To the uninitiated, the idea of racing bicycles at speed over long sections of bone-jarring pavé, or cobblestones, might raise a few questions.
Why pedal over rough, uneven surfaces when you could race on smooth pavement? What’s the point in making riders torture themselves and risk injury? Why not just pave the pavé?
For diehard cycling fans, the pavé possesses a strange, mythical quality, and therein its value. Of all the races that crowd today’s professional calendar, few stir the passions more than the cobbled classics of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix.
The long sections of granite blocks along the courses helped give rise to the popularity those races enjoy today.
In old Europe, cobblestoned roads were the norm, and today they live on in their rawest form in cycling’s most thrilling one-day races. Pavés, the French word for cobblestones, are sometimes referred to in Flemish as kinderkopjes, or children’s heads, because of their similar size and smooth, rounded shape at the top. That’s a bit more poetic than Belgian blocks, as they are also sometimes called.
The cobbles of the classics are quite unlike the nice flat ones found in the touristy centers of Paris and Prague. The pavés of Flanders and northern France are huge, heavy things. They are not well kept — many are loose and jagged — and they can bring a sudden end to the dreams of even the most deft bike handler.
For these reasons, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of riders hate racing on the pavé. Even masters of the granite blocks like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara try to avoid the rough-and-tumble of the cobbles whenever possible, opting for the smoother and faster dirt tracks that run alongside the old roads — that is, when they’re not packed with fans 10 deep.
Bernard Hinault, a five-time winner of the Tour de France, raced Paris-Roubaix on at least three occasions, winning in 1981. But he didn’t at all care for the so-called Queen of the Classics. He said Roubaix “is not a bicycle race — it’s a cyclocross.” He claimed the Hell of the North was “a big nonsense.”
American Joe Parkin, a former professional cyclist who competed in many of Europe’s oldest races, told VeloNews that most riders have a love-hate relationship with the pavé.
“I usually liked riding and racing on cobbles,” he said. “They give the races so much more flavor. A Tour of Flanders sans cobbles would see many more riders making their way to the finish line, and a cobble-free Paris-Roubaix would certainly be boring as hell.
“The cobbles help force things to happen in races, so if you’re good at riding them, it’s on. If not, they’re terrifying.”
But not all cobbles are the same, and each section rides differently. Some of that has to do with gradient, but it also has to do with the difference in size and spacing of the stones. So racing on the pavé means using a slightly different body position than normal, and using a lighter touch with steering and braking.
“Especially in the wet,” Parkin said, “it was interesting to will the bike in one direction and have it not really pay attention to the request.”
In a bit of cobbled history, Parkin recalled a moment before the start of the 2010 Tour of Flanders when he was listening to Lance Armstrong being interviewed at sign-in. According to Parkin, Armstrong said something about how there were better ways of building roads now and that racing on the cobblestones was archaic and unnecessary.
“Wow,” was all Parkin could remember thinking.
Frankie Andreu, the director of the 5-hour Energy-Kenda team and a former professional rider, competed in several editions of Flanders and Roubaix, where he finished a career-best ninth in 1994. For Andreu, the pavé is an essential part of Europe’s racing tradition.
“Some of the roads in Paris-Roubaix are barely ever used — probably once for the race and one other time for a farmer on a tractor,” Andreu told VeloNews. “For one, there is no upkeep, and the bricks last forever. Even the famous Koppenberg in Flanders was rebuilt using most of the original bricks, but smoothed out.
“The cobbles are so hard to ride over because they’re jarring, slippery, jagged, and slow. Every bump seems to slow a rider down, and it takes a lot more power to ride over cobbles than riding on a paved road. It would be like trying to ride through four inches of sand or snow compared to a dry road.
“The pavé is the selector,” Andreu said. “It decides who it will chew up.”
Kristof Ramon, a photographer who shoots many of the sport’s biggest races, lives alongside a three-kilometer section of pavé in central Belgium. He told VeloNews that, for Belgians, the cobbles are a part of history and have everything to do with Flemish culture and cycling.
While a lot of the old cobbled roads in his region have been paved over, he said, the cobbles that are still around today likely won’t be paved any time soon. And cycling has a lot to do with that.
“It’s part of our heritage,” Ramon said. “If at some point they decide to get rid of the pavé, then it’ll be gone for good and you’d erase history. It’d be like tearing down an old building.
“Look at certain sectors of pavé, like the Oude Kwaremont in Flanders. It’s like a monument lying flat on the ground. And as with any monument, you should treat the pavé the same.”
It’s no wonder why, outside of the Tour de France, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix command the biggest and most passionate audiences. Maybe Hinault was right when he said Roubaix was a bunch of nonsense, but either way, the cobbles have clearly won the hearts and minds of cycling fans the world over. And as ever, this year’s classics will no doubt evoke nostalgia for the grandeur of the cobbles.
“There’s nothing like the pavé,” Andreu said. “It turns any race into an epic one.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of times Bernard Hinault participated in Paris-Roubaix. He raced in at least three editions (1980, ’81, ’82), not just one.