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At some point this week ahead of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, Rik van Slycke and other Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl sport directors and staffers will huddle over a map of northern France.
Highlighted on the map are the 54.8km of cobblestones that the team’s riders will rumble over in Sunday’s 119th edition of the “Hell of the North.”
Sunday’s race is not only among the most prestigious of the entire season, but it’s also the most challenging. A big part of the Paris-Roubaix puzzle is keeping riders upright and moving forward.
And to do that, racers need wheels. And they need a lot of them.
To make sure the riders have wheels and other mechanical support, Quick-Step and every other team in the race will have a fleet of vehicles shuttling across the chaos and mayhem at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday loaded up with spare wheels and bidons.
“We have VIP cars driven by ex-pros who know the roads,” Quick-Step mechanic Kurt Roose told VeloNews. “They go from point to point and wait on the key sectors. They can pass up bidons and have wheels ready if we need them.”
Part of the map session this week will be figuring out how to move and place the technical support for the team’s eight starters between the diverse and varied cobblestone sectors.
Quick-Step will bring a fleet of vehicles that will zig-zag around northern France in a desperate quest to defy the Roubaix odds and keep the team’s riders pedaling toward the finish line.
As every team knows, punctures, crashes, and mechanical issues can be the difference between winning and losing in any bike race. The stakes are only heightened at Roubaix.
“When we have no mechanical issues, that’s a good day for us,” said Roose, a Quick-Step mechanic for more than two decades. “We cannot prevent all of the punctures or crashes. Our job is to make the right decision at the right moment and to have quick solutions so the racer is back in the race.”
On Sunday, it’s a race within a race to be first in the velodrome.
Paris-Roubaix: A moveable technical feast
For an experienced team like Quick-Step, everyone knows what they have to do. Come race day, it’s all about execution.
For Roose and the other support staff at Quick-Step, Paris-Roubaix is one of the most challenging yet rewarding races of the year. The hours are long, but the rewards are high, especially if one of the riders delivers victory.
The team relies on a network of contacts and former pros to help out on race day. Six vehicles beyond the in-race entourage will travel with spare wheels, water bottles, food, and extra clothing and shoes for everyone.
“We use the same system at Flanders and Roubaix, only with more people at Roubaix,” Roose said. “We will have somebody on every sector of pavé. If it’s a long sector, we will have someone halfway and again at the end,” van Slycke said.
The drivers know the roads and the shortcuts between the sectors, and the team has a plan to have a fleet of vehicles moving along the decisive sectors deep in the race. The ideal is to have someone with wheels and bidons at all the key moments of the race.
A mechanic’s work is never done, and for the sport directors, soigneurs, and other staffers, everyone knows this is one of the biggest days on the calendar.
Testing of the Roubaix-specific equipment of wheels, tires, and other gear began months ago. Roose and his staff already know what they have to build out for wheel selection. Final recons this week will determine the final tire pressure.
“The riders have a feel for the cobbles, and know what they like,” Roose said. “The testing started over the winter and everything will be finalized in the days before the race.”
On Sunday, the entire Quick-Step team will ride 32mm tubeless clinchers for the first time. Tire pressure remains a closely guarded secret.
“Every rider has his own pressure,” said Roose, who has a notebook filled with all the preferred pressures. “When we do the recons, the rider then decides if they want more or less. It depends also on which job the rider will have in the race. A rider like Tim [Declercq] will race with more pressure because most of his work comes on the paved part of the race when he has to chase more.”
There’s no race as complicated and demanding as Roubaix when it comes to bike set-up. Work begins months ago, and Roose and the mechanics are busy with last-minute adjustments and preparation for Sunday.
One significant add-on to the bikes for Sunday is that the riders will use Specialized’s Future Shock system, which provides up to 20mm of travel, and is positioned above the head tube. That helps to ease the punishment on the cobbles, but it can be locked out for stiffer resistance on the paved sections of the race.
Roose also said that the riders will race on the Roubaix frame that is one centimeter longer to give them “more feeling” on the cobbles.
Another change for Roubaix compared to the other northern cobblestone classics is that the smaller 39 front chainring is swapped out for a 44 or 46, due to the flatter Roubaix course compared to the Tour of Flanders, and the higher likelihood of cross- and headwinds in the final hour of the race.
With forecasters calling for dry and fast conditions Sunday, riders and mechanics will be making last-minute adjustments due to final recon rides on the cobbles.
“Before we would use 10 to 20 pairs of wheels. Now we have 100,” Roose said of the demands of the spring classics.
Once all the bikes, wheels, and tires are built out, the biggest challenge comes on race day.
It’s the job of the mechanics, sport directors, and support staff to keep the riders moving toward the finish line with as few mechanical and technical issues as possible.
Crews stay up late Saturday to put on the final touches on the bikes, and then wake up early Sunday to load the cars and head to start in Compiègne.
Under team policy, everyone rides on the same tire width as the designated team leaders. In this case, Asgreen has a very specific tire width that he likes. As a result, everyone else is on the same tire width, so in case they have to swap out wheels with the captains, there are no sudden shocks or surprises.
Tire pressure is something else, and every rider has their preferred pressure. So the following cars will have wheels designated for each rider with their preferred pressure.
“A long time ago, riders used to race Roubaix with 23mm tubulars. When we told them we would use 25mm clinchers on Roubaix, they said we were crazy,” Rouse said. “When the 28mm tires came out, they wouldn’t fit onto the frame of the bike. Now we are 32mm tubeless tires.
“Everything changes in life,” Roose said of the ever-evolving mechanical and technical landscape. “If you are standing still, you get left behind.”
The Roubaix quandary: To swap bikes or replace wheels
Having spare bikes and wheels is critical in a race as demanding as Roubaix.
A puncture midway through the race is a setback, but it won’t prove decisive if there is someone on the side of the road for a quick switch, or if a sport director is following close by in the team car.
A bigger quandary comes later in the race.
Depending on the situation, if a leading rider punctures relatively early and the team car is close by, mechanics will swap out the wheel. If the action is deep in the race, a rider might be given a new bike if they’re hit with a late-race puncture or another mechanical issue.
The problem is compounded by wheels mounted with disc brakes, which take much longer to swap out than with traditional, rim-brake wheels.
The importance of bike changes and how quickly they’re done was illustrated by how last year’s Paris-Roubaix played out.
The then-Ineos Grenadiers rider Gianni Moscon uncorked a long-range solo attack and was fending off a desperate chase group by more than one minute when he punctured on sector 7. With the race hanging in the balance, the team decided to swap out his bike rather than change the wheel.
Moscon remounted a new bike, but immediately seemed to appear off-balance and was struggling on the cobbles on the swapped-out bike. Some wondered if the tire pressure might have been different on the replacement bike, and moments later, Moscon crashed. He was unable to follow when the chase group came through, and he finished fourth at 44 seconds back.
The Italian, who is missing the race this year due to illness after transferring to Astana-Qazaqhstan, said the problem was his legs, not the swapped-out bike.
“I gave everything, and I had a little bit of bad luck with that puncture and I was on the limit,” he said. When you are on the limit, you will make mistakes and crash. And then when they came from behind, I didn’t have the legs.”
Moscon only blamed himself, but it’s that type of last-minute decision that can make or break a race.
The worst-case scenario is seeing a rider caught out without a spare bike or wheel.
For Quick-Step on Sunday, every rider will have four bikes, including the one the rider starts with, and one each on each sport directors car, plus another spare bike in follow cars. Team captain Kasper Asgreen will have two spare bikes on the lead car in the worst-case scenario of multiple incidents stacking up all at the same time.
Roose remembered a few years ago when Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel were both in leading positions in Roubaix. Boonen crashed and swapped out his bike, and then moments later, Chavanel punctured and the team car stopped to swap out his wheel. Up ahead, Boonen crashed again and needed another bike, but there wasn’t one.
Ever since then, the team leader has always two bikes on the first sport director’s car.
Truer words were never spoken, this race more than any other, tests the staff, mechanics, and all the ancillary support the team has. It is a race of unpredictably. A break down here and more than likely, game over. @JumboVismaWomen @LivRacingWT #ParisRoubaix #ParisRoubaixFemmes pic.twitter.com/Kd5bGPClpY
— Phillip Martindale (@phillipm61) September 30, 2021
Examples like that show why the extra fleet of cars is so important Sunday. Due to the chaos that Roubaix produces, the additional wheels and support staff help.
“It’s really important when the bunch splits and the first car is not right behind the leaders,” Roose said. “When we have people on the roadside, the riders can get help.”
In the final days ahead of Sunday’s race, it’s all about pulling together the pieces of a puzzle that began months ago.
The pressure will be on the riders and staff Sunday inside the Quick-Step bus. The team is struggling across the northern classics so far, a big ride Sunday could change everything.
For Roose, Roubaix is his favorite race of the year. He’s been with the Quick-Step organization for more than two decades and has worked on eight Roubaix-winning teams.
“I have a special relationship with Johan Museeuw, but when Niki Terpstra won, I started to cry. Why? I do not know why,” he said. “I think it’s that moment in time that it makes you super happy. All the victories at Roubaix are something special. Each one is special for its own reason.”
The team will deploy four of its mechanics during the race, with one each in the team’s two sport director cars, and two more traveling in support vehicles.
With its additional fleet of support cars and staff, Quick-Step will be hoping for a smooth ride.