Unsolicited Advice

Every April, the cycling press unleashes a slew of Paris-Roubaix tech articles in a barrage so heavy, so relentless, it makes the shelling that northern France received during World War I look like a passing shower. These articles became all the rage in the early 1990s, when pro teams got the wild hair to start throwing mountain bike parts on their rigs for a few days a year in search of some relief from the cobbles. Apparently, deep down, even the most effete Euro-pro in the disco had a soft spot in his heart for purple anodized, CNC machined parts. And RockShox.

Things have calmed down a bit equipment-wise since those heady days, but the relentless pounding of tech articles from Roubaix hasn’t slowed a bit. And that’s OK. They discuss an always-interesting mix of new technology, like making a carbon fiber bike that’s a centimeter longer with a higher rake carbon fork to smooth out the ride, and old tried-and-true technology, like making a bike that’s a centimeter longer with a higher rake fork to smooth out the ride. Hey, wait a minute…

Despite the plethora of articles meticulously detailing longer bikes, brand new forms of Zertz-No-More-Hurtz-Insertz, tied-and-soldered wheels, and hand-made tubulars aged with more care than vintage Bordeaux, it seems to me that while they fawn over the more high-profile modifications, most amateur racers overlook the one little Paris-Roubaix tweak that could actually make a significant difference in their own racing.

Probably because it costs about $16, required virtually no “R&D time,” and doesn’t have that sepia-toned, Rapha-catalog charm of beekeeper’s wire and a soldering iron.

So what is this divine secret of the Hell of the North? And why bring it up now, some weeks after closing the book on that event? Well, racing-wise, this past weekend wasn’t just the Tour of Romandie. In the MABRA zone, it was time for the local incarnation of that annual mainstay of amateur racing circuits nationwide: the race with a token stretch of rough, potholed gravel road. It’s a nice course all around, and we give the organizing club a lot of credit not just for a great course, but also for steadfastly resisting the urge to put “Roubaix” in the name. Because that’s lame. Anyway, as the race’s numerous tales of glory have circulated via the Internet (which is now apparently about 20% cycling, 78% pornography, and 2% other) and group ride chit-chat, a single common theme has emerged: racers’ fundamental inability to keep their water bottles attached to their bicycles when the road gets rough.

Numerous tales of woe – of desperation, dehydration, and surrender – resulted from this malady. As did inspiring stories of redemption, the kindness of strangers, the brotherhood of the road, and angelic saviors in the feed zone. I’d imagine similar recounts haunt every district to have such a race, but really, it’s all kind of unnecessary.

The solution, as we hinted above, is simple, and cheap. Cheap enough that you, too, can live like a pro, hoarding a special technology in your service course until that one time per year you break it out for that special race. You can even take pictures of it and write an article, if you want. Send it to cyclingnews.com, or VeloNews.com. They’ll eat it up.

Here’s how to do it: Go to almost any bike shop and buy two of the most inexpensive, bog standard stainless steel bottle cages you can find (no, not carbon, not resin, not aluminum, not scandium, not magnesium – Steel). They should run you maybe $10 a piece, or about $40 less per cage than the sexy carbon ones that sent your bottles into the woods on the first lap. Before mounting, squeeze the upper and lower portions of each cage together, far enough that the steel sets in the “farther closed” position when you let go. Now put them on your bike. Does the bottle feel tight? If not, take them off and bend them farther until it is. If you go too far, bend it back the other way. And if you want to be really obsessive, wrap the top part of the cage with a few turns of hockey tape for grip. Then put them back on the bike. I can’t stress enough how important that last step is.

Done properly, your bottle should stay put as much as you’d want, unless you do something ridiculous that you shouldn’t really be doing anyway, like falling over or running broadside into livestock. The tradeoff, of course, is that it’s a little harder to get the bottles in, but compared to riding in the dust and heat with no water, that’s the least of your problems. Sure, keeping your water bottles for the whole race might take a certain element of drama out of your race report, and the steel (and the water bottle) will add those couple of grams to your bike for those rollers just after the gravel. But on the other hand, you might get a good result if you have something to drink, and you won’t become known as the peloton beggar.

So there you go, trickle down technology straight from Paris-Roubaix to you. It’s not glamorous or new, but it’s far more useful than overpriced tied and soldered wheels, far quicker and less smelly than gluing on special tires, and far less frustrating than trying to convince your girlfriend to stand beside a hot, dusty road in your ratty wind vest with a cooler full of water bottles. Pure, simple, and utilitarian. What could be more pro than that?