The Race: Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix Race Course

This Sunday April 10 will be the 109th edition of another one of the 5 monuments of cycling’s race calendar: Paris-Roubaix. The race, first held in 1896, now starts north of Paris in the town of Compiègne. The race finishes with a ½ mile lap around the velodrome in Roubaix. In fact, the race was first sponsored by the owners of the velodrome to draw attention to the town of Roubaix as a cycling destination.

Like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix is a 161-mile race famed for its often treacherous cobbled sections. The route has changed over the years to incorporate as many miles of cobbles as possible, and to avoid sections that have deteriorated to the point of severe safety hazard. And while the Tour of Flanders counts its hills, Paris-Roubaix counts its cobbled sections, 27 in total this year. The cobbles are such an integral part of the race that the winner actually receives a cobble, or sett, as part of his prize.

Why is it so Hard to Ride on Cobbles?

2009 Paris-Roubaix winner, Tom Boonen, with his prize cobble. Photo courtesy of Chiho.

Paris-Roubaix and other races featuring substantial sections of cobbles pose a unique challenge to racers. Unlike pavement, cobbles aren’t smooth: the uneven surface makes it difficult to maintain control at high speeds (on descents, racers average over 30mph). And since the race is held in spring, the cobbles are often slippery due to wet weather conditions. If this weren’t hard enough, the racers ride together in a large pack (called “the peloton”). While an individual rider might be able to pick a good line through the cobbles, in the peloton, ruts, potholes, and other treacherous terrain are obscured, and a rider’s course is, in part, determined by the riders around him.

Cobbles are so difficult to ride on that professional cyclists use specialized equipment in an effort to avoid flat tires and maintain control of their bikes, most notably stronger wheels and wider tires than would normally be used for racing. Stronger wheels have more spokes (maybe 28 or 32) and are made of aluminum rather than carbon. These wheels are better able to withstand the extreme vibrations that come from racing over cobbles. Wider tires allow the racers to run a lower tire pressure with less risk of a flat; this gives them slightly better traction on a slippery surface.

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to northeast France for the express purpose of riding the cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix, you’ll probably want to be riding one of Montague’s folding mountain bikes – you’ll be glad of the front shocks and the knobby tires. But if you’re thinking of sticking on the many non-cobbled streets and bike paths in the area, or if you want to simulate the feeling of racing Paris-Roubaix, a folding bike from Montague’s pavement line is the way to go.

A Quick Update on the Tour of Flanders

Last week, we were in northern Belgium at the Tour of Flanders. In uncharacteristically warm weather for this time of year, the race featured its fair share of mishaps (crashes and flat tires), but ultimately Nick Nuyens, a Belgian rider for Team Saxo-Bank came away with the victory, beating out several riders, including last year’s winner Fabian Cancellara, in a one and a quarter mile sprint to the finish.

Travelling with your Folding Bike

Montague folding bike ready for the train.

If you’re following the pro cyclists with your folding bike, you need to be able to get from one race location to another – this week, from Brussels to Paris – or Compiègne, which is where Paris-Roubaix actually starts. You could always ride from one city to another, but it’s almost 200 miles from Brussels to Paris, and while Nick Nuyens could knock that out in a mere 9 hours, it’s also really easy to take the train with your folding bike. Several different train lines offer service from Brussels to Paris, leaving almost every half hour, and you can take your folding bike along at no extra charge since it counts as a piece of luggage.

The start of the race is not right in Paris though, but in Compiègne – 50 miles to the north. Regional rail services in this part of France allow bicycles (both folding and not) on all trains at any time of day, except during morning and evening rush hour (7-9am and 4:30-6:30pm). You can take the same regional train service north to Roubaix.

Taking in the Sites

Bike paths in Compiegne

Compiègne has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the site of two armistices: the one that ended the First World War in 1918, and the one marking the fall of France in 1940. In addition, it is the site of Joan of Arc’s capture (she was captured in Compiègne by the Burgundians and later turned over to the English) and home to one of Louis XIV’s grand palaces, which was later used by Napoleon and Napoleon III. And if you want to get out for a ride on your folding bike, there are also 35 miles of bike paths to take you between these historical sites or along the Oise River.

Bike lanes and bike paths in Roubaix (red and purple on map).

If you decide to take in the finish of the race, Roubaix also has plenty to offer the cyclo-tourist. For a town with an industrial heritage, both textile factories and coal mines, Roubaix is surprisingly green. There are over 20 public parks in Roubaix, among them Parc de Barbieux, which, in addition to hundreds of different species of trees, plants, and flowers, also features 5 miles of paved pathways. Roubaix also has an extensive network of bike paths, making it easy to get around on your folding bike.

Where Have You Traveled?

Have you ever taken your bike on a train in Europe? Have you visited Compiègne or Roubaix? Do you live there? How’s the riding?

Up Next: Back to Belgium for Liège-Bastogne-Liège

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