General · Tech

Carbon & Cobbles

Conventional wisdom held that the legendary cobblestones of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were too rough for carbon. Zipp’s driving goal was to defy that and build carbon wheels tough enough to be ridden to victory at Roubaix.

The moment of inspiration came during an October 2006 visit to the famed Paris-Roubaix cobble sector at the Forest of Arenberg for wheel testing. Zipp’s Michael Hall prepared to have two CSC riders including Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland ride prototype 303 wheels at full speed on the unforgiving stones.

“We knew this was going to happen for about six months…. We were going to make a rim that wasn’t going to break. We took some of the normal team wheels and we made five or six different types of rims and different layups. We shipped them over and put the tires on. We showed up in Belgium at the hotel the team normally stays at during the cobbled weeks,” Nic James said. “We loaded up and we head off and we do a few of the easier sections. Everything was good. We finally showed up to Arenburg. Fabian Cancellara, who was just coming off winning the world championships in the time trial, showed up and three other rather large Scandinavian riders.

“We unload at the far end of Arenburg. The riders get warmed up and they take off. They could get going down the side on the cart path as fast as they could. Normally there are barricades up for the race.… When there’s not a race, you just ride the cart path and then jump onto the cobbles. Well, they jumped on about halfway down. Immediately they’re stopping. We’re watching them. We start seeing all of them stopping. We start seeing them carrying bikes. We didn’t know what it was until they get back and we realize they had flatted. We changed the wheels out and they went back, and same thing.”

“In about a two hour span for this test, we had broken every wheel we had sent over,” James said. “We had to completely do something different.”

Innovations spawned from that failure included the 303’s wider rim – which ultimately served as the inspiration for Firecrest technology – and Zipp’s exclusive Carbon Bridge™ technology used to protect and strengthen Zipp tubular rims.

Affirmation came in 2010 when Cancellara won the Tour of Flanders aboard Zipp 303s.

“We won the race… everyone was happy,” James remembers. “But Flanders is different. … Flanders is known to have round rocks where Roubaix has the sharp edged rocks. Even though you could win Flanders and all the other cobbled races, Roubaix was still the mountain that had to be climbed.”
A week later Cancellara, again on 303s, won the 2010 Paris-Roubaix. Inspired by the wider rim of the 303, Zipp later that year introduced its Firecrest rim technology. Then came additional triumphs in the Cobbled Classics aboard the Zipp 303. In 2011, Belgian Nick Nuyens won Tour of Flanders. The next year, fellow Belgian Tom Boonen took victories in Flanders and Roubaix.
In 2013, James returned to the cobbles for more testing. Pros from Omega Pharma-QuickStep hit the Paris-Roubaix cobblestone from the famed on le Carrefour de l’Arbre sector at race speed on wheels built with a new carbon layup process. The pros took repeated test runs on the cobbles at race speed, including with lower than normal air pressure, yet the rims remained undamaged. The next year, Dutchman Niki Terpstra would win Paris-Roubaix aboard Zipp 303 Firecrest wheels.
Cancellara - Cobbles 2.jpg

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