Few races place the same emphasis on equipment selection as Paris-Roubaix.
It is still regarded by the manufacturers who supply the peloton as the ultimate testing ground. Katusha and Team Sky will both start with favourites to win the 113th edition, and a radical philosophical difference can be found in their equipment. While Sky supplier Pinarello has developed a new bike for this year’s race, the Dogma K8-S, Canyon is seemingly intent on proving that its machines can be ridden in almost standard trim, even in the most demanding conditions, with no second bike required.
But look closely at the Russian team’s machines, and you will also note a host of different choices even within the parameters of “standard” equipment. The aero bike or the climbing bike? Di2 or mechanical transmission? 40mm rims or 60mm? The fixed, one-piece carbon cockpit, or the greater field of adjustment offered by a conventional aluminium bar and stem?
For Andreas Walzer, Canyon's team liaison to Katusha and Movistar, it is almost entirely a matter of rider psychology. “The riders have to believe, and this is more important than anything else,” he says. “If they are confident that they have the best material, that they have chosen it, that they have changed the position of the levers, for example, then they are ready."
If set-up and equipment choice panders to the rider’s idiosyncrasies, then it is sensible to focus on the peloton’s most idiosyncratic rider. What might be learned about Luca Paolini’s role in Sunday’s race from his equipment choice?
Katusha's road captain, Paolini has been a key figure in Alexander Kristoff’s formidable Spring campaign, and netted a significant victory of his own by winning Gent-Wevelgem. The Italian will ride Canyon’s Ultimate CF SLX, lighter than the heavily sculpted Aeroad CF SLX, and so typically the choice of the German brand’s other ProTeam, Movistar. Indeed, Paolini rides the Aeroad CF SLX at other races.
It is not a desire to save weight, however, that has prompted him to choose the “climbing” bike for a pan flat race; both must tip the UCI scale at no less than 6.8kg, after all. Walzer explains that the geometry makes it slightly “shorter”, affording a more upright position and with it, perhaps, less restricted breathing on the long sections of Paris-Roubaix spent riding on the ‘tops’.
The cockpit is the most obvious example of Paolini’s influence. The headtube is slightly higher on the Ultimate than the Aeroad, Walzer explains. Additionally, the one-piece Aerocockpit CF handlebar was designed for the Aeroad. Paolini has counterbalanced the higher headtube with a negative rise stem that slopes at a dramatic 17-degree angle, and positioned his levers high on the curve of the drops. The final idiosyncracy of the Italian's cockpit is the addition of a brake lever on the tops of a style normally found on flat-barred bikes.
The Katusha team is split in almost equal number between electronic and mechanical shifting for Paris-Roubaix. Kristoff, for example, has chosen Di2, while Paolini will use a mechanical transmission. Both systems are susceptible to ‘ghost’ shifts – gear changes prompted by the jarring of the cobbles – Walzer says, making this another selection likely to have more to do with rider confidence than performance.
The inner chainring is rarely used at Paris-Roubaix, and so the riders tend to have a larger one than normal fitted as an insurance against derailment. When the chain is inevitably shaken loose by the cobbles, it has less distance to fall, minimising the likelihood of ‘chain suck’, and the chain becoming wedged between the inner and outer rings. Most are likely to ride a 53-tooth outer ring with a 44 or 46-tooth inner. Mechanic Chris Van Roosbroeck points out that those wanting a 54-tooth outer will only be able to ride a 42-tooth inner ring; an idiosyncracy of Shimano, rather than the rider. “Something to do with the width of the plates,” he explains.
And the cassette? “They use only four sprockets,” Van Roosbroeck laughs. “11 to 15, and the rest you can take away.” Walzer stresses the importance of access to close ratios at Paris-Roubaix. For other races, the cassette might not be configured with an 18-tooth sprocket between the 17 and 19, for example. “Here, it’s really important to have every gear.”
All of the team will use 27mm tubs mounted to Mavic’s Cosmic CXR deep section carbon wheels. Katusha has used the French brand’s toroidal rim profile since last season, Walzer says. A curved spoke bed has been widely adopted for its greater stability in crosswinds since HED’s patent expired. Wind conditions will dictate whether Paolini and his colleagues opt for the 60mm profile pictured, or a shallower 40mm depth.
Traditional box section, aluminium clincher rims, supplied by Ambrosio, historically, were still used for the cobbled Classics as little as three years ago, but carbon wheels have rapidly become de rigueur. Wider tyres are said to offer greater comfort with little in the way of increased rolling resistance, and rims have become wider to offer better ‘seating’ for a broader tyre. A further benefit of a wider rim is said to be a smoother interface between wheel and tyre and so superior in aerodynamic terms; abundantly clear on Paolini’s machine. Walzer points out the Aeroad CF SLX has greater tyre clearance than its predecessor: a development driven by the consumer market and a trend for wider tyres as an aid to comfort, rather than by performance concerns.
Tyre pressures are perhaps the most important technical consideration for Paris-Roubaix. They are a closely guarded secret, but expect some riders to run as little as half the pressure they’d use for a conventional race. Deciding upon the correct pressure involves balancing the need for comfort and compliance on the comparatively short period spent on the cobbles (circa 53km out of 253.5km) with the need for speed on the tarmac sections that predominate.
If the purist might be disapointed that a racing bike in standard trim might now be considered competitive at Roubaix, with none of the other bespoke solutions historically rolled out for the most demanding of all races, Canyon is unlikely to share the taste for sentiment. Indeed, just two of Katusha's eight-man squad had even askedVan Roosbroeck for additional bar tape when Rouleur visited the team's hotel on the Friday before Roubaix, and the most obvious sign that a cobbled race lay ahead, apart from the tyres, were the beefy aluminium bidon cages.
The modern racing bike is a versatile machine and developments considered for the general good – wider rims and tyres, for example – are well-suited to the peculiar demands of the pavé. Canyon's theory – one or two bikes to rule them all – will be tested to the limit on Sunday. Should Kristoff deliver a widely expected victory at Roubaix on a bike on which he has won flat stages of the Tour, a blow might be struck for modernity. This, however, is not the whole story. Close examination, of Paolini's machine especially, reveals that with a race as savage as l'enfer du Nord in prospect, riders will seek any mechanical advantage to lessen the repeated blows of the cobbles. The pavé, as always, will have the final word.