Pretenders. Out of their element. That’s how some of the biggest names in cycling will feel as they toe the line in Ypres on Wednesday, staring down the barrel of a mini Paris-Roubaix, armed only with skinny arms, big lungs, and hope — always hope — that they won’t crack like eggs against the stones.
The stage to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut will take in only 15.4km of pavé, less than half of distance tackled in the April classic. Many of the toughest sectors will be skipped; many of the toughest riders will be reined in by team duties. But the cobbles of northern France are never easy, and the race within the race, the one between the pavé pretenders — the GC men far out of their comfort zone — may be the best of the day.
Nothing could be worse than a flat or a crash. Where bad luck may end one day in April, on stage 5, it could easily ruin the month of July. Teams are understandably cautious, unquestionably conservative. Most will use the same equipment relied upon at Paris-Roubaix. Trust, more than anything, is what predicates equipment selection for the stones.
The small men honed to summer’s climbs rarely venture north in March and April. With a few notable exceptions — Bradley Wiggins and his top-10 this year, for example — they’d much prefer another week at a southern training camp. But behind those GC men are staff and domestiques with experience on the pavé, a group whose proficiency in the classics will need to be tapped to get inexperienced climbers across the cobbles unscathed.
Alberto Contador is not a man for the northern classics, but he did ride admirably the last time the Tour tackled cobbles, in 2010, gaining time on rivals both inside and outside his own team — notably Lance Armstrong. Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff squad will draw confidence from that ride, and from the team’s run at Roubaix. Contador himself will be on a bike setup prescribed by riders like Matteo Tosatto, seventh at Roubaix in 2012, and by his experienced mechanics.
Contador will ride a Specialized S-Works Roubaix with 28mm FMB tubular casings wrapped in a proprietary rubber developed by Specialized — the same tires his team used in April. He’ll use the company’s flexy Cobl Goblr seatpost as well.
Mechanics would not divulge his tire pressure, and the exact number will surely depend on Wednesday’s weather forecast (as of Tuesday evening, it called for rain), but the 132-pound Contador will surely run much lower than his 175-pound classics-specialist teammates. Those big men typically have between 55psi and 70psi in the front tire and 60-80psi in the rear. Small riders like Contador could run as low as 50psi up front.
Trek hasn’t changed a thing since April. It simply drove a truck down from the team’s service course in Belgium, about an hour away, full of Domane frames and FMB 27mm tubulars.
“We’ll be on full Roubaix setup,” said Trek Factory Racing’s technical director Jordan Roessingh “All the bikes will be identical to what we raced at Roubaix. Fabian is actually on the exact same bike he raced Roubaix on.”
Garmin-Sharp riders, including GC man Andrew Talansky, will ride the Cervelo R3 Mud frames used at Paris-Roubaix, combined with Mavic Cosmic Carbone and M40 wheels and FMB Paris-Roubaix tubulars.
Chris Froome will surely be ruing his Tuesday crash, which saw him finish the day in a wrist brace, as the race hits the first cobbled section. He has riders like Geraint Thomas to guide him through the cobbles, and will ride the same setup used by Thomas and Wiggins earlier this year.
The team’s Pinarello Dogma K frames are designed with a slightly softer ride and increased tire clearance, both of which will be sorely needed. Froome runs a modified Di2 climbing shifter, attached to his handlebar tops, in regular stages. That shifter will remain on his cobbled bike. Sky will also use FMB Paris-Roubaix tubulars, in 27mm width.
Sky riders will change gearing as well, running the 54/44-tooth chainring combination popular at Paris-Roubaix. The smaller gap between big and small rings helps shifting on the cobbles, and there’s no need for a smaller little ring on the flat course. Most teams will run standard 53/38 chainring setups.
Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana-flavored Specialized will be nearly identical to Contador’s Tinkoff edition. Astana rode Roubaix with an older, slightly smaller version of the FMB/Specialized collaboration tires, but has moved to the latest version, 28mm instead of 27mm, for the Tour stage. All the favorites will use standard carbon wheels, forgoing the aluminum Ambrosio rims that were still common at the Tour’s last cobbled stint.
The GC men will have the best equipment, and the best teams around them. For a few, it won’t be enough. All that’s left to do is hope.