Frank and Rigid experience the Holy Land via the muddied secteur at Abattoirs. Photo: @Harminator

La Vie Velominatus: The Holy Land

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No pavé is smooth, and to ride them well the rider must enter them à bloc and keep pushing until one of two things happen: the secteur ends or the lights go out. The thing about cobbles is that each stone beats back the wheels like a boxer punching a speed bag, robbing the unit of speed with every stone it crosses. To maintain momentum demands maximum power in order to overcome this sapping effect; to accelerate demands maximum power, plus two.

At speed, the bicycle skips over the cobbles a bit like a flat stone across a pond; the faster the bicycle moves, the smoother the ride over the cobbles becomes. The bicycle bounds beneath the rider as each of the wheels cascades off the irregular cobbles beneath. This, truly, is Rider and Machine as one.

Even the best cobbles demand the most from the rider. Abattoirs saw Marko snap off his seatpost during the 2012 Keepers Tour; in relative terms it is a hard but fast stretch. Mons en Pavéle is my personal favorite and defines itself by its length and undulating nature. George Hincapie snapped his fork steerer here, ending his quest for the top step in Roubaix. It was an aluminum steerer – not carbon – a reminder that the type of stuff used is not the limiting factor in Roubaix; it is strength that matters. The analog for the rider is obvious enough.

The Forest of Arenberg is unlike any other secteur of pavé. It is long, it is straight. It runs slightly downhill before settling into a long, faux plat to the far end where it spills back onto the smooth tarmac of the main autoroute. It’s only redeeming quality is that it is mercifully sheltered from the wind which, in this part of Northern Europe, seems to eternally blow opposite of whatever direction you happen to be riding.

What the Carrefour de l’Arbe has in common with the Trouée is that they are both awful secteurs. The cobbles on both were dropped off the back of a wagon some centuries ago, and have been beaten into the earth by horses, wagons, tractors, and cars. There is no “rideable” path through them; there is no crown, there is no gutter. Only (slightly controlled) chaos as the bicycle is caught more than it is ridden from one avoided crash to another, like a toddler learning to walk by stopping their fall one step at a time.

This is the Holy Land: the thrill of riding from smooth tarmac onto crazy cobbles, and back off again. Both transitions met with the same welcome. Dichotomy is truth on the cobbles.

// Defining Moments // Etiquette // La Vie Velominatus

  1. Great article @frank particularly the photo.

    The puddles on the left appear to be saying to all that enter the sector ” Go on, I dare ya ! ”

    Wet cobbles and gutters with water as to hide what lies beneath, what could possibly go wrong !




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  2. “Dropped off a wagon” – WRONG, they are discarded ballast from the early French balloon experiments in the late 1700’s




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  3. Two weeks ago they were like this………….(photos courtesy Joolze Dymond)




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  4. I have been trying to explain to my riding mates back here as to what riding the cobbles is like – thanks for this article. You can’t back off – for to back off lets them take control – like a bucking bronco they will shake you off – you need to keep that power down – until you reach the end of the secteur, run out of gas or break something (umm…four flats/wheels on the first day!) and end up in the gutter.

    You approach the next secteur with a sense of foreboding as to how long & how rough it will be. “Didn’t I just have a piss?’ goes through your mind as the cobbles shake your bladder up like a bottle of fizz! And (as you described) why is it the last 10m of any secteur always feel like the pave’-layers just gave up on any sense of laying pattern, and just tipped them from the cart?

    So glad we got to suffer them in the wet, and then appreciate them in the dry. That first day (in the photo) was such a hard day!

    Are the merits of Belgian cobbles vs French cobbles the subject of a future article?




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  5. “At speed, the bicycle skips over the cobbles a bit like a flat stone across a pond; the faster the bicycle moves, the smoother the ride over the cobbles becomes.” Geraint Thomas demonstrated that on our trip and made it look sooo smooth and easy.

    “The bicycle bounds beneath the rider as each of the wheels cascades off the irregular cobbles beneath. ” This was the rest of us! It’s surprising that you feel you could go faster but you just don’t have the power to overcome the pounding. It would have been interesting to know what sort of speed I could maintain but the bars were such a blur I could not read the digits on the odo.

    The weird bit was the buzzing sensation in your whole body when you got back onto the road sections. Bit like mild pins and needles throughout. The most surprising bit (as I mentioned elsewhere) was that the bit that hurt most was my upper arms from the muscles being flayed by the pounding – oh and my hands.




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  6. @Teocalli

    It was my forearms that hurt the most the first time. Spending more time in the drops on the pave and a carbon bar/stem combo seemed to ease that a bit the second time (or being fitter meant that I hit the cobbles harder and faster and elevated the pain elsewhere, I’m not sure).

    I also realised that the main purpose of the saddle was to limit the jarring upward movement of the bike each time it slammed into a particularly evil stone.




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  7. @frank

    …to ride them well the rider must enter them à bloc and keep pushing until one of two things happen: the secteur ends or the lights go out.

    The Forest of Arenberg is unlike any other secteur of pavé. It is long, it is straight. It runs slightly downhill before settling into a long, faux plat to the far end where it spills back onto the smooth tarmac of the main autoroute.

    I was a little bit sick in my mouth at the end of the Arenberg and very close to letting go completely. No matter how hard I ride generally can’t do that on a bike. After a massive effort on the last interval on the turbo, yes. But on a bike, no.




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  8. Fine writing, Frank!

    Most of my travel dreams seem to be Places I’d Like to Ride My Bike.




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  9. The old Romans were arseholes. That’s my take, after spending a weekend on the “pavé”, if you could call it that, that they left in my country. Black basalt stones, seemingly half of them with the flat part perpendicular to the road, and 10-15cm gaps between stones more the norm than the exception. Nowhere to hide.




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  10. Someday… someday.

    I will cross the continent and pond
    and let loose across the fields
    where my forebears fought
    and where warriors still ride.

    I shall taste the elixir
    brewed in those fields
    and marvel at the dirt
    caked hard upon my own steed.

    Someday.




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  11. Ri g th bble t be fu pe to t som !

    din e co s mus n. I ho do I e day




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  12. @Rob

    Ri g th bble t be fu pe to t som !

    din e co s mus n. I ho do I e day

    took me a while, but I see what you did there.




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  13. @Mikael Liddy

    Couldn’t resist… Really more than any other fantasy it was always Paris Roubaix. If I was dreaming a la Walter Mitty in a cycling world then I was not a tour candidate but the one day cobbled classic had my name. It did not help, post racing, that a former amateur, who’s wheel I could never hold went on to get second by a half centimeter long after I had hung up the wheels. Steve Bauer, the nicest, toughest guy, in my mind has the best PR finish ever!

    @ Frahnk has nailed the award for best description of what it takes – I now feel that I’ve been there!




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  14. In college when riding over rough road in north Georgia (mostly chip with the occasional seal), we’d sing out “Pari-roo-bay” and plow through like maniacs choosing the roughest bits to ride. It’s not the same but what knucklehead thinks that’s fun? This knucklehead, I’ll have you know.

    One day I’m gonna rides the real ones, until then this article helps me pretend a little more.




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  15. I want to feel the pain so badly now it hurts. Strong work, Frank.




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  16. @Rob

    Ri g th bble t be fu pe to t som !

    din e co s mus n. I ho do I e day

    That does sum it up pretty well.




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  17. @frank Pure prose.

    @DeKerr Pure poetry.




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  18. @Rob

    Chapeau.




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  19. @ChuckB

    “Dropped off a wagon” – WRONG, they are discarded ballast from the early French balloon experiments in the late 1700’s

    That’s almost believable, both from the state of the road as well as the quality of French engineering.




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  20. @asyax

    So glad we got to suffer them in the wet, and then appreciate them in the dry. That first day (in the photo) was such a hard day!

    Totally! And then a guy like Museeuw who says things like, “In the dry, I rode a 53/48. In the wet, that was impossible. I would take a 52.”

    Yeah, sure, because that one tooth is what held us back, right?

    Are the merits of Belgian cobbles vs French cobbles the subject of a future article?

    Good idea! Belgian cobbles are harder than anything else in the world. Except French cobbles.

    The only thing the Belgians are better at than the Dutch are beer and Cobbles. And the only thing the French are better at than the Belgian is Cobbles.




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  21. @Teocalli

    “At speed, the bicycle skips over the cobbles a bit like a flat stone across a pond; the faster the bicycle moves, the smoother the ride over the cobbles becomes.” Geraint Thomas demonstrated that on our trip and made it look sooo smooth and easy.

    Museeuw is the same way; he rides a bike with an magical tarmac-laying machine at the front and an magical tarmac-removing machine at the back.

    I don’t know how it works, but he looks like he’s riding tarmac the whole way.

    “The bicycle bounds beneath the rider as each of the wheels cascades off the irregular cobbles beneath. ” This was the rest of us! It’s surprising that you feel you could go faster but you just don’t have the power to overcome the pounding. It would have been interesting to know what sort of speed I could maintain but the bars were such a blur I could not read the digits on the odo.

    Seriously, have you learned nothing? Were you really worried about your fucking speed?

    I can tell you all the numbers that matter, without having been there:

    Your speed was V. So was your power. And your cadence.

    The only thing that wasn’t V was your wondering about your speed!




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  22. @tessar

    The old Romans were arseholes. That’s my take, after spending a weekend on the “pavé”, if you could call it that, that they left in my country. Black basalt stones, seemingly half of them with the flat part perpendicular to the road, and 10-15cm gaps between stones more the norm than the exception. Nowhere to hide.

    I bet they have some quality fucked up ancient roads down your neck of the woods!




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  23. @Rob

    Ri g th bble t be fu pe to t som !

    din e co s mus n. I ho do I e day

    That’s the most impressive mastery of the computer I’ve seen you string together yet! Strong work; if nothing else, Velominati has motivated you to learn how to use the electric typewriter!




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  24. @Rob

    @Mikael Liddy

    Couldn’t resist… Really more than any other fantasy it was always Paris Roubaix. If I was dreaming a la Walter Mitty in a cycling world then I was not a tour candidate but the one day cobbled classic had my name. It did not help, post racing, that a former amateur, who’s wheel I could never hold went on to get second by a half centimeter long after I had hung up the wheels. Steve Bauer, the nicest, toughest guy, in my mind has the best PR finish ever!

    You really have to get round to telling more of those stories on these pages sometime, Robbie! And that might be the best finish, but what about Gibus and Franco?




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  25. Maybe I’m late to the party here, but The Hub (South African site) just posted up on Bianchi’s Roubaix bikes over the ages, with the best photos I’ve seen online of Franco’s softride and Johan’s “Throne”, as he calls it.

    The Throne

    Ballerini’s Cobble Goblin

    More Bianchi love here:

    http://www.thehubsa.co.za/features/_/gear/insight/gallery-bianchi-through-the-years-at-paris-roubaix-r2362




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  26. @Chris

    @frank

    I was a little bit sick in my mouth at the end of the Arenberg and very close to letting go completely. No matter how hard I ride generally can’t do that on a bike. After a massive effort on the last interval on the turbo, yes. But on a bike, no.

    Poor Mickey actually did leave his breakfast at the exit of the Arenberg on ride two. Said something about gels or gluten, but we know it was the cobbles.




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  27. @brett

    If a Keeper could get the +1 badge, that would be it.




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  28. @frank

    Seriously, have you learned nothing? Were you really worried about your fucking speed?

    I can tell you all the numbers that matter, without having been there:

    Your speed was V. So was your power. And your cadence.

    The only thing that wasn’t V was your wondering about your speed!

    I stand corrected (of course).




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  29. @frank

    @tessar

    The old Romans were arseholes. That’s my take, after spending a weekend on the “pavé”, if you could call it that, that they left in my country. Black basalt stones, seemingly half of them with the flat part perpendicular to the road, and 10-15cm gaps between stones more the norm than the exception. Nowhere to hide.

    I bet they have some quality fucked up ancient roads down your neck of the woods!

    Aye, I could barely walk over them with my hiking bag. Next time I’ll take a few pictures and a bike – might be easier to go faster over them.




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  30. @Teocalli

    Looks like Rouleur have done a little photo article based on G’s day with you guys. http://rouleur.cc/journal/riders/geraint-thomas-gallery-marshall-kappel




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  31. @frank

    The Throne is the first and hopefully only example of an ugly Celeste bike.




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  32. @Mikael Liddy

    @Teocalli

    Looks like Rouleur have done a little photo article based on G’s day with you guys. http://rouleur.cc/journal/riders/geraint-thomas-gallery-marshall-kappel

    Thanks for that. The other thing that stuck me looking at those is that while the rest of us looked like we had been dragged through a ploughed field GT was still pristine at the end. Having said that, the final rainstorm on the run in to Roubaix did a lot to clean us all up.




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