Mastering the Cobbles – Why Don’t We Avoid Them Instead?

By Jiri Kaloc

Riding on cobblestones is not a particularly pleasant experience, especially on a road bike without any suspension. Why do road cyclists do it to themselves? And why are there even races on this hellish surface? Let’s take a closer look.

Cobblestones have been used for roads for thousands of years because they provide a durable surface that drains rainwater, doesn’t get damaged by freezing, and isn’t too dusty. They were of crucial importance in the Middle Ages when horses and carriages were the main form of transport and became the norm by the 19th century. But we are in the 21st century now and there are much smoother surfaces to choose from. So, why are cyclists insisting on riding on cobbles?

Added difficulty for the pros

Cobblestones, also known as pavé in French, were originally added as a part of cycling races to increase difficulty for the riders. The cobbled sections of these races, with their jagged and sometimes loose stones, slippery surfaces, and unpredictable gaps create a unique and treacherous environment that tests the skills and endurance of the peloton. Some of these races predate even the Tour de France and they are still going strong.

Cobblestone classics

The most well-known are the cobbled classics, 4 races held in March and April that feature many sectors of pavé. Two of these races have risen to the status of cycling monuments and they are so tough that even professional riders often just try to finish, no matter how far behind the winner.

  • Paris-Roubaix: This is the oldest cobbled classic, first run in 1896. It’s often touted as the most challenging of them with 20 cobbled sectors.
  • Tour of Flanders: This is the second of the 2 monuments along with Paris-Roubaix and was first raced in 1913. It’s famous for its short, steep climbs and, of course, many cobbled sections.
  • Gent–Wevelgem: This cobblestone classic runs on the last Sunday before the Tour of Flanders and has been held annually since 1934.
  • E3 Harelbeke: This one was first raced in 1958 which makes it the most recent one but it has fully developed into a prestigious and desirable event.

Now we know what started the madness of cycling on cobblestones. It’s very understandable considering the most famous pavé race was established in the 19th century. The question still remains how has this troublesome cycling surface survived in races to this day? A part of the answer may lie in the thrilling stories that cobblestone races often bring.

Paris-Roubaix, one of the cobblestone classics. © Profimedia

2014 Tour de France, stage 5

The 2014 Tour de France’s stage from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, was marred by rain, which turns the pavé into one an extremely unpredictable surface. Despite the organisers’ efforts to mitigate the chaos by removing two pavé sectors, the wet roads ruthlessly thinned the peloton of several favourites. Chris Froome, the reigning champion, crashed before the first cobbles and abandoned the race after a second fall. Others, like Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen, met the ground too, while Alberto Contador lost time as a result of mechanical issues.

Amidst this battlefield, it was Vincenzo Nibali who danced across the cobbles best, distancing himself from other GC contenders. While Lars Boom seized the day’s victory, it was Nibali, with a blend of luck, skill, and the support of Lieuwe Westra who made the race and ultimately managed to secure the GC victory. One could argue that losing many other GC competitors made the Tour less nail-biting overall but the excitement that cobbles brought on the day is undeniable.

2016 Paris-Roubaix

Mat Hayman had a reputation as a devoted, hard-working domestique who gave up his ambitions of winning races in favour of helping his teammates. But the cobbles of the 2016 Paris-Roubaix brought something completely unexpected – the biggest race win of his entire career. He entered the race as a veteran, seemingly past his prime, who was unlikely to even be in the final sprint. His triumph over the 4x Roubaix champion, Tom Boonen, was nothing short of poetic. Boonen seemed destined for a historic 5th win but instead, we got a major upset.

Several years prior, Hayman was in a winning position but tactical missteps cost him the gold. It appeared that might have been Hayman’s best chance at winning the monument. In 2016, he was older and also recovering from an injury which caused him to train indoors for most of March. Hayman’s unexpected victory stands as a testament to the power of grit and determination.

Impact on cycling culture

Stories like the ones above become a part of cycling lore and draw the new generations to cobblestones. And it’s not just about the riders trying to prove themselves, it’s also the spectators who enjoy the exciting and unpredictable outcomes, and unusual challenges. It seems like no matter whether you’re riding it yourself or watching others do it, pavé has some mythical quality that allows it to survive.

If you’re caught by the cobblestone bug, keep reading. Next time, we will look at how to get ready and conquer this cycling surface even if you’re not a pro.