What makes a great rider of the pavé?
First of all, it’s a rider who is strong and powerful. You have to be pretty heavy, or the cobbles will just hop you all over the place.
And, usually, if you have the weight, you have the power – if you’re any good. You need the power because you have to ride a gear that is higher than normal. You push a bigger gear to get the power down smoothly and keep traction.
Then you have to learn to overcome the cobbles. If you’re Belgian, you grow up born and bred to ride the cobbles, certainly from when you start racing as a teenager. But if you’re a non-Belgian national, you don’t race a lot on those roads. It takes time to know how to do it.
I had ridden the Paris-Roubaix five or six or seven times before the first time I won – and not only the Paris-Roubaix and big races like the Tour of Flanders, but a lot of smaller races in Belgium. There was the Grand Prix de l’Escaut that finished with three laps of a 15km circuit that had a several bad sections of cobbles every lap.
Riding a lot of these smaller races is how you learn to ride and control the bike on the cobbles. Of course, when they’re wet, it’s a different matter…
In the Paris-Roubaix, you sometimes see riders hunting for a flat section in the gutter, while some seem to prefer to ride on the crown in the middle. What’s the best way to ride the pavé?
There’s a trade-off. When it’s dry, it’s much easier to ride on the side, not even on the cobbled surface. But the risk of punctures is much greater – you have all the grit and small stones from the fields there. So you’re conserving energy but you’re risking having to chase back on after having to get a wheel change.
That’s OK early in the race maybe, when you still have all your team around you, but later in the race fractions of seconds become critical. And in the Paris-Roubaix the service cars are always further behind, so you can lose a lot of time. So the safest place from punctures is to ride in the middle of the cobbles. On either side the road is cambered quite steeply, so especially in the wet you have to stay in the middle.
What changes did you make to the set-up of your bike when you were riding the Paris-Roubaix?
The main thing was you ran fatter tyres – and higher, to avoid the risk of pinch flats, which was greater because you rode them softer than you would for a normal race on asphalt. I didn’t change my position on the bike; very few riders did. But some used to put foam padding under the bar tape to absorb the shock. I didn’t; I didn’t like the extra thickness – it’d give me cramp in my hands trying to grasp the thicker bar.
What was your technique for climbing the muurs? You see a lot of riders who sit back in the saddle to get the power down, but sometimes you see a power rider like Boonen who seems to be able to climb the cobbles out of the saddle.
Sitting down, definitely, and keeping the weight to the rear. Most riders can’t do that like Boonen – you have to keep the momentum very smooth, which is difficult on cobbles, and it’s very hard to keep traction. But there are always some who can do it – Eddy Planckaert was one of the few who could climb like that.
Who else did you rate?
[Eric] Vanderaerden, obviously. He had the power. Greg LeMond could have won more of the classics, but he chose to take it easy and concentrate on the Tour later in the season. Steve Bauer was good, too. He could ride the cobbles.
You were always flying in the Paris-Nice, and kept that form through the spring classics. How did you prepare so well?
The good winters in Ireland helped me a lot – all that sun. No, but I seemed to work quite well in the winter. I wasn’t afraid to go out in the weather. It didn’t bother me. I could do 4-5 hour rides in January; I didn’t get cold as easily as some riders.
Also I didn’t need a lot of training kilometres to get into shape. Some riders had to do half as much again. That’s just the luck of my physiology. I didn’t have to do as much to get good condition. And then I always looked forward to the classics. So motivation helped. Those northern classics are a monument in Belgium: you have to have lived there to understand it. And if you can win one, you’re a hero for a long time there.
What does the Paris-Roubaix in particular mean?
I always say it was the most horrible race to ride, but the most beautiful to win.
Was it harder than any other? And which hurt most afterwards– your legs or your arms?
Well, the wrists could hurt a lot. But if you’re riding well, you don’t hurt that much. But it does take longer to recover from the Paris-Roubaix than any other race. The body just takes more punishment than a long but straightforward race like the Milan-San Remo, or even the Liège-Bastogne-Liège which has a lot of climbing in it.
Two or three days after the Paris-Roubaix and the body is still pretty weary. And it can hurt to pee afterwards. Your prostate takes a pounding. A lot of riders complain that you get a burning sensation for a couple of days when you go to the loo.
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