Posts Tagged ‘tour of flanders’

Sean Kelly: King of the Kasseien

March 28, 2013

Words: Matt Seaton Photos: Graham Watson

What makes a great rider of the pavé?
First of all, it’s a rider who is strong and powerful. You have to be pretty heavy, or the cobbles will just hop you all over the place.

And, usually, if you have the weight, you have the power – if you’re any good. You need the power because you have to ride a gear that is higher than normal. You push a bigger gear to get the power down smoothly and keep traction.

Then you have to learn to overcome the cobbles. If you’re Belgian, you grow up born and bred to ride the cobbles, certainly from when you start racing as a teenager. But if you’re a non-Belgian national, you don’t race a lot on those roads. It takes time to know how to do it.

I had ridden the Paris-Roubaix five or six or seven times before the first time I won – and not only the Paris-Roubaix and big races like the Tour of Flanders, but a lot of smaller races in Belgium. There was the Grand Prix de l’Escaut that finished with three laps of a 15km circuit that had a several bad sections of cobbles every lap.

Riding a lot of these smaller races is how you learn to ride and control the bike on the cobbles. Of course, when they’re wet, it’s a different matter…

In the Paris-Roubaix, you sometimes see riders hunting for a flat section in the gutter, while some seem to prefer to ride on the crown in the middle. What’s the best way to ride the pavé?
There’s a trade-off. When it’s dry, it’s much easier to ride on the side, not even on the cobbled surface. But the risk of punctures is much greater – you have all the grit and small stones from the fields there.

So you’re conserving energy but you’re risking having to chase back on after having to get a wheel change. That’s OK early in the race maybe, when you still have all your team around you, but later in the race fractions of seconds become critical.

And in the Paris-Roubaix the service cars are always further behind, so you can lose a lot of time.

So the safest place from punctures is to ride in the middle of the cobbles. On either side the road is cambered quite steeply, so especially in the wet you have to stay in the middle.

What changes did you make to the set-up of your bike when you were riding the Paris-Roubaix?
The main thing was you ran fatter tyres – and higher, to avoid the risk of pinch flats, which was greater because you rode them softer than you would for a normal race on asphalt. I didn’t change my position on the bike; very few riders did.

But some used to put foam padding under the bar tape to absorb the shock. I didn’t; I didn’tlike the extra thickness – it’d give me cramp in my hands trying to grasp the thicker bar.

What was your technique for climbing the muurs? You see a lot of riders who sit back in the saddle to get the power down, but sometimes you see a power rider like Boonen who seems to be able to climb the cobbles out of the saddle.
Sitting down, definitely, and keeping the weight to the rear. Most riders can’t do that like Boonen – you have to keep the momentum very smooth, which is difficult on cobbles, and it’s very hard to keep traction.

But there are always some who can do it – Eddy Planckaert was one of the few who could climb like that.

Who else did you rate?
[Eric] Vanderaerden, obviously. He had the power. Greg LeMond could have won more of the classics, but he chose to take it easy and concentrate on the Tour later in the season. Steve Bauer was good, too. He could ride the cobbles.

You were always flying in the Paris-Nice, and kept that form through the spring classics. How did you prepare so well?
The good winters in Ireland helped me a lot – all that sun. No, but I seemed to work quite well in the winter. I wasn’t afraid to go out in the weather. It didn’t bother me. I could do 4-5 hour rides in January; I didn’t get cold as easily as some riders.

Also I didn’t need a lot of training kilometres to get into shape. Some riders had to do half as much again. That’s just the luck of my physiology. I didn’t have to do as much to get good condition.

And then I always looked forward to the classics. So motivation helped. Those northern classics are a monument in Belgium: you have to have lived there to understand it. And if you can win one, you’re a hero for a long time there.

What does the Paris-Roubaix in particular mean?
I always say it was the most horrible race to ride, but the most beautiful to win.

Was it harder than any other? And which hurt most afterwards– your legs or your arms?
Well, the wrists could hurt a lot. But if you’re riding well, you don’t hurt that much.

But it does take longer to recover from the Paris-Roubaix than any other race. The body just takes more punishment than a long but straightforward race like the Milan-San Remo, or even the Liège-Bastogne-Liège which has a lot of climbing in it. Two or three days after the Paris-Roubaix and the body is still pretty weary.

And it can hurt to pee afterwards. Your prostate takes a pounding. A lot of riders complain that you get a burning sensation for a couple of days when you go to the loo.


Extract from issue 2


March 7, 2012

Words: Michael Barry Photo: Olaf Unverzart

Team Sky’s Michael Barry is the author of Le Métier and Inside The Postal Bus. He crashed and broke his elbow just days after completing Chute! for Rouleur 29.

To win, the strongest teams now strangle the race, force their tactics and try to control variables. The underdog has little chance. Despite increasingly challenging courses, pelotons often remain compact and massive until the final kilometres. Over the last 15 years, the differences between riders’ abilities have diminished because of better training, proper diets, a more international peloton and more aerodynamic, lighter equipment. The races have become more predictable. Often, only the injured or ill fall off the pace.

When nearly 200 riders charge down a narrow, twisting, rural road three metres wide, crashes are inevitable. Cameras can’t capture the chaos in the belly of the bunch. The peloton rarely relaxes. Within it, we ride inches apart, our elbows rubbing, our shoe buckles clipping sharp spokes, our tyres brushing up against another rider’s. There is precious little room to manoeuvre. Behind the first line of riders every inch of the road is used. To get to the front of the peloton, we’ll accelerate up the dirt shoulder, a driveway, a sidewalk or a bike path and dodge spectators, parked cars, utility poles and potted plants. In our hasty dash to the front, we jump kerbs at 50 kph. Crashes are inevitable.

The constant live feed of news from a race, which streams over the internet and television, has increased the tension. A decade ago, seasons began progressively. The early races were often slower, and riders used them to gain fitness. Now, the first race of the season has become as important as the last. Training camps are held in December to ensure we’ll be in top shape by the end of January. From the first race of the season in January until the last in October, entire pelotons of 140 to 200 riders fight for attention. Often we are considered only as good as our last race. The battle is relentless.

In the one day cobbled Classics the fight for the front is furious. Every rider knows his chance of victory could end if he is too far back in the peloton. From a four lane highway we funnel onto a dusty or mud-coated rural cobbled lane. In dry weather, the peloton kicks up a dust cloud, which blurs our vision. In the rain we slip and slide to find the best line around riders who have fallen on muddied stones. But the worst crashes often occur before the most technical bits of course, when the peloton stampedes through the countryside like frenzied cattle towards a chute. On smooth tarmac, the speeds are higher and the peloton a compact mass. One rider’s error will bring down a multitude. Not only do larger pelotons lead to more crashes, but the racing is also more controlled. Breakaways have less chance of success against multiple eight to nine man pursuing teams. Rules downsizing teams to fewer riders and shrinking the peloton would make the racing more animated and less dangerous.

The worst crashes aren’t limited to the Classics. In a Tour de France stage, where the stakes are highest and every kilometre has value, the fight for the front is relentless. In the first week of the race, every rider seems to be aiming for a chance at victory, the yellow jersey or simply a few flickering moments on television. As a result, crashes are more frequent in the first third of every Tour. As the race wears on, the effervescence yields to fatigue, every rider finds his spot in the physical hierarchy, and the race becomes safer. Changing the format of the Tour by adding a time trial or mountain stage in the first week, to create greater time gaps earlier, would reduce crashes.

Extract from Rouleur 29, on sale soon.

Spare a thought for the spanners…

April 7, 2011

Leopards on the cobbles

The week between Flanders and Roubaix seems harmless enough. Scheldeprijs was a welcome added distraction and the balmy spring sunshine has been a bonus. We are sharing a very comfortable hotel with the Leopard-Trek team and sitting in the breakfast room with Cancellara and co isn’t so bad…

Easy life for some, but the team mechanics are having less of a relaxing time – parked outside our bedroom window is the Leopard mechanics’ huge work truck, a wonder of modern coach fitting with a better equipped kitchen than most of us have at home and a workshop that I can only dream about. I just wouldn’t want the job to go along with it.

The chainrings are changed for Roubaix's flat but ferocious parcours - usually 53x44 or 46

Between Flanders and Roubaix, the bikes change completely, and it’s more than the wheels and tyres getting switched, too: this is full-scale rebuild time. Leopard’s mechanics, Roon and Roger, work 18-hour days to get the 16 special Trek Madone’s prepped for the Enfer du Nord. For the mechanics it’s been relentless – the back of the truck is open before I draw the curtains in the morning. And we’ve been out for a ride, had dinner and chatted in the bar until late and they’re still at it when we head off to bed.

Leopard’s Trek Madone bikes have longer wheelbases and added clearance for 27mm tyres that have the look of tractor tyres compared to the usual race rubber. Trek has done this by simply altering the shape and design of a longer rear dropout, so that the tyres will clear the brake bridge and seat tube. The forks are different too, with a longer rake for safe steering on the cobbles. The rest of the frame is standard geometry and the components are no-nonsence stuff. I’m happy to report the wheels are all of the standard handbuilt 32-hole variety, all apart from Cancellara’s that is, but I guess he knows what he’s doing…

The Leopard riders trained on the course today and looked in fine form at breakfast this morning. As former winners, Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady looked pretty relaxed about it all, although Wouter Weylandt looked less comfortable with some serious road rash after his pile-up at the Scheldeprijs yesterday, but he was out at the truck, first thing, asking Roger what tyres they were running and, later on in training, staying with the team until the last sector. Tough fella, Wouter.

Trek Madone, Roubaix-style

Not such a great day for team Rouleur however, as Leopard slipped through Mons en Pevele like it was a country stroll, our tired and less than tough little car smashed into a large hole as we hotly pursued them, and now a worrying drip has developed from the engine bits. I can’t really ask Roger to take a look as he’s still sticking tyres – they still haven’t stopped, they’re out there now, with Slayer and the Sex Pistols firing out of the stereo, so I’m off to find a garage that works as late as he does.

Roll on Sunday.

The tubular of choice

Arenberg awaits...

Set in stone

November 11, 2010

It has been my not inconsiderable pleasure this week to proof read the second edition of Le Metier, Michael Barry and Camille J. McMillan’s splendid book published earlier this year by Rouleur. The new, updated version – with added text from David Millar and Barry himself – will be available later this month. That’s the hard sell bit done with…

A couple of passages in Michael’s writing got me thinking about two things: one bike-related, the other not strictly, but relevant nonetheless.

Cobbles. There, I’ve said it. Barry describes the feeling of hitting the hideously undulating stone surfaces at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and the resulting carnage that ensues as 200-plus riders fight for space on some of the narrowest lanes and farm tracks in Europe. Some riders seemingly float over the pavé, while all around others flounder. The big strongmen of the Peloton – Cancellara, Boonen, Hincapie, Hushovd, Flecha and the like – come into their own. (Roger Hammond is the anomaly here, being strong, but clearly not big. It doesn’t seem to do him any harm.)

It may not have escaped your attention that ASO is planning a Paris-Roubaix sportive on April 9, the day before the real thing. You may be planning on riding. You may be thinking that the 135km route from Saint Quentin to Roubaix – as opposed to the 250km ‘full Monty’ the pros ride – will be child’s play. Think again.

Having ridden the bi-annual summer event organised by the Vélo Club de Roubaix Cylotourisme a few years back, I can confirm that it will be a long, hard day in the saddle. My abiding memory of probably the best day’s riding I have ever enjoyed was approaching the first sector of cobbles at Troisvilles on a straight, gentle descent and witnessing half of the preceding pack fall apart at the very first hurdle. Bottles littered the pave; bodies flew into ditches left and right; some went down hard on the muddy surface, damaging both bikes and limbs.

How were we ever going to reach the velodrome for a celebratory lap of the track with another 27 of these – including the infamous Arenberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre – to go?

Then the pre-start advice from old hands kicked in: attack the cobbles, don’t grip the bars, let the bike find its own path, sit back and relax, recover on the road sections. And it worked a treat. The ‘cross bike with 28mm tyres soaked up the worst of the vibrations and our group arrived in Roubaix in good shape to pick up souvenir cobbles and bottles of beer. Much as I abhor memorabilia cluttering up the house, the cobble has pride of place on the mantlepiece as a reminder of an amazing day.

Then again, the version I rode is held in the summer. Next April will be a very different prospect indeed. It will be a memorable weekend, with the race the following day – just don’t underestimate the cobbles, and try and get some practice on them beforehand (easier said than done, I know). Details of the event can be found here.

The not strictly bike-related part of this post stems from Michael Barry writing about Flanders and northern France, and the inescapable, everlasting presence of the fact that a huge part of two World Wars took place in the fields the peloton races past and the towns it passes through.

I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, a few years back, having some spare time before the start of what turned out to be a Tour team time trial in torrential rain. Michael, being a Canuck, might well have been there. It is one of the most sobering monuments to the foolhardiness of war I have ever seen.

The ridge of high ground so brutally fought over during the First World War overlooks miles of flat terrain, featureless save for regular eruptions of gigantic slagheaps, testimony to the coal mining industry that dominated the area. An enormous network of underground tunnels, dug by specialist miners on both sides of the Western Front, spread for miles in each direction.

Sections of preserved trenches, quite literally a stone’s throw separating German and Canadian lines, snake through the woods, interspersed with craters of mind-boggling proportions – created not by shells, but by burrowing miners tunnelling beneath enemy lines and detonating tonnes of explosives. Thousands of casualties were incurred in the Battle of Vimy Ridge at Easter, 1917, for little gain – the hallmark of the entire conflict that resulted in an estimated 8.5 million deaths.

Should you be planning a Classics excursion for next spring, give yourself an extra few hours on the itinerary and swing by Arras. It is a deeply moving experience.