Guest Article by Frederick Lippens: Riding on Cobblestones

Frederick Lippens spends a good mile of his commute rolling over cobblestones. While most of us don’t have commuting routes that rough, there are some good tips to share, so Frederick offered to write an article about his experiences. I’ll add some of my observations at the end, since just under a mile of my own commute (including the street right in front of my house) is on 1920s-era cobblestones.

cobbles1

Frederick:
On my daily commute in Antwerp, Belgium I have about one mile of cobblestones, which is not disturbing because it’s quite short and more of a welcome variation. Some people think they are remains of Roman roads; well, most are not, although a few of them still exist and are even still in use. But believe me: you don’t want to try those; just take a close look at Via Domitia, a preserved stretch in Narbonne (South of France):

via domitia

But it is true that quite a few of these roads still follow the original itinerary; they just put a new layer over it — why bother building a completely new road?

Enough history, let’s get down to business.
What do you do when it’s a longer stretch…what’s the best way to tackle a road like this?
Is there a secret recipe telling you how you should do it? Some just fly over them while others have to visit the dentist for new dentures after a stretch of these cobblestones.
There are different ways to approach this problem:
– weight plays a role; heavy bikers have less problems because they are more steady
– contrary to what most may think, you must remain seated, stay on your saddle — that way you have more control
– if it’s really a long distance you might consider deflating your tires a bit (more comfy that way)
– a curved fork is better than a stiff straight-bladed fork as is a frame that is less stiff (so people with bent forks and wobbly frames have an advantage)
– riding faster is better because it ‘flattens’ the road surface, you ‘float’ from bump to bump
– of course do not try the ‘ride faster method’ when it is wet, because cobblestones are very slippery
– always make sure you wear a helmet

more cobbles

The fact that these cobblestones are so slippery when wet is something I learned the hard way when I was young, but there is one big advantage when you fall on a surface like this. You don’t get any abrasive wounds as you would get on tarmac or even worse on gravel.

If you don’t know where you kidneys are located, believe me, you will be able to pinpoint them exactly when you have tried a nice stretch of cobblestones.

Still they have a certain charm; think Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, … … aaah, la douce France.

Jack:
When cobblestones are wet, they are tremendously slippery. The rough surface and all those nooks and crannies trap water, grit and oils right at the surface, and in some cases the road will become almost as slick as ice. I’ve seen many a cyclist go down on the cobblestones in Tampa…the tiniest bit of moisture is enough to cause concern. Riding steadily at a moderate pace seems to be the trick — no sudden accelerations or braking, no hard steering efforts…sort of like driving on snow or ice (I know what you’re thinking: “what does a Florida resident know about driving in snow?”). Lowering your tire pressure is good for a little extra contact patch, as is swapping out skinnier road tires for something a little meatier (28mm or 32mm tires are nice).

These techniques apply for any rough road surface — whether it is old, cracked asphalt or “chip and seal”. My favorite “tip”, though, is to use your imagination: I like to pretend I’m in the Paris-Roubaix on the stretches of cobbles. Taking your mind off the incessant rattling is a good thing!

even more cobbles


9 Comments

  1. Iron Man September 19, 2008 6:01 am 

    Or do like Bobke and head for the ditch. :)

  2. Ghost Rider September 19, 2008 6:30 am 

    That would be cheating! Take your bumps like a man, I say.

  3. Val September 19, 2008 9:24 am 

    The fatter your tires are, the better off you will be in these conditions. Balloon bikes rule!

  4. Raiyn September 19, 2008 1:08 pm 

    @ Jack
    This is rather nitpicky, but Tampa doesn’t have cobblestones. They have brick, most commonly made by Augusta Block. The technique is the same, but the material isn’t.

  5. Ghost Rider September 19, 2008 1:55 pm 

    You’re right, it IS nitpicky! Sounds like a traffic engineer talking 😉

    In the U.S., such brick streets are commonly referred to as “cobblestone” even though it is a different material. Cobblestones are typically granite blocks…and in Tampa there is a little bit of that, but primarily red brick and some weird blocks that look for all the world like they’re made of compressed asphalt and pea gravel (such as the street I live on).

  6. Frederick September 19, 2008 5:51 pm 

    In Brussels they changed a lot of cobblestone street to tarmac because these cobblestones (more than a handful of granite each) were often used in protests as projectiles. You DO NOT want to get hit by one of these, riot helmet or not.
    Roman roads still cross Europe nowadays and in some case have been transformed to bicycle paths.
    Anyway cobblestones can be a pain, it just depends on how you approach them.
    Just use, like Jack put it, use your imagination!

  7. Raiyn September 20, 2008 12:25 am 

    @ Ghost
    “Real” cobblestones? Whereabouts in Tampa? I’m not really doubting you, but it must be a really small section on the spendy side of town, ’cause I don’t remember seeing them when I lived on that side of the bridge. Augusta Blocks a plenty, but no imported granite.

  8. Raiyn September 20, 2008 12:39 am 

    @ Ghost
    It’s only nitpicky because I watch Paris-Roubaix and Flanders every year. :)

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