The Rhythm of the Stones

The Rhythm of the Stones

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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.

// Technique

  1. Dude – cheered by pedestrians – awesome. That usually only happens after getting doored by a taxi.

    Great post. Painful pic. The “right” and “wrong” rhythm deal hits home for me while mountain biking. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. Some days you float over the roots, other days they grab you with unseen forces. On good days, logs pass under your chainring with a swift hop, on bad days it all comes to a grinding halt.

    Its all part of the mystery of cycling. Good days and bad days cannot be predicted.

  2. Frank and other Velominati,

    I on the other hand live within driving distance of the previously mentioned famed cobbles. I have let everyone down by having not ridden them yet. Believe me I’ve had more than enough time to do so.

    This weekend is a long one for me. Expect photos and a short ride report sometime next week.

    I’ll let everyone know if I get right, wrong or just lose my bidons.

  3. I’ve not ridden on any pavé before. Cobbles yes, the streets of Paris yes. And the cobbles of Durham, which in one place are just a load of round pebbles chucked in some sticky stuff… quite scary going down them.

  4. The rhythm is a function of speed which is a function of power. You can hit a secteur at pace and feel the float but if it goes on for too long (Oude Kwaremont, Carrefour L’Arbre), or if its goes uphill in a decidedly unpleasant manner (Paterberg, Koppenberg) it soon becomes apparent if you are peaking in two months (rather than then and there). As soon as you slow down you start pedalling squares, feeling every stone, having to hold your bars in a vice like grip while the front end wants to Fuglsang you into the kinderkop. Having ridden both P-R course and the cobbled bit of RVV, I can assure you that the chaps who win these events are truly beasts with massive guns. We are truly not worthy.

  5. Grew up with a nice 16%-20% cobbled climb not too far away, I was always two months from peaking riding that bastard.

    I have also had the pleasure of riding various sectors of the Roubaix pave, including Arenberg. Never had any problem finding the rhythm on those stones, it helps being big, you bounce less. I’m sure I would have struggles more had I ridden anywhere near the distance they do in the races.

  6. My thought is that you have to be able to be on top of the gear if and ever you need to stand, but still be able to… er… spin while seated, and be prepared to shift your weight when needed. The art of gripping the bars, and the subsequent formation of your wrists, elbows, and shoulders can make or break you. Loose, but firm hands; elbows will be your ’93 Rock Shox Judy suspension, and shoulders must be able to take as much shit as they can handle, and find time to relax on the tarmac.

    The cobbles and I have a bad romance going on. Every time we are away, we long for each other. The roughness of the ride, the feel of gliding over each one, praying it will be gentle enough on me that I do not flat… Yet when we meet, it is like we cannot wait to get away from each other. Quarrelsome stints of rutted out sections that could be mistaken for XC babyhead rocks in the mud make me curse the pave like it was a cheating lover. It is okay, the cobbles can take my abuse, and usually dish it out fivefold.

    The pave is so crafty and desirable; yet I despise it. But I oh so love it.

  7. This article sucks… no mention of Charlie Watts or Bill Wyman at all.

  8. @Brett
    That’s because the Stones suck, wankers, all of them.

  9. @Dan O
    That’s something I always felt the Bridgestone philosophy was about, ride a small light bike that can go over the obstacles. You learned to ride in a good, smooth way that let the bike jitter along while your body absorbed a lot of the bumps and you pushed a big gear smoothly.

    We’re planning a Velominati trip to the Cobbles this Spring, and I look forward to being unpleasantly brought to reality on how different that is from riding off-road.

  10. @j.king
    Can’t wait for the report. Make sure you re-read Beer in the Bidon before departing. Something with NO2 is probably a good start.

  11. @Nof Landrien

    I can assure you that the chaps who win these events are truly beasts with massive guns.

    I remember reading that Museeuw couldn’t walk for a week after winning P-R in 2002. Brutal.

    As soon as you slow down you start pedalling squares, feeling every stone, having to hold your bars in a vice like grip while the front end wants to Fuglsang you into the kinderkop.

    There’s a great account in Fignon’s book, We Were Young and Carefree, where he talks about the ’83 Tour and the stage that went over the cobbles. He didn’t know how to ride the stones, so he just gripped the bars like you describe but got through the stage OK. After the finish, he removed his gloves to find his hands covered in blisters; the next day was agony.

    @Brett
    Hey now, you’re just mad that I called you shriveled.

    @wvcycling

    The cobbles and I have a bad romance going on. Every time we are away, we long for each other. The roughness of the ride, the feel of gliding over each one, praying it will be gentle enough on me that I do not flat… Yet when we meet, it is like we cannot wait to get away from each other. Quarrelsome stints of rutted out sections that could be mistaken for XC babyhead rocks in the mud make me curse the pave like it was a cheating lover. It is okay, the cobbles can take my abuse, and usually dish it out fivefold.

    Poetry.

  12. Makes you realize how much of a monster Spartacus is, riding the stones in the faux TT-bar position, wrists casually draped over bars, so as not to drop the tiny little Luxembourgois bouncing around behind him like a rabbit in an electric fence.

  13. G’Phant :

    Makes you realize how much of a monster Spartacus is, riding the stones in the faux TT-bar position, wrists casually draped over bars, so as not to drop the tiny little Luxembourgois bouncing around behind him like a rabbit in an electric fence.

    Plus he had that motor…

  14. so as not to drop the tiny little Luxembourgois bouncing around behind him like a rabbit in an electric fence.

    The imagery is priceless. Just made a shit day a little less shitty!

  15. @frank

    Thanks for the compliment~ Keep me in mind for future guest contributions???

  16. @frank
    Actually, while I have seen a lot of electric fences and a lot of rabbits, I have never seen them in contact. But I know what it feels like to contact an electric fence, and I am pretty confident it would make a rabbit jump more than it has made me. It would probably make the Grimplet jump, too. But not Spartacus. He’d just use it to recharge his batteries. Unless Jens had got there first and scared the fence away.

  17. But not Spartacus. He’d just use it to recharge his batteries. Unless Jens had got there first and scared the fence away.

    That’s two for two today, Geof. You must be in the USA.

  18. I don’t see what the problem is. Although I too have never ridden the pave of Northern Europe, I heard Spartacus describe it and it doesn’t sound that hard: “you just put it in a big gear and keep accelerating”. How hard can it be. [I can’t match the poetry above describing the cobbles, inspiring stuff, folks]. Great photo, Frank. That’s got to smart a bit.

  19. @roadslave
    You really need to ride there, or anywhere with similar stones, to understand.
    The battering you take is unbelievable. I didn’t think to wear mitts/gloves when I rode three or four sections of pave, around 5km. By the end of the 5km I had massive blisters on my hands and then I had to ride back across them.

    Despite the Roubaix pave being flat, it is hard work. I had a dry and sunny day with no wind and I was relatively fit. I wanted a relatively “representative” experience of riding the stones, so I tried to keep it at at least 20mph and to do that meant I was riding hard, probably 80% and the effort went up on the slight drag at the of the Carrefore d’Labre section. It put into perspective what the pro’s do at Paris-Roubaix because they hit that section after over 250km, I’d ridden just 10km.

  20. It’s been weeks but I’m sometimes a man of my word. Yesterday I did about 75km in the area where the Tour of Flanders takes place each spring. The photo is from the Oude Kwaremont climb, 2.2k of cobbles. The route included the Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs, it was magical…

  21. @j.king
    That is a STUNNING photo, mate; I envy you. We are planning a Keeper’s Tour in 2012 to focus on the Spring Classics.

  22. frank :
    @j.kingThat is a STUNNING photo, mate; I envy you. We are planning a Keeper’s Tour in 2012 to focus on the Spring Classics.

    Seriously? I am already planning a trip to Paris-Roubaix 2012 and hoping to ride the cyclosportive if they have one the day before. Not that I claim to be worthy of the Keepers company or anything but maybe Ill be able to pass a bidon to you all or something! :)

  23. @Buck Rogers
    Absolutely – and if course everyone will be welcome on the rides. I’d like to do the Flanders Sportiv as well. Hellish, im guessing! Should be great fun.

  24. This months (July 2011) Cycling Plus has a article on the Paris Roubaix cyclosportive. sounded like a good day out although the weather looked to be very kind on the riders! Certainly not a Rule #9 day.

  25. This article popped up on my “random articles” list, and I thought I’d bring it to the forefront, given the latest drunken escapades of the Keepers et al. in northern Europe.

  26. Funnily enough, I’d have to agree with my at-the-time uninformed assertions about how to ride these. And, what’s also cool is that those little yellow arrows I joked about mark the whole route of Paris-Roubaix starting a few weeks ahead of the race. They put a whole shit ton of them up in every spot – presumably to still have some left over after people are done stealing them.

  27. Here’s the Koppenberg:

    And here’s G’rilla killing it up the same hill.

  28. @frank
    Who were the tourists lying down in the background?
    @g’rilla looking very fucking pro!

  29. @g’rilla Looking VFF! How did the R1’s feel after the KT?

  30. I’ve just realised the guy in the photo is using Speedplays and what he’s doing is exactly what I did the first time I went out on mine. You do get used to them however.

  31. @Chris
    Those were the fuckers lying on the road, in my way, keeping me from the steady rhythm that would get me to the top without stopping.

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