Johan Museeuw’s 1996 Paris-Roubaix Colnago

Words by James Startt with Images by Yuzuru Sunada

Johan Museeuw was not a happy camper when I sat with him the day before the 1996 Paris-Roubaix. We were in the courtyard of the Auberge de la Vieille Ferme in a small village on the outskirts of Compiègne, where the “Hell of the North” starts. Examining his Colnago C40, he was visibly frustrated that Ernesto Colnago refused to allow the team to put the then-in-vogue RockShox suspension front fork on the Roubaix bikes. Less than 24 hours later, the Belgian’s mood was markedly different. He had just scored the first of his three victories in the epic cobbled classic and led his Mapei team to a historic one-two-three sweep. Any frustration was forgotten and the C40 would be his bike of choice for much of his career. Museeuw, who still rides more than 30,000 kilometers a year, keeps certain secrets and, even to this day, he refuses to reveal his exact frame geometry. Nevertheless, the “Lion of Flanders” remembers his old bike well and here he talks about why it was one of the sport’s definitive machines:

The Frame: “The carbon C40 I used in Paris-Roubaix was set up with the exact same geometry as my titanium bike and all my bikes. This carbon frame was built back in the day when carbon-fiber bikes used lugs, so we could have the bike fit to measure, unlike today’s carbon bikes, which are molded and come in fixed sizes. Back then, carbon-frame builders were still thinking like steel-frame builders. The lugs also added to the comfort of the carbon frame, which, at the time, was definitely more comfortable than titanium or aluminum. So it had certain advantages.

“The only thing that was different was the amount of carbon that was used in the Roubaix frames, because they had a higher mix of carbon, something that helped shock-absorption. That made the frame a little heavier, but in a race like Roubaix, 300 grams does not change things. Such factors only really count when you are climbing. I have always kept my frame geometry a secret, but I can tell you that I did not change my frame geometry for Paris-Roubaix. That’s stupid. If you race on a certain geometry all year long, you shouldn’t change just for a day, especially for the hardest race of the year.”

Cranks: “During the season I raced on 177.5mm cranks, but in Roubaix I rode 175mm cranks. I have long legs and would sit well back on my bike and preferred longer cranks. But in Paris-Roubaix I needed to be able to pedal through the tight corners found on some of the cobble sections and so I rode slightly shorter cranks for that race and only that race. As for the pedals, I always rode Shimano SPD pedals throughout my career. The main reason was simply because I have very wide feet and the Shimano shoes fit me well. So I preferred to stay with Shimano pedals.”

Gearing: “We were already on Shimano nine-speed. I rode with 53/46 chainrings and a 11–21 freewheel. I always rode with a 46 inner ring in Roubaix because you end up riding in the small ring over certain cobbles and there would just be too much chain play with a 39- or 42-tooth chainring.”

Forks: “There was a lot of experimentation with suspension during my professional years, but there was not a lot of testing. Sure, the suspension was great on the cobbles but people forget that, in Paris-Roubaix, there are 200 kilometers of racing on normal roads as well. Frankly, there are other things you can do to assure stability and comfort on the cobbles, like the choice of carbon in the frame — and, of course, the wheels are very important. But Ernesto’s straight fork worked very well at absorbing shock. In the beginning, it took a little while to get used to the straight forks I remember, especially descending and cornering. But I came to really like them. They were very responsive, more direct, and they were good on the cobbles.”

Saddle: “Unlike shoes, I changed saddles every year and was not very particular. The main thing for me was that it would be wide, as that fit my pelvis best.”

Wheels: “We had the good fortune to ride Ambrosio wheels back in the day, and they were great! I really don’t understand why anyone would race with high-profile rims in Paris-Roubaix. These low-profile rims were ideal for absorbing shock and providing comfort on the cobbles. They are also much better in the wind, something you have to consider in a race like Roubaix. The only reason I can see for riding high-profile rims is to give the wheel builders more publicity. But from a practical perspective, it just doesn’t make sense to me. I am 100-percent sure that low-profile rims are better in a race like Roubaix. We always had the same wheels for Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. We used 32-spoke hubs and actually welded the spokes together. The main reason for that was so that you could still ride on them if you broke a spoke.”

Tires: “Oh, those were the Vittoria Paris-Roubaix special tires. I believe they were 28mm wide and we only used them once a year, for Roubaix. A 28mm tire was just huge for us, but they were great on the cobbles. Tire choice alone plays such a big part in a bike’s suspension on the cobbles — that, along with the wheels. And these were just great! And then of course there is the choice of air pressure, which is so important in Paris-Roubaix. There is so much myth built around the pressure riders chose for the cobbles. I remember I always started the race with 4.5 bars in the front and 5 bars in the back. That would assure maximum comfort and security. Already in a race like Roubaix you will lose some tire pressure, so you can’t go too low at the start.”

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