc.). Or is it the case that the tubeless tires/rims are so inferior to the tubular system that pro racers aren’t interested?

  7. I presume extra clearance would be needed for the 28mm tyres (non of my race bikes would take 28mm) with possibly longer arm calipers?

  8. I have been talking to a few friends about Cancellara using mechanical shifters as well, as I recall he started the year out on di2 in Oman and then must have switched. I thought I saw at least one pic of him at San Remo with mechanical. I think some riders just prefer to feel the gear lever move. (Of course another theory is that he didn’t want anyone to see a battery on his bike and put further fuel on the fire that he has a motor on his bike!!!)

    Also of interest is that Cavendish is a di2 convert this year and until recently had the new di2 sprinter shifters on his drops. I suspect the switch for him was all about money. PRO, which is a subsidiary of shimano does Cavendish line of components, so I’m sure that helped out.

    Incidentally I have been riding di2 on my race bike for the last year and a half and absolutely love it. Amazing stuff.

  9. IIRC O’Grady’s flat and wheel change adds yet another little piece to the long story of bad and good luck in this race. When puncturing, O’Grady was in an early break, feeling good. So realising his tyre was going flat seemed unlucky to him. His DS Scott Sunderland however just told him it didn’t really matter and to just change the wheel and than to take it easy, drink and eat until the favorites’ group including Boonen and Cancellara would catch him.
    When this main group finally absorbed O’Grady he realised most of the riders in that group looked quite spent already while he still felt fresh. When realising that even his team’s leader Cancellara didn’t feel good, he sneaked away following the next break (Wesemann I think) and then stormed away to victory.
    So his puncture allowed him to take a little unplanned rest, refueling his body with air, water and some energy gels, enjoying a moment of relief and finally to take his chances. Who know if he had been able whithout that puncture, riding his guts out in the break.
    I remember watching the race in German TV and the station switching to broadcasting five minutes of news at the very time O’Grady was approaching Roubaix. Looking back, he was certain to win already, but that didn’t seem too sure for neither me nor the TV commentators. I was running in circles in front of the TV during the news and was delighted the station did a “live from tape” of the rest of the race.
    Another edition making a rider’s childhood dream come true in a way only Paris – Roubaix can, and one of the best most exciting days I had in front of the telly.

  10. It’s widely known most of the “service courses” for teams that have been around awhile have a stockpile of alloy wheels specifically for P-R. Most of ’em don’t get used so they’re set aside and used year after year, as long as they can get the number of cogs on the back to match what the team is using each season! Obviously the front wheels can be used almost forever. My Italian friend, Mauro Mondonico told me they used to run the Tour of Lazio over the old Appian Way near Rome – until too many team cars were damaged. Let;s hope that never happens to Paris-Roubaix!

  11. Is there any chance you know somebody who knows somebody who could check out the Garmin-Cervelo bikes at Roubaix to see if they’re running standard pedals? I don’t know who their pedal supplier is (although I’m guessing Shimano based on the recent review of Thor’s bike), but given that Garmin acquired Metrigear last year and are expected to release their power-measuring pedals later this year, I’m curious to see if any prototypes make it to l’enfer du Nord…

  12. CD: yes, but less often as the tube is protected. But an 80kg rider meeting the square edge of a cobble…

    JohnH: it’s been done before, FDJ have tried them. But the view was that they’re good for the offroad bits but too sluggish for the tarmac, don’t forget it’s 200km of racing on normal roads.

    Bikecellar: certainly the brake pads get adjusted. It varies from team to team.

    Larry: yes the Appian way has large “flag stones” that have become very disjointed. Brutal too.

    Glute cramp: check out and ask their, they have Jered Gruber on hand to snap the tech photos.

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