The Hardest Race, The Softest Ride

Roubaix crash

With their medieval cobbles the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are the most extreme races on the calendar. Yet they’re the shop window for bikes destined to be used on the calmest of Sunday mornings.

The cycle trade has its annual trade shows around September with Eurobike and Interbike but as The Velocast argued recently April is another industry event with a sharp focus on bike technology. If Paris-Roubaix didn’t exist, the industry would have to invent it.

Manufacturers have funded teams since the start of the sport. Over a hundred years ago bicycles were sold as modern items of liberation and transport and a machine that could complete a long race was celebrated for its reliability. Aerodynamics, weight or rigidity were not marketing points.

Michelin advert
“The Best, The Cheapest” from Michelin in 1911

See the Michelin ad above which shows the bicycle riding through a field strewn with glass bells, suggesting grip and puncture resistance in an agricultural setting.

Contemporary marketing is about speed as most purchases of Colnago, Cervélo or Bianchi are for sport and fitness rather than riding to the field or factory. Adverts feature hairpin bends or victory salutes rather than a bike ploughing across a field.

But durability comes to the fore this week. Snap a frame in a pro race and with luck a mechanic is running at you with a spare bike, your only worry is to get going again. Snap a derailleur cable on a ride and the day can be ruined, break the frame and your bank account can be ruined. In other words a frame that can cope with Paris-Roubaix for a few hours is built with enough strength to last for years of Sunday rides, or at least that’s the marketing theme. Whereas bikes for the Tour de France are often celebrated for their low weight and aerodynamics, Paris-Roubaix is all about durability and strength, a throwback to the old days.

Vibration cancelling as a marketing point (via Italian Cycling Journal)

Geometry and comfort are other aspects. Many manufacturers supply special models for the cobbles, like the Pinarello Kobh or Cannondale’s new Synapse frame. These are heavier and softer… but that’s the point. Pinarello say their bike is more crash-resistant. But these bikes are not built for 200 riders to use for one week a year, instead they are really destined for hundreds of thousands of people to use all year long. It’s no coincidence that Italo-Swedish brand Bianchi presented their new model to the media in northern France yesterday. Stronger frames, a more comfortable ride, a more upright position: it suits pros on the cobbles and normal riders on a café ride.

Of course a lot of marketing is based on association with extremes. People buy a jacket used for an ascent of Annapurna to keep warm waiting at the bus stop. Buy a Ferrari and it’s a soft armchair compared to their Formula 1 model. The same in cycling where the winning bike of the Tour de France is great for sales. But often these associations are for broad branding, for example if Trek saw sales increase because of publicity from Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France, only a small proportion of the revenue came from selling top-of-the-range team replicas. But the difference with Flanders and Roubaix is that it allows enthusiasts to follow exactly what gear is used and the usual news websites offer tech features so people can see exactly what is used. Rather than the actual brand, it is the product that is exposed. The bike ridden by Sunday’s victor will be seen as special and you’ll see features on the winning machine next week.

Of course it’s not just frames, surviving Paris-Roubaix has been an important selling point for carbon rims. Many wheels these days have carbon rims but for years these were seen as too fragile. For years teams would bring out ancient wheels with extra spokes for this race but this sends a message that modern wheels aren’t a flimsy. Today many make a virtue of using carbon rims. Commercial pressure? Yes… but the manufacturers are also producing stronger rims. Once carbon rims were special and came with weight limits for users but increasingly they are being marketed as everyday wheels. Clearing the cobbles is one way to demonstrate their viability.

Myth, marketing and reality
Legend has it that Eugene Christophe was disqualified from the 1913 Tour de France after he repaired his forks in a blacksmiths at the foot of the Col du Tourmalet. The rules said riders had to make their own repairs but as Christophe worked the iron forks a boy pumped the bellows for the furnace, and this outside help broke the rules. All this is a myth. Instead Christophe was only penalised a few minutes for the extra help, he lost a lot more time walking down the mountain with his broken bike and it’s said he took a detour to avoid being spotted for fear the press picked up on his “faulty” bike and made trouble for his sponsors.

Fast forward 100 years and it’s hard to know if there aren’t parallels. What if a rider finishes a race with a cracked rim? What if double-taping the bars, using special shorts with two layers of padding sewn in and running 4.5 bar / 65PSI offered more vibration damping than any carbon technology? Finally it should go without saying that this Sunday’s winner would probably win on any bike… unless there’s a photo finish when maybe just the better pair of wheels or the more comfortable ride did make that difference.

This time of year sees some of the fiercest riding with some of the most brutal road surfaces. There’s a paradox where these extreme conditions are used market bikes to cycling enthusiasts for everyday use. The hardest races make the softest rides.

In the past manufacturers used the sport to promote the durability and comfort of their machines, today ads promote speed, performance and fashion. But once a year the old themes of reliability return and it becomes an important moment for business and marketing. If Paris-Roubaix didn’t exist would the manufacturers need to invent it?

21 thoughts on “The Hardest Race, The Softest Ride”

  1. I don’t remember the company but there was a video of someone hitting a the spokes of a wheel with a hammer, dropping it on the floor and jumping on hit. The guy holds it up and it spins fine. It’s the same for Roubaix only more real because if something breaks it’s live on TV.

  2. Looks more like a field of condoms at first glance in the Michelin advert! Trek’s marketing took a hit on P-R a few years ago when Hincapie’s steer tube sheared off.

  3. It’s the one day race that captures the public’s attention like no other so it makes sense to promote bikes on this basis. Just yesterday the CN editor was lamenting that it is always voted “best one day race” in their online poll. In London alone there are 3 or 4 rides on Sunday in “homage” to Paris Roubaix.

  4. There were lots of news stories going around a few years ago about teams and riders using aged tyres for Roubaix as they were more puncture resistant and relaible? Was this true and is it something that continues today?

    • Less so. Aged rubber dries out and the idea was they’d mature in a cellar like wine in a bottle. Only production today sees modern methods and chemical additives meaning the rubber doesn’t need to be cured for years.

      Note though that some teams do buy special editions, notably from FMB, for this race. You can see their light tan sidewalls. I think Team Sky doesn’t have a tyre sponsor because they want to be able to buy what suits.

  5. I still age my Veloflexes at least 6 months before using them. Veloflex make tubulars the old fashioned way, like FMB do. They don’t make them wider than 25mm, so Sky change to fat FMBs for Roubaix.

    Sanremo was won on 25mm Veloflex Arenberg this year. Quote Ciolek: “I had complete confidence in my tires.” MTN-Qhubeka didn’t list a tire sponsor last time I checked.

  6. That Michelin poster is fantastic, thanks!

    I also hope Cancellara solos to victory in the Obree position while smoking a cigar.

  7. anyone can enlighthen me about the story of the last foto in this post, I have seen it several times –
    The Eurosport comentator from comentating the tour of the Basque Country just said that severall will be riding ciclocross bikes this sunday – without discbrakes that is —

    • It’s the photofinish from last year’s Paris-Roubaix.

      A few riders use cross bikes but most will use road bikes, to state it can be done. We saw Europcar trying cyclocross brakes but cantilevers only as disc brakes are not yet allowed in road racing.

  8. It seems that while the manufacturers/racers would push for UCI to lower the weight minimum, as lighter bikes are safer with today’s materials and technology, That argument would not hold true for the cobbled classics.

    Is it the frame? fork? tire rims? bars? or seat posts that is most likely at risk on these jarring cobbles? Will we see lots of black tape over non sponsor related components? Will the teams be forthcoming on what components they really used? Will component manufacturers sponsor a team for just these two events? (Flanders and Roubaix) It is a proving ground. The Arenberg pave is the toughest road surface I have ever ridden on.

    As always a good read. thanks.

  9. AWESOME article! As a historian, I love the question you pose (inventing Hell of the North!) and how you set modern advertising against old-tyme advertising. Very cool.

    I picked up a LOOK 566 a few years back, since I’ve always lusted after LOOKs (my childhood LBS had their frames on the walls, as the owner is a former PRO mechanic & picked a few up along the way) and this is one of the comfort/stability/race or long ride bikes. I grabbed it because it was the first LOOK to ever fit within my Budgetatus.

    Very happy to see more and more companies offering these race “comfort” bikes. Makes me LOOK less Fred-ly. Nah, I actually don’t care that much but do think it’s nice to have the option of grabbing a fast bike that isn’t PRO geometry.

  10. The lead photo – oh goodness, how I miss the orange & blue of Rabobank!

    Thankfully I got to see some of it in Louisville on the CX racers, like BOSS Vos!

  11. This brings up a question for me about the sometimes blurry line between journalism/news reporting and advertising. Neal Rogers sent out a tweet after Flanders that said “Cancellara wins Flanders about Trek Domane” and then noted they reviewed the bike in Velo. This seemed more like an advertisement for Trek than for Velo magazine. My first reaction was to wonder if he got paid by Trek for mentioning their bikes.

    When tech is the lead story, how does a reporter balance telling the race story versus simply creating thousand-word advertisements?

  12. Of course, the advertising that you can “buy the tough bikes that survived Roubaix” is all crap anyway. The Frames are all custom made for the cobbled season with extra tyre clearances and more robust carbon layups. The Cervélo R3 you or I can buy is a far cry from the ‘R3 mud’ that the Garmin-Sharp team use at P-R. Same with the KOBHs that Sky use, or the Felts for Argos-Shimano.

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