Bikedan: Seven Tips for Riding Rough Roads

If you have been watching the Tour de France this year, you will have notice the carnage that has been happening on the rough cobblestone sections, especially during Stage Three when there was seven sections of rough pavement from hell, totaling 13.2kms.  This is the first time in six years that the 2010 Edition of the Tour de France has included the cobbles, and it blew the peloton wide open with a 12 minute spread of riders.  Riding on rough roads requires a different set of skills and demands on your equipment compared to a normal road race.

One notable winner that emerged from the cobblestones, was Cadel Evans (ex-MTB World Champion) who put his mountain biking skills to good use to finish in the front group. Lance Armstrong was unlucky to have punctured at a critical time and lost some minutes on the front group – however he still remains within contention in his bid to achieve an unprecedented 8th Tour win at the age of 38yrs.  There were also many crashes on the cobblestones – one major one was Frank Schleck who was unfortunate to have broken a collarbone and is out of the race.

Not only the Pro-Tour riders find riding on rough roads difficult, but most riders at the amateur level also find it challenging and I thought it would be pertinent to include a few tips about riding on such roads. I have raced in several rough road races including the Tunis-Roubaix in Texas, the Leesville Gap Road Race in Northern California and some sections of the Tour of Luzon in the Philippines.

Seven Top Tips:

  • Stay fluid on the bike and constantly scan ahead for best line, but if you are in the middle of the peloton this could be difficult to do; so the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to try and get as close to the front of the peloton as you can. After riding on the rough road for a few minutes, the peloton will naturally become spread out and therefore easier to ride your own lines.
  • Try to ride in a bigger gear to keep momentum and for your stability on the bike – you don’t want to bounce around on rough surfaces with a high cadence. The faster you can ride on the surface, the more smoother it will become.
  • Choose a good set of tires that will withstand severe punishment – see my Tunis-Roubaix report for my account of tire failure in the roughest of roads. Currently I am using Duro tires, which have so far withstood the punishment of tough racing at the Tour of Luzon, the Friendship Tour of Thailand and numerous rough roads in China and Taiwan. I will be writing a full-review of the Duro Tires that will be published on this website.
  • Go mountain biking as part of your cross-training program and the skills you gain from riding over tricky terrain should translate well to riding over Roubaix style roads.
  • Depending on the type of road, you will want to vary your riding path. For instance, in the recent Inner Mongolia MTB Adventure, it consisted of many rough tracks and road that required some focused riding skills. One good line was to ride on the groove where it is the smoothest right next to the grass. As for riding on cobblestones, sometimes the most cut up is on the sides which means you have to ride in the centre to ride most effectively.
  • Make sure you have good bottle cages – quite often I see riders losing their bottles once the road turns rough, I have experienced it myself on numerous occasions! Ensuring you have fluids on hand after the rough stuff, means that you can finish strongly rather than dehydrating.
  • Use a strong set of low profile rims – it was noted at the Tour de France that many of the pro riders were using low profile rims to handle the rough sections.

Living here in China, I constantly have to deal with a mixture of roads: from the super smooth dream roads for cyclists to the other end of the scale where roads are littered with pot-holes and large gravel pieces. You just never know what you will get on a long exploring training ride.

If you have any tips pertaining to rough road riding, please let me know.

  • NZMatto

    Ride a Roubaix. With all the dampening you won’t get such an arse pounding. (from experience). Oh, and work out which speed works best for you. I have found at 33 the roughest roads around here are awful, but at about 37 they become smooth. At about 41-42 they start becoming bad again. I guess there is some frequency sweet spot thing that may cause this.

  • Cruiser

    nice one,
    I agree with the higher gear over rough ground, less [arse]pounding happens

    I just noticed you’re deaf olympian, my Dad was NZ Deaflympic president for Los Angeles 85, CHCH 89. Tony W.

  • Saturnreturn

    Get higher TPI tyres….I’m rolling Diamante Pro’s which are 220 TPI. This difference coming from the Rubino pro at 150TPI is nuts. Previously I would avoid the sh*t house West Auckland coarse chip roads when I had 60TPI armadillos….god they are HAAAAAARD. In fact they were so bad I didn’t even want to ride. Now its no problems I personally have gone from thinking about ‘maximum puncture protection’ to ‘maximum speed balanced with comfort’. because of that I’m happy to replace tyres a little sooner than if I had say armadillo’s. You want to be fast but also comfortable too. And most tyres these days are pretty good on the puncture protection anyhoo IMHO.

    Also, hold the tops of the handlebars if you can – easier on the hands (pave’ style). Your butt shouldn’t really be THAT sore….if it is you may have a fit problem or your shorts have a poo chamois!

    I don’t think you need a Roubaix particularly….my Tarmac pro is comfy-as on those harsh roads through the above methods, and that’s STIFF

  • ride bigger tires. 25s will fit most racing bikes. 28 / 32 / 35 on a cx bike are available in smooth tread and not much heavier than 23s but a lot more reliable.

    keep the pressure high if you use clinchers. on gravel especially, most flats are pinch flats; when I ride gravel with my 25s I pump them up 10-15 psi higher than if I’m doing a pavement-only ride. sure it makes the ride a bit rougher but it’s better than standing there sweating to change a flat

    on chipseal, on the other hand, I go with lower pressures – maybe as low as 85-90 psi and I weigh 185.