The Italians call them ‘sampietrini’ – but then they would have a lovely word for them, wouldn’t they? The French go down the more descriptive route, ‘pavé’; while the Germans call them, somewhat sinisterly, ‘Kinderkopf’ (literally, babies’ heads). Cobblestones were the height of civil engineering technology 100 years ago. A mark of a well-to-do street was the fact that you could actually pass down it without getting muddy. Later on, cobbles became a practical solution for farmers who needed to drive carts through muddy fields. For centuries, they have been the easy-to-lay solution for road-builders – but a bugger to ride, drive or even walk across.
The oblong, flat-top Belgian and square French cobbles are quite different to British cobbles, which tend to be smaller and rounder. It sounds a cliché but our continental cousins would laugh in the face of our little stones. There is no doubt, too, that the Flandrians and French are very proud of theirs – indeed, many local authorities in France and Belgium keep the cobbles maintained specifically for the bike racing, with much of the Paris-Roubaix parcours upkept and sometimes rebuilt by the locals to keep the race coming past their farms and villages.
But it is in Flanders where the ‘kasseien’ roads are king. The Flemish are as proud of the square stones as they are of the black lion that adorns their distinctive yellow flag. And rightly so. Much of the Flandrian lifestyle hinges on the wellbeing of the muurs or bergs, which have also been re-laid and maintained for bike racing. Most recently (and impressively – it’s a stonemason’s delight), the steep and twisty Kemmelberg – a section that was once feared for its potholes and vicious camber, which have unseated many a toe-clipped 1970s Classics rider. Oh yes, cobbles can hurt. They are less forgiving than tarmac and the random pattern provides hidden angles and cracks that will have you on your backside quicker than a trip to a roller disco.
The European Union would have a nightmare trying to establish a standard Euro Cobble. Cobblestones vary in size and shape according to what type of stone they are made from, which region they are laid in and the individual stonemasons who work on them. Belgian cobbles are, on the whole, quite uniform and large – usually the size of a small loaf of bread. This means that they can be either bumpy or really bumpy, depending on the gaps between them and how well they have been maintained, although sometimes the effect is mollified by drainage gullies with smoother surfaces at the verge.
Typically, the cobbles appear on the steep hills around the Flandrian area, which makes them especially challenging for cyclists. They are laid neatly in brickwork style and there are often pavements at the edges (for the spectators only, of course) in a different-patterned style.
French cobbles are squarer and a little smaller, laid in a slightly more haphazard way than the neater Belgian ones. They can dip in places where drains or the substrate have subsided. Some sections are so bad, the cobbles look as if they’ve been dropped out of the sky – ‘random’ is the best way to describe them. They are also (in the case of Paris-Roubaix) mainly laid on the flat roads between fields, villages and farms. In the dry, they have smooth side-sections of hard-packed dirt. The riders file in and ride one behind the other in relative safety. In the wet, these turn into a filthy slush, and in the cold, they become an ice rink. French cobbles are treacherous.
English cobbles are smaller still, yet equally lethal in the wet. They are usually laid with an extreme camber to help drainage – making them even more lethal. Occasionally, in old city streets, patches of cobbles can be seen exposed beneath a patch of crumbling tarmac – the skull beneath the skin. Mainly, though, they survive nowadays because of their heritage value: royal mews and breweries have kept them because they are quaint. The Lincoln Grand Prix is the only big cobbled race in the UK and includes several ascents of the brutally steep Michaelgate to the Cathedral. Very pretty it is, too – but it is a climb your average Belgian ’berg racer would snort at.
Italian cobbles are reserved chiefly for pedestrian city streets and piazzas. They are for walking across while licking a gelato; Italians would never think of racing over them. Why would they? That is a north European perversion. Interestingly, ironically even, cobbles are often laid these days on city streets to prevent cycling or at least to slow us down. How times have changed.
Cobbled and dirt road surfaces shaped the early days of cycle racing, influencing the bikes and the types of racers who rode and won. The modern road cyclist takes a metalled road for granted, but, in the early days of road racing, there were few concrete or tarmac roads to give those early racers any respite from the relentless, energy-sapping cobbles and dusty (or muddy) tracks.
The parcours of these original races are why they remain popular with the spectators and make classics such as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix such incredible spectacles. They are dangerous; they are troublemakers – and you should avoid them if you are riding your bike. Don’t even think about the tramlines and the cracks that appear between the concrete slabs in some Flandrian roads, wide enough to slot a bicycle wheel into. All these things have made great men weep.
John Loudon McAdam was the man who many 60kg Spanish and Italian climbers should thank for putting paid to the cobbled streets of Europe. At the turn of the 19th century, this dour Scotsman, a latter-day Flahute himself, realised that drainage was the key to a decent, hard-surfaced road. He covered his roads with a thin layer of stones on the top surface. In Paris in 1854, with the addition of tar to the mix, the French created the perfect solution – tarmac.
Across Europe, tarmac roads between towns quickly became the norm, yet the major wars meant that many mountain passes and Flandrian hillsides remained unchanged. It is these preserved cobbled tracks that provide the stage for the ‘monument’, early-season, northern classic races. Harder surfaces and steeper cobbled hills meant faster racing and eventually huge pelotons of pro riders were flying along the tiny lanes. Ask a pro rider how to ride the cobbles and the usual response is ‘the faster you go, the easier they are’. Easy for them to say.
These days, the cobbled sections are groomed for the Classics; they form the locale for the set-piece battles where the races are won and lost. The very first races, however, were run over far more hazardous roads than even the cobbles could provide. Mud was the main problem. A wet winter would mean a quagmire, and a cold one at that. Plenty of punctures came, too, from the tiny stones used to dress the largely unmade roads of northern Europe. Cobbles were actually a welcome change for riders to sliding around. Road riding before the First World War was actually more like mountain bike racing, but on a fixed wheel, with no brakes to speak of and, to add insult to injury, really awful tyres.
Relaxed seat angles were once the way to approach dodgy road surfaces, as they allowed for stability and easy, slower steering. Until the 1960s and ‘70s, this was the way for all race bikes. Then Italian designs introduced tighter geometry and less comfort, especially when you were racing the pavé. A contemporary road bike has to have a solid build to survive a northern Classic. The mechanics from the pro teams always double-check that bolts are tight and tyres are pumped hard – but not too hard – just right.
Tyres are a couple of millimetres wider. Bar tape is thicker. Maybe a carbon seatpin is swapped for a heavier but more crashable aluminium version. But that’s about it – basic, no frills. Suspension forks have been, and gone (we can forgive Duclos-Lassalle and Tchmil these minor indiscretions), but a modern road bike is not really the thing to ride across bumpy roads.
In the Tour of Flanders, the final two climbs are where the final selection is often made: the Muur de Grammont and the Bosberg [it's since changed; this article from Rouleur 2 was published in August 2006 - Ed.]. So this is where I took photographer Ben Ingham, to capture the scene. ‘Sans coureurs’, so to speak. These are on narrow lanes and it is difficult to find a clear line through once the whole pack has funnelled into the first 300m. In the rain, you can easily slip, and walking the final few metres can often be the result. Once the first 30 riders are away, you have little chance of seeing them again.
These roads don’t make for easy chasing: gaps appear; riders struggle to hold the wheel in front; stronger men can remain in groups detached from the main peloton; frustrated and isolated, they ride on or decide to take an early ride to the showers. Luck and position are as important as a good pair of legs and a strong team.
There are really only two Classic cobbled races that the stars need to win: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Both are around 300km long and take six or seven hours, more for some. They are truly gruelling courses, held in the usually dubious, mostly unpredictable weather of the north European spring. They are about as far from the sun-drenched glamour of the Tour de France as you can imagine; it’s almost like a different sport.
However hard these races remain, the cobbled classics were perhaps at their grimmest in the post-First World War era. The 1919 version of the Hell of the North was exactly that. As the riders processed through shell-damaged and deserted towns that were once the height of excitement on race days before the conflict, barely anyone watched the race. The racers’ hearts could hardly have been in it as they flew past the bloodstained trenches. In Belgium, the fields of Flanders were still littered with corpses.
Many of the stars of the time had been lost fighting at Ypres and, further south, at the Somme. Racing in the Spring of 1919 must have felt futile. A football game would have had a minute’s silence, yet the players would not have to relive the war through their endeavour, with a journey through the places of battle, as the riders of the 1919 Roubaix and Flanders had to.
Some of the best racers were lost during the Great War: Tour winners such as Octave Lapize, Lucien Petit-Breton and François Faber, and the one-day classics specialists, such as Frank Henry, Emile Engel, Edouard Wattelier and Marius Thé. They were all huge stars at a time when cycling was the biggest sport in Europe – and the only sport worth speaking of in Belgium. It was like losing the top ten favourites for the 2006 Tour de France; cycling felt the loss terribly. Reminders of the carnage are there to this day: at the foot of the dreaded Kemmelberg (a springboard for many Tour of Flanders breakaways) is a mass grave of 5,295 unidentified French officers and soldiers.
During the 1920s and 30s, the Belgians dominated the Classics, a scenario that prompted one journalist to muse: ‘Why do the French still insist in taking part in these races made for Belgians?’ The Italians were not much use at them either; they did not manage a win at Roubaix until 1937 with Jules Rossi, who beat a whole group of Flemish-speaking riders with some suitably flamboyant attacking. It took the Italians 12 more years to get a win at Flanders, with the equally showy talent of Fiorenzo Magni in 1949. The Nazis wanted normal life to continue through the Second World War, so Paris-Roubaix was run, albeit in inauspicious circumstances and even, in one event, during a bombing raid.
Let’s not forget Britain's first Classics win too. Tom Simpson added his name to the list of great riders who have won the Tour of Flanders in 1961. His record was honourable at the Ronde: he managed 5th in 1962, and 3rd in 1963. Living in nearby Ghent and speaking their language, he was accepted by the Flandrians as one of them. No wonder he felt at home in a place where just riding well in the Ronde was like being on the winning team in an FA Cup final.
The ‘70s was the golden age of Classics racing, but, contrary to popular opinion, Eddy Merckx did not have them all to himself. A wide range of hard bastards took on the classics with appropriate gusto, as the film of Paris-Roubaix, A Sunday in Hell, so beautifully captured. Jørgen Leth’s epic made Roger De Vlaeminck, Marc Demeyer, Hennie Kuiper and Merckx look like ballet dancers, rather than the beasts they really were.
Francesco Moser and the Italians re-emerged from time to time, especially during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Gianni Bugno even won at Flanders (which must have been the only time he managed a decent day’s bike-handling – he wasn’t known for his road craft). But it was a man from Ireland, Sean Kelly, who was the real ‘patron’ of the Classics in this era. He and Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle were the last in a long line of flahutes, real strongmen, the like of which we may never see again.
More recently, local boys have taken over again. Peter Van Petegem seemed to ride through, rather than over, the cobbles, and the ‘Lion of Flanders’ himself, Johan Museeuw, dominated the turn of the century. He was so a graceful a rider, he seemed to be riding smooth tarmac while other bounced around on the cobbles. Magnus Backstedt confirmed that a big guy can still hurt the little guys across the pavé. And now Tom Boonen looks set to dominate, as Merckx did.
It’s hard to believe now, but winners of the Tour across several generations once actually took the classics seriously. Fausto Coppi, Bernard Hinault and the Greg LeMond all did very well in the hard races of the north – and they gained massive respect from the local folk, who were hardly easy to impress. Coppi’s delicate, fluid style, LeMond’s tactical genius, and Hinault’s combative instinct… It wasn’t the usual fare for a Tour winner in April, and they made many new fans because of it.
But whoever you are and wherever you are from, one thing is certain: if you win a cobbled classic, you’ll never have to pay for a beer in Belgium again.
Know your cobbles
The first Belgian cobbles appeared in the 17th century. Later, during the rule of Maria Theresia (1740-1780), the first stone public roads were built. The type of stone used is like a geological record of when that section was laid.
Porphyry was a Neoplatonic philosopher from the 3rd century (AD), but porphyry is also an igneous natural rock found in Belgium (and many other countries). It therefore furnished the material for most of the old roads. It’s tough stuff and is shock- and frost-resistant. Many of the older sections in the Flanders region are made with this as the main material. It comes in a variety of colours, but the Belgian brand is usually speckled and grey. And slippery when wet.
Sandstone or Gres
The more modern cobbles at the hellish ‘Wall’ – or Muur de Grammont – at Geraadsbergen, are made from this stuff. It’s not as tough as porphyry but is (slightly) less slippery when wet. It, too, is grey.
Norwegian and Swedish granite are now used in Belgium and most of Europe. This has sharper edges and is harder-wearing and less likely to crack. Grey also, but available in a few other shades. It is commonly used in pavements and ‘modern’ patterned driveways. Slippery? Oh yes.
This article originally appeared in issue 2 of Rouleur, published in August 2006.