Answering questions on Roubaix’s cobbles
“That’s another question mark finished,” Andreas Klier kept saying. He’d say it into the radio after a nasty sector, and to riders after they settled on a tire pressure, and to the mechanic, James Griffin, after the team picked its favorite of two tire options.
“By tonight we’ll have no more question marks,” he said from the start of EF Education First’s Paris-Roubaix recon ride, pulled up off exit 18 of the A2, in the parking lot of a Lidl grocery store. Sep Vanmarcke nodded at his director and went back to watching Griffin set his tire pressure.
We wrote about a recon ride for the Tour of Flanders last week. That was mostly just a training ride, a way to jog the memory, to practice that corner at the bottom of the Paterberg one last time. Recon this week, ahead of Paris-Roubaix, is quite different. It’s all about those question marks.
On Thursday, Haveluy was caked in mud so slick it was hard to walk on. Two motorcycles crashed; so did the first two AG2R riders to pass through, and a couple Bora-Hansgrohe riders too. It was thick and slippery like peanut butter mixed with motor oil. Rear wheels wove back and forth under power, fishtailing like drag racers.
It was so bad that les Amis des Paris Roubaix, a volunteer group charged with maintaining the race’s cobbles, ran a street sweeper over the stones on Friday to try to clear some of it off.
No rider racing on Sunday has faced a wet Roubaix. The last was in 2002. The last truly wet race was 2001, won by Servais Knaven. “We have a whole generation of riders who have never raced in the rain,” Knaven recently told VeloNews. Indeed, no rider from the 2002 race will be in the 2018 edition. The closest thing cycling has had was the wet stage of the 2014 Tour de France, won by Lars Boom. The institutional memory of what it’s like to not just ride but race on wet Roubaix stones lies mostly in directors like Klier.
“It’s kind of terrifying,” Taylor Phinney said.
Tom Skully was 11 when Knaven won. The Kiwi is one of those motors and body types that seems built for this race. How would he feel if on Sunday he opened his eyes to the patter of rain? He takes a long time to answer. “I don’t know,” he finally says. “We’ll see on Sunday if it’s wet.”
“I think there’s a hype. Everyone goes ‘whoa, wet Roubaix,’” he said, waving his arms a bit. “But as a rider, thinking about it, we all want to stay in one piece. We’re not just lambs to the slaughter. It’s going to be a battle out there anyway. If we do get one, we’ll get through it piece by piece.”
The weather is one of the question marks Klier can’t answer today. The forecast looks dry, warm, and windy, with a slight chance of rain overnight Sunday that could turn the whole apple cart upside down. The mud on Haveluy should dry out, but it wouldn’t take much to turn the worst sectors slick. The farm fields are already saturated and willing to spill over.
The riders start with 4 bar in their front tires and 4.2 in the rear. That’s 58psi and 60psi. I ask about pressure drop throughout the race, a known issue with latex tubes like the ones inside these Vittoria tubulars. “We did some testing in November and the drops weren’t significant,” Griffin says. “They’ll finish close to what they start with.” The riders roll through Haveluy at 4.0 and 4.2 bar, and then over Arenberg. Already they’re complaining that the pressures are too high. Klier tells them to try a few more sectors before deciding. “But I already know,” Matti Breschel says. He does, but Klier makes him wait anyway. “Do a couple more first,” Klier says.
They stop again. James jumps out of the car with his digital pressure gauge. Down to 3.8 bar for Breschel, 3.8 for Van Asbroeck, 3.8 for Vanmarcke, 3.9 for Phinney. Vanmarcke leans down and pushes his palm into the tire. “That’s as low as we can go, eh,” he says. Belgians always throw an “eh” at the end of sentences that seek agreement. The team rolls off again.
“There’s an optimum pressure you have to find,” Skully says. “If you have them too tight, it’s like riding ice skates, especially on wet cobbles. Too soft and you risk pinch flatting the tube on the inside of the tubular, then you’re out of the race because you got a flat tire. The cars are so far behind because of all the chaos that you could be waiting there for minutes. So you need to find the balance between grip, soft enough, and not hitting the stones. You bring it down to where you feel comfortable. You gotta find that happy medium.”
Phinney is lagging a bit through Hornaing, the longest sector of the day. Tough to say whether it’s form or will that has him dangling. He raced Scheldeprijs yesterday, finished in the small front group, made all the splits. “Today’s a very long cooldown,” he says, somewhat sarcastically. The legs are clearly hurting a bit. He finishes some sectors at the front, others off the back.
Vanmarcke is always off the front. When he punches it, and he does so almost every sector, there’s no hanging on. His teammates don’t even try, really.
The team has two tires available to them. Another question mark. They can run the 30mm Corsa Control, a tire available to you and me that has a kevlar strip for puncture protection. Or they can run a special team-only version, with just one small Vittoria badge, that uses the same casing and the same rubber but removes the kevlar. In theory, it rolls faster. In theory it flats easier. Which one, that’s the question.
Everyone starts with the kevlar version. A couple riders swap to the special edition after Orchies. Pressures are matched. Which do they prefer?
It’s tough to find consensus. Mitch Docker, of mustache fame, is in favor of the kevlar. “If I can’t really feel a difference why not take the one that is more likely to make it through the day?” he says. “I”m not here to win, I’m here to work. And if I flat, I’m waiting five minutes for a team car. So for me, a couple percent in rolling resistance doesn’t matter as much as being there when I need to be.”
Most of the domestiques will make the same decision. Vanmarcke, the leader, remains undecided. A question mark left for tonight.
The group rolls out again. Klier has a map in front of him with the route and wind direction. He gets on the radio as they pass through each sector, warning them of tailwinds and crosswinds and points where they’ll need to pay attention. “This part is through town, no wind, but lots of shit in the road,” he says as we near Pont Thibault. The sector itself has a few 90-degree corners that often cause crashes, so the riders get another warning.
On a regular road, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re 2nd wheel or 3rd wheel or 6th wheel, as long as you’re in the draft. Roubaix’s cobbles often only provide half a meter of rideable surface. When crosswinds kick up there’s no room to paceline. Klier takes note of these sectors, marking them down. “You want to be second or fourth on this one,” he says over the radio. Odd numbers will be caught out.
All seven riders are now on the tire pressures they’ll race with. They know which of the two tires they’ll race with. They’ve picked a preferred handlebar tape, said yes or no to a double wrap, and placed their Di2 shift buttons just so. They smash across the Carrefour de l’Arbe, their final tough sector of the day. Vanmarcke launches off the front, again. The spine of the stones reaches up and grabs the underside of our team car. All the questions have been answered, Klier says. And at Roubaix, that’s the best you can do.