Riding Paris-Roubaix cobblestones with Tom Boonen

Sensation of failure like drowning, your demise slow but inevitable

Race Coverage
Boonen has a record four Paris-Roubaix titles to his name.

Boonen has a record four Paris-Roubaix titles to his name (click to enlarge).

“I love the cobbles because it’s honest. Just me and the bike.” – Tom Boonen

Northern France’s cobblestones need no introduction. This is the home of Paris-Roubaix, one of bike racing’s great monuments. A successful ride on the Roubiax pavé demands intense focus and tremendous effort to stay “above” the surface.

The sensation of failure is like drowning, your demise slow but inevitable. And crashes are all but guaranteed to those who deviate from the perfect line choice or the right velocity. These rough surface conditions, mixed with the varied and undulating nature of roadways that likely predate your hometown, offer up one of cycling’s greatest challenges.

Few riders have met that challenge to the degree of Etixx-Quickstep’s Tom Boonen, a four time Paris-Roubaix champion, tied for most in the race’s history with Roger De Vlaeminck. I got the chance to ride with Boonen at a Specialized press event earlier this month on some of the roads that make up “The Hell of the North.” It was an enlightening day to say the least.

Riding the cobbles requires a mix of power and panache.

Riding the cobbles requires a mix of power and panache (click to enlarge).

Unlike the traditional concept of road racing, where courses favor the lighter rider, the cobbles reward raw power. Watch Paris-Roubaix (or its sister event, Belgium’s brutal Tour of Flanders) and you’ll witness a smooth-sailing peloton quickly turned into a shattered bunch. As the bunch rolls onto the cobblestones, each rider churns at full-throttle, desperate to maintain momentum until the return of smooth tarmac.

A testament to the raw wattage over power-to-weight principle, Boonen is a big man by bike racing standards, standing 6-foot-4, 181 pounds. That’s huge compared to your typical WorldTour GC contender such as Alberto Contador (5-foot-9, 137 pounds) or Nairo Quintana (5-foot-5, 120 pounds). Boonen and the other cobbled classic conquerors are clearly a different breed.

Out on the road, sustaining 200 watts for an hour is a pretty standard target for the average recreational rider. Double that and you’re entering the realm of the cobbled classics. Anything less than about 400 watts of sustained power results in a downward spiral of lost momentum. The slower you go the harder the impact of each successive stone becomes until stopping or crashing are your only options.

During our ride, Boonen joked that one of his favorite tactics was checking his brakes going into sharp corners, thereby forcing a slight separation and necessitating jumps in power by the riders behind. Undoubtedly, edging out the competition with such tactics is something reserved for those who can get themselves into the highest positions in a race in the first place. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think how dominance in this realm stretches far beyond basic physiological gifts.

Even the great ones fall.

Even the great ones fall (click to enlarge).

Tom Boonen is the master of the cobbles, I told myself as we hit the famed Carrefour de l’Arbre pavé sector. I’ll follow his line and be just like him. Well, it turned out that Boonen was also smarter than most. No matter what type of bike or tire or wheel combo you’re on, riding the cobbles is hard and uncomfortable. Being that he had nothing to prove and no need to test any equipment, Boonen gracefully drifted to the smooth graveled gutter and rode beside the silly journalists, as we made our way down the ancient road.

Finally, on our ride’s last pavé sector, Boonen took to the road’s center and hit the front of the group. I awoke from a daydream and began to inch my way back toward his massive presence. I followed his lead from earlier in the day, sticking to the gutters and bunny hopping potholes.

This approach was a quick way to catch up with the leader, but it demanded intense focus. For one second, I lost focus and mistimed a pothole jump. Slam! Hiss! I had a flat tire. The group ahead was quickly gone, not to be seen again until arriving at the ride’s finish in the famed Roubaix Velodrome.

Sadly, I had missed a few more golden insights into the wild world of WorldTour cobbles racing, but I was just in time to share a drink with the group in the velodrome bar. Boonen sipped espresso. I savored a Belgian beer. We ran through a quick autograph signing on some unique memorabilia that several of us had picked up for loved ones back home. Mine was made out to my dad. Father’s Day is just around the corner, and Boonen knows just as I that what he does so well is both an inspiration to fathers all over the world, and a living tribute to our dad’s hard work getting us hooked on these crazy rides in the first place.

A special gift for the author's dad.

A special gift for the author’s dad (click to enlarge).

So espresso or beer, champion or first timer, here’s to the rocks, the bikes, and all the dads that continually pushed us to put these three great things together. For even the best of us fall down at one point or another. What separates us, in racing and in life, is the ability to come back and fight for the win again. Tom Boonen exemplifies this like few others in the sport.

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)
About the author: Dillon Caldwell

Dillon Caldwell is a native of Bend, Oregon with a big heart for the sport of cycling. He grew up to be a successful junior cross-country racer but got hooked on road racing during his time at the University of Oregon, where he ran the school's club cycling team for several years. He now spends the majority of his time as a road racer for both the Audi and the Canyon Bicycles - Shimano racing teams on the regional and the national scales, respectively. On the side, he is a mountain bike tour guide for Cog Wild, a cycling coach for Wenzel Coaching, a member of the board of directors for the Tour des Chutes cancer charity, and a passionate writer.

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