When Tuesday July 7
Impact on overall: 3/5
Where are we?
Stage four puts France back into the Tour as we cross over the border from Belgium a little over half way through the day.
Start host Seraing, in the Walloon, French-speaking part of Belgium, is an old steel town, and makes its fourth appearance on the Tour route having last been used as the stage finish of stage one at the 2012 race, when Slovakia’s Peter Sagan won his first Tour stage. Cambrai, meanwhile, has featured as a start town twice before, and makes its debut as a stage finish this year.
This part of the world is known in cycling for being Paris-Roubaix country — the annual cobbled one-day race nicknamed the ‘Hell of the North’ — so at this point of the race, the hot, sunny climes and climbs of the Alps and the Pyrenees will still feel like a long way off.
What’s on the route?
Christian Prudhomme and his organising team bring us a second day of paying homage to the one-day Classics of the area. Whereby stage three brought us a flavour of the Ardennes Classics, stage four gets even more serious with a re-creation of the cobbled Classic Paris-Roubaix — sections of which are covered on the stage.
It’s all about the terrain today — and it’s not dissimilar to last year’s cobbled fifth stage between Ypres and Arenberg. Having captured the imagination of both fans and the media by taking the road less travelled for the first time on the Tour since 2010, the cobbles are back on the menu for the second year in a row.
Stage four uses seven ‘sectors’ of cobbles, four of which are among the 27 sectors used by Paris-Roubaix, totalling 13 kilometres of the rough stuff versus the 57.5km used in this year’s Roubaix. So, y’know, it can’t be that hard, can it?
Believe us, that’s more than enough to do some damage, as Luxembourg’s Fränk Schleck discovered in 2010. Like this year, ‘just’ 13km-worth of cobbles faced the riders on stage three from Wanze to Arenberg, but after Schleck hit the deck on the third of seven pavé sectors, his race was over courtesy of a broken collarbone.
Expect more of the same when it comes to the cobbles’ illustrious past: heroic rides, race-ending crashes and general mayhem. Riders will be literally fighting to be at the front — the safest part of the race — ahead of each of the seven sectors of cobbles, and the pavé specialists like three-time Roubaix champion Fabian Cancellara, 2014 Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra and this year’s winner John Degenkolb will stake everything on a stage win.
When it comes to the main contenders for the overall title in Paris, they’d have done well — although it’s a bit late now — to have done what Movistar’s Nairo Quintana did. The little Colombian climber spent a week in March riding Belgian one-day races that featured cobbles, and such swotting up will have done him no harm whatsoever for when it comes to getting through stage four.
En route to overall victory last year, Vincenzo Nibali showed that he was comfortable on any terrain, and demonstrated a natural ability for the cobbles on stage five.
Nibali took more than two-and-a-half minutes out of race favourite Alberto Contador, while the other race favourite until that point — defending champion Chris Froome — didn’t even get to feel the good vibrations of the pavé. He crashed twice before the stage had even reached the cobbles, exacerbating a wrist injury from a crash the day before, and quit the race before the first week was even up.
The Tour de France 2015 route