The season is just rolling off the startline for the top Tour de France favorites, but one date is already circled on their respective calendars: July 9. This is the date of the 156-kilometer fifth stage at the Tour.
It is also the date that sees the return to the Tour of the treacherous pavé, where months if not years of preparation can be wiped clean with a cruel twist of fate.
Every GC contender knows that a puncture, a split, or even worse, a crash, can doom GC hopes in an instant on the cobblestones. And the tension is already building as the Tour’s top contenders begin to build toward July.
“Personally, I would prefer to not take the risk of racing on the cobbles,” defending Tour champion Chris Froome (Sky) said this week in a press conference in Oman. “I’ve done Paris-Roubaix before, I know what to expect. … From what I understand, cobbles in a one-day race are very different from cobbles in a grand tour.”
Tour organizers have reintroduced the feared cobblestones for the first time since 2010, including 15.4km of the bumpy stuff spread over nine sectors in the closing half of the 154km fifth stage.
The inclusion of so many sectors means that the tension will be ratcheting up as the peloton presses through each section of cobbles. That’s great news for Tour promoters, who are licking their chops at the looming spectacle, but it’s enough to cause the skinny climbers and fine-tuned GC riders to lose some sleep in the coming months.
In fact, it’s the chaos and lottery-like nature of the cobblestones that will create indigestion among some of the GC favorites, who prefer controlled, programmed racing all the way to the decisive climbs and time trials, where they hope to make the winning differences.
Over the next several weeks and months, there will be a steady migration northward of Tour contenders looking to get a taste of the torrid pavé. Most are planning safer reconnaissance missions in training, while others, such as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), plan to hit the cobbles during race conditions.
“I’ve never raced on the cobbles before, so with the stage being an important one in the Tour this year, we are planning on racing in Belgium a bit this year,” Valverde told VeloNews earlier this year. “On the cobbles, it’s more about luck than anything.”
For Valverde, who came flying out of the gates this week with two stage wins in as many days, ahead of the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte (both Sky), at the Ruta del Sol, avoiding disaster is easier said than done. The Spaniard knows how bad luck can turn a Tour upside down. Last year, the “Green Bullet” flew out of the Pyrénées poised for the podium only to see his chances collapse with a mechanical just as the peloton was fracturing in crosswinds in stage 13.
“The most important thing is to become more familiar with the cobblestones,” Valverde continued. “Once the race is on, it’s sometimes a question of luck. The idea is to pass this stage without any setbacks.”
Top favorite Nibali is taking it even a step higher, with Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli telling La Gazzetta dello Sport that Nibali will race the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) for the first time, simply to experience the eye-watering, knee-chattering, high-speed assault of the cobblestones at 50 kph.
So far, no one seems to be wasting time raising the debate about whether or not it’s appropriate to have the cobblestones in a race as important as the Tour.
Detractors mutter that the cobblestones will only provide a circus-like atmosphere, and unfairly penalize anyone who has a bad moment. The last time the Tour featured the cobbles was in 2010, when Fränk Schleck crashed out with a broken collarbone and Lance Armstrong lost more than two minutes to the favorites in what proved to be the beginning of the end for the Texan’s Comeback 2.0.
Tour officials, however, insist that cobblestones are simply part of the cycling landscape, and are appropriate to be featured occasionally in the sport’s most important race.
“The cobblestones will be there, so we have to prepare in the best way possible,” Tinkoff-Saxo director Bjarne Riis told VeloNews. “It doesn’t matter what we think [about the cobblestones in the race]. They’re not going to take them out. We must be ready for them, and we will have a strong team for that.”
To that end, just about every major GC contender is planning cobbles recon in the coming months, including Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, who, in 2010, made it through the cobbles relatively intact to only later see his Tour victory stripped when he tested positive for clenbuterol.
“We will make a camp to inspect them,” Contador told MARCA this week. “It’s important to do it, not only for the race, but also to choose the ideal material for the day, because a mishap or accident can ruin all the work of months.”
That fear, coupled with an already high-tension first week in the United Kingdom and later across northern France, will only compound as the peloton approaches July. There’s no doubt that the cobblestones will alter the character of the Tour. At least one major GC contender will likely see his yellow jersey hopes dashed in an instant. Preparation is one way to lower those odds of losing everything.
While some see the cobblestones as only something to endure, others will do their utmost to turn the screws. In fact, more experienced riders could come out well ahead in the high-stakes casino that stage 5 will represent.
One unlikely figure could be Wiggins, who has perhaps more experience than any of the current GC riders on the cobblestones. The 2012 Tour winner is already planning on taking on Paris-Roubaix this year as he readjusts his priorities with the rise of teammate Froome.
In contrast to Froome, who has only had one touch with the pave, back when he was a neo-pro with Barloworld, Wiggins is quite a steady hand on the cobbles.
What will Sky do if Froome loses two minutes and Wiggins finishes in the front group? That kind of quandary is just the type of drama Tour organizers are hoping the cobblestones will inject into the first week of racing.
Certain teams will have a clear advantage on the cobblestones. Trek Factory Racing, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Tinkoff, and BMC Racing will each bring a fleet of cobble-crushers as part of their Tour nine.
In fact, Cadel Evans won the 2011 Tour — which did not include cobblestones, but rather a classics-like first week — thanks in large part to the protective shell he enjoyed inside the cocoon of BMC’s strongmen in the first half of the race. BMC is sure to bring a few brawny riders to help protect Tejay van Garderen this year in the first week. The team has tapped lean climbers such as Peter Stetina, Peter Velits, and Darwin Atapuma to help in the mountains, but the will also need to bring some muscle to help in the flats. In fact, Thor Hushovd won the cobblestone stage in the 2010 Tour, something that gives van Garderen added confidence as he takes over the mantle of Tour leadership for BMC.
“I also have the advantage that we have one of the best classics teams out there; guys to protect you in the wind and on the sketchy stages of the first week, and obviously it’s going to be a hectic one to start in England and you know there’s going to be some twisty, narrow roads,” van Garderen told VeloNews’ Matthew Beaudin this week in Oman. “And the cobblestones. That’s going to be a big fight. So BMC usually does one of the better jobs of keeping their leaders out of trouble.”
Like his top rivals, van Garderen, the 2012 best young rider, will migrate northward, with a likely recon camp in April.
Preparation is extremely important, but come race day, it will be a matter of selecting the right materials, tightening the seatbelts, and holding on to the bucking bull as long as possible. The rail-thin GC riders cannot wait until that ride is over.