With its temporary late position in the calendar, the 2021 Paris-Roubaix is also forecast to be the first wet race since 2002; a prospect that excites many fans of the race, despite the obvious safety concerns. However, it also adds an extra dimension of brutality to the conditions that the bikes are expected to simply take in their stride, adding rain, mud and slipperiness to the huge forces the bikes are required to deal with.
It’s widely accepted that the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are among the roughest that road bike racing has to offer. Likened by many to more of a mountain biking rock garden than a road, the sectors of cobbles in Northern France are the ultimate test for any bike, but pair that bike with a rider capable of hitting them at 40kph and the forces put through the tyres, wheels and frame are bike-breakingly big.
“Roubaix is not a race where you have fun,” says fifty-year veteran pro mechanic Julien Devriese, who wrenched for such legends as Eddy Merckx and Greg LeMond. “You can work eight days for Paris-Roubaix and all the work can be for nothing by the first cobblestones.”
Cycling has always been a display of impressive leg power, but that doesn’t stop the arms race from taking on an ever-increasing level of importance. Since the earliest days of the race, riders and teams have been searching for a mechanical advantage over their rivals.
In times where the bike’s ability to survive the race wasn’t necessarily a given, the technological advancement was primarily about increasing the likelihood of making it to the finish. For almost the first 100 years of the race, riders and teams looked to things such as stronger tubes to prevent frame failures.
But as time went on, there were also comfort considerations: double-wrapped handlebars; slacker angles and longer wheelbases for comfort; while wider tyre clearances and bigger tyres helped with mud-shedding, comfort, and prevented pinch flats.
This is all beginning to sound familiar.
But in 1991, things stepped up a notch when Greg LeMond and Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle (Team Z) debuted RockShox’s new suspension fork. With 30mm of cushioning, it provided much-needed relief over cobblestones for its users, but this too-fast-paced advancement was met with strong opposition, as road cyclists are wont to do.
Duclos-Lasalle eventually enjoyed the last laugh though, and when he rode his suspension-equipped LeMond to victory in 1992, the technological floodgates were opened. This coincided with an era where technological advancement was gaining traction in all road cycling segments, with Chris Boardman’s Lotus 108 challenging the rules on the track, and various riders beginning to understand the benefits of aerodynamics in time trials.
In 1993, no fewer than five teams and countless individual riders showed up with the same RockShox fork, yet it was Duclos-Lasalle that would win again, beating Franco Ballerini (GB-MG) in a photo finish.
Further bump-smoothing tech would begin to appear, including suspension stems to try and curb the RockShox monopoly, and despite Andrei Tchmil (Lotto) taking victory on a Caloi with, you guessed it, RockShox forks, it would be something altogether more radical that would be remembered almost 30 years on.
Look out gravel fans, there’s a theme brewing
Hopefully by now, you’ve noticed the parallel between early-90’s Paris-Roubaix bike evolution and the trends followed by today’s gravel bikes.
Road bikes with slacker angles and longer wheelbases happened almost a decade ago with the rise of the ‘endurance’ category. Then wider tyre clearances appeared and gravel bikes became a thing, with ‘road plus’ or ‘all road’ filling the gap between the two. SRAM’s recent XPLR launch saw the inclusion of a gravel fork – the RockShox Rudy – which comes with, you guessed it, 30mm of travel. So what’s next?
In that 1994 edition of Paris-Roubaix, it wasn’t the third-straight victory for RockShox that people remember. Nor was it the 67km solo attack that saw the Moldovan Tchmil take victory (impressive as it was). Most memorable was the disappointing 13th place taken by Johan Museeuw (Mapei), for it was his fully-suspended Bianchi road bike that cost him.
Road bike suspension for Paris-Roubaix had truly earned its legitimacy by this point, with two victories on the bounce, so brands looked to the rear of the bike to add an extra level of plushness, and numerous iterations of full suspension road bikes were seen on the start line that year. Duclos-Lasalle and LeMond were aboard custom Clark-Kent titanium frames with a unique softail design, but Bianchi took things a whole lot further.
Bianchi’s bike came at a time where suspension was at its most popular, but its failure sparked the beginning of the end (Image credit: Matt Harvey)
Taking a mountain bike design that was already in development, Bianchi gave its Paris-Roubaix bike a single-pivot swingarm and short aluminium seat-tube-mounted rocker link, which drove a small coil-over-shock, resulting in what can only be described as a mountain bike with drop bars and skinny wheels.
Returning to the gravel bikes of today, one can’t help but think of the full-suspension Niner MCR 9 RDO, which has been around – uncopied – for a number of years already, and the more subtle Reverb XPLR seatpost from RockShox, which offers small-bump compliance in addition to its dropper-post abilities.
However, sadly for Bianchi, that radical design proved too radical – or at least too poorly executed – as it failed catastrophically costing Museeuw a chance at the win.
With less than 24km remaining and lagging behind Tchmil by 41 seconds, Museeuw’s drive-side chainstay snapped clean through. A subsequently botched bike change complicated by a jammed clipless pedal ended his chances at victory (though he would go on to win three times).
Bianchi’s decision to swap the stays from steel to aluminium was the first in a series of poor decisions that ultimately led to its high-profile failure (Image credit: Matt Harvey)
“That was my first full-suspension design for Bianchi, the one that Museeuw rode to eventual embarrassment at Paris-Roubaix,” said Matt Harvey, product manager for Bianchi USA at the time. “I eventually did two designs at Bianchi, but this one was probably the best. [It was] a two-inch short travel design that could be used for cross-country MTB and a road bike. It only had two pivots, relying on the seat stays to flex a couple of degrees, making a much stiffer rear end that didn’t wag around. This was also the eventual problem because a Chromoly rear end can flex thousands of cycles this small amount, whereas the Italian factory, against my pleading, made it out of 6061 [aluminium] without heat treating it.
“There was a pretty sharp bend to clear the chainrings from the pivot point, about three inches back,” Harvey continued. “The problem was when they assembled it, the Dura-Ace bottom bracket was so narrow that the inner chainring was rubbing on the stay so they simply put a rag in the vice and squeezed it.”
This sparked the beginning of the end for suspended bikes at Paris-Roubaix. Even the then-successful RockShox forks failed to gain another victory and eventually fell out of favour.
In 2005, Trek revived road bike suspension (Image credit: Scott Daubert)
Fast forward to 2005, and suspension design was relaunched into the spotlight George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) finished second on a prototype design from sponsor Trek, who again revisited the softail concept.
This concept known as SPA (Suspension Performance Advantage), was developed by Trek subsidiary Klein, and incorporated a simple elastomer-type shock between the seat tube and the seat stays of the team’s carbon frames. Chainstay flex provided 13mm of rear-wheel travel, and the absence of true pivots helped keep the back end in line under power.
Viatcheslov Ekimov was said to be a fan of Trek’s SPA suspension (Image credit: Scott Daubert)
This concept of flex stays is once again being revisited in gravel bikes, with Cannondale’s ‘Kingpin’ technology on the Topstone being one such example.
“The bikes were a success with the riders,” said then-team liaison and current Trek race department manager Scott Daubert. “They claimed that the bikes carried more speed across the cobbles. They also claimed to have better control on the pavé. Our selling point was that they would be less fatigued toward the end of the race but that was hard to quantify. Roubaix takes its toll no matter what.”
So it seemed that suspension was again proven successful in the sport’s toughest one-day event but even so, the concept never took hold.
“I can’t think of any one reason that SPA isn’t a part of today’s race bikes. Distinct tube shapes and specific carbon lay-ups is our current way of thinking. Shapes and lay-ups are more difficult to develop but yield lighter and more efficient frames.”
Back to basics
Indeed, in the years since, the evergrowing understanding and advancement of carbon fibre technology have yielded enormous benefits in a bike’s lateral stiffness and vertical compliance. We joke that every new bike comes with it a tagline of ‘stiffer, lighter, faster and more compliant’, but over the years, each iteration of improvement means that today’s road bikes are truly able to handle the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix without the need for front and rear suspension tech. That’s not to say it’s not still in use, but now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Despite Trek’s foray into suspended stays, the mid-noughties primarily saw a return to basics, with an increased focus on maximising the capabilities of carbon fibre.
The R3 inspired the design of the recent Cervélo Caledonia (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
Cervélo set the bar first with its groundbreaking R3, tweaking the proven formula with 1cm of additional chainstay length plus a generous 50mm of fork rake to maintain proper weight distribution between the wheels. That combination kept all of the responsiveness and compliance of the proven giant chainstay/tiny seatstay design but added the toned-down handling and tyre clearance needed to win cycling’s toughest one-day race. It’s a concept that is still being replicated today and formed the inspiration for
Cervélo’s recently-launched Caledonia.
Fabian Cancellara would earn the R3 its first victory in 2006 with Team CSC, followed by teammate Stuart O’Grady on the same machine one year later.
And then came Zerts, courtesy of Specialized, to much ridicule (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
For the next three years, Specialized dominated the race with its aptly named Roubaix, piloted by Tom Boonen twice and then Fabian Cancellara in 2010. Boonen’s bike featured special geometry to suit his unusually long-and-low position but even the bike’s stock geometry catered to comfort, control and compliance.
There were also some new features integrated into the frame specifically designed to help quell the debilitating vibrations of the cobbles. Zerts inserts, which afforded the first generation plenty of ridicule at its launch, were small elastomers within cut-outs in the carbon frame. They were claimed to allow the carbon to flex more than it otherwise would but in a controlled manner. Specialized stuck by its Zerts inserts for nearly a decade, before dropping it in favour of its FutureShock headset technology.
Turning things up another notch
But where there are cobbles, there will always be a desire to make them smoother, so in the early 2010s, Trek’s Domane introduced IsoSpeed, which featured a pivot point at the seat cluster to facilitate and invite flex, thus allowing the saddle a degree of movement when under the rider’s weight.
Domane’s latest IsoSpeed is hidden into the top tube and allows for a degree of tunability (Image credit: Trek Bikes)
Since then, advancements have included the ever-widening tyre clearances. Anything above a 25mm was a rare sight before 2010, and then sizes up to 27mm began gaining popularity in the early 2010s.
The introduction, adoption, and now near-domination of disc brakes in the pro peloton is in no way directly related to the demands of Paris-Roubaix, but it’s certainly aided the innovation. Without the constraints of a rim brake caliper surrounding the wheel, tyres have been freed from their shackles and have ballooned as a result. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see 30 or even 32mm tyres in the race.
And as bikes have become more and more versatile, there has also been a move away from specialist bikes for the terrain. For example, Trek has integrated its Isospeed decoupler into its aero Madone for added versatility, but even without proprietary bump-smoothing tech, aero models and regular carbon wheels are still in wider use – Mathew Hayman was the first to win on an ‘aero bike’ with the Scott Foil in 2016, for instance.
Even more than ever, it’s the smaller things such as chain catchers, wider tyres, and double-wrapped bars that set Paris-Roubaix bikes apart from those raced at ‘regular’ road races these days, rather than wholesale change.
The S-Works Roubaix, featuring front and rear suspension, propelled Philippe Gilbert to victory at the last race in 2019 (Image credit: Specialized Bicycles )
That’s not to say that companies aren’t still innovating though. Both Specialized, with their S-Works Roubaix, and Pinarello, with their FS, both feature front and rear suspension, and countless bikes offer some degree of flex or bump-absorption.
The Roubaix’s ‘Future Shock 2.0’ system, for example, adds 20mm of travel up front, with an adjustable knob to control travel, while the seatpost is designed to flex at the rear. Canyon’s VCLS seatpost, meanwhile, is designed in two halves that separate near the top allowing it to flex, and Trek’s IsoSpeed has been developed to offer tunable levels of compliance via a sliding wedge.
Meanwhile, the Pinarello Dogma FS (Full Suspension) is a bit more complex, with electronics controlling the suspension movement, which adapts to the road surface. Travel is 20mm at the front – with the unit positioned at the fork crown – and 11mm at the rear, between seat stays and seat tube.
The future is bright, the future is… unknown
With brands beginning to grow their gravel range from a single bike to a multi-model lineup, we are starting to see gravel bikes designed with a greater focus on a single performance factor. Some will focus on off-road capability, others versatility, but many will look at speed, and with that, there’s no ruling out this crop of gravel-race bikes – such as Cannondale’s SuperSix Evo SE or Bianchi’s Impulso Pro – as a possible choice of machine for Paris-Roubaix, especially given it’s often the cobbled sectors where the race is won or lost.
While it’s impossible to say what the next major innovation in Paris-Roubaix bike technology will be, the striking thing at the moment is just how little things have changed overall. Indeed, the bikes have grown lighter, stiffer, more comfortable, and more efficient over the years but at the heart of it, the basic formula has been remarkably constant – a century of refinement (not to mention UCI guidelines) will tend to do that.
Extensive local efforts are in place to ensure that the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are preserved as well as possible. As long as they don’t change, it’s safe to say that that formula probably won’t change much any time soon, either.
Cycling tech for the cobbled classics