This picture makes me think, “There’s a right way to ride the cobbles, and a wrong way.” Those riders who have raced on the cobbles of Flanders and Northern France will tell you that riding the stones fast takes a “something” that can’t be taught. The trick seem to be finding a subtle space between steering and guiding the bike where the riders coax their machine through the terrain to find it’s own way without too much interference from the pilot.
Riding over these brutal roads is an honor that I have yet to receive, but I have had the privilege to live in several cities with some semi-legitimate cobbles, even if they were not borne from France or Belgium. St. Paul, MN has a few roads where, if you’re willing to break a few rules suggesting the direction of traffic, you can climb some good, bumpy hills. Seattle, on the other hand, has an entire neighborhood wherein all the steepest hills are still bedecked in stones from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These are rough, nasty roads and have taught me a thing or two about what does and doesn’t work when riding the cobbles.
Foremost among the things that work is finding the harmony between the size of your gear (cadence) and the speed the bike is bouncing over the stones. I would call it “sympathetic vibration” if it weren’t for the decidedly uncomfortable feeling the whole ensemble gives – there is nothing “sympathetic” about it. A bit more the opposite, actually. When you get it right, however, it is somehow beautiful in it’s awesome, harmonic brutality.
There was one day a few weeks ago when I was doing hill repeats on one of these climbs when everything clicked. The machine, the gear, my rhythm, the amount of The V I was able to dish out, everything came together to form a jarring, rattling unit of cohesion. There was a group of pedestrians on the roadside walking down the hill at the time; they stopped to watch and – dare I say – cheered. I was instantly in Flanders; it was a Great Moment on the Bike.
Yesterday, I turned off the same strip of asphalt onto the same cobbled climb and the harmony that had previously attracted a group’s attention was replaced with a sensation of panic as I fought to keep myself upright. My bike hit the stones in a manner I can only describe as “wrong”; I dumped my speed instantly, struggled with the gear, and nearly fell before barely righting myself and moving into a zone where every turn of the pedals was a struggle tinged with the bitter taste of weighing my odds of getting my foot out of the pedal in time to keep from falling should the last iota of speed and coordination I possessed leave me. No one was around to view this spectacle, thank Merckx.
It all comes down to the rhythm you find on these nasty stones, and this photo shows Jakob Fulsang succinctly demonstrating the difference between the “right” and the “wrong” rhythm. It’s almost as if the arrow mounted on that clumsy bit of scaffolding was set up for the very purpose of pointing out the the wrong approach to riding the pavé.