For some in the peloton, riding on the cobbles is natural, normal, an ordinary thing they do in races multiple times a year. For these riders a stage like Wednesdays’s poses no extreme problems, especially if it is just a battle between Classics specialists like themselves. Sure, a cobbled race can be chaotic, but it is something they are used to.
However, a Tour de France stage that goes over the pavé of northern France is a completely different beast. It is not just the strong riders who will be racing, not just the roulers like Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), the two most recent Paris-Roubaix winners in this peloton.
When the Tour tackles the cobbles, it means the lightweight climbers like Nairo Quintana and Adam Yates have to ride it too. It means general classification riders being forced out of their comfort zone on parcours not suited to them, on terrain where any mistake could cost them time or cause them to crash out of the race.
This is the worry for riders aiming to win the Tour overall, to stand stop the podium in Paris, that the pavé will cause an accident that ruins their whole three weeks. In 2014, it was Chris Froome who suffered as defending champion, crashing out even before the cobbles and ending his race early. Richie Porte did the same in 2018, hitting the deck even before the race got off the tarmac. This is the fear.
There might be just 19.4km of cobbled sectors tomorrow, or 35% of this year’s Paris-Roubaix, and there might be no five-star sector, but it could well be crucial in the fight for yellow.
Ben O’Connor, AG2R Citroën’s Australian, who finished fourth last year, is preoccupied with survival over everything else on Wednesday.
“I just know that in 2018 most of the GC guys finished together,” he explained before stage four. “I know Romain Bardet had like five punctures, three changes of bikes and he finished 10 seconds behind.
"That’s a good example to show that it’s more of a danger for crashing, and crashing out of the race, rather than actually losing time. It takes a very concerted effort to finish. It’s just an important thing to remember. I’m not really too nervous for tomorrow now; I will be s**tting myself tomorrow."
“I’ve seen them before [the sectors],” O’Connor continued. “It was nice to do them. As all of us have really, we’re all in the same boat. This week it’s about minimising errors, not getting lost in the wind, trying not to crash and then get to the mountains.”
The 20km of cobbles has preoccupied some GC riders to the extent that they have changed their programme to prepare for this stage five, with Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard (both Jumbo-Visma) unusual suspects who headed to the GP Denain earlier this year, a semi-Classic that feature cobbles. It is usually a forgotten race, a minor pimple on the season, but this year it had a better cast all because of the Tour de France.
Sepp Kuss, one of Jumbo's key mountain domestiques, only rode the cobbles for the first time in the run up to the Tour, said he is "just going to give it my best, it’ll definitely be an experience". He will aim to last as long as possible on the stage, due to his saddle height being closest to his two co-leaders: this makes it easier to swap bikes in the event of an incident.
While the GC riders are preoccupied with not crashing out or suffering a mechanical at an inopportune moment, there are many more riders in the peloton who are looking at it as an opportunity. All three of this year's Roubaix podium are present, with yellow jersey Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) joining Van Baarle on the startline.
Last year's winner, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) is not at the Tour, but the riders that finished behind him, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal) are, and are looking forward to the experience.
Van der Poel told the media on Tuesday: "The run up into the sections will be more nervous than the sections themselves I think. It will be really nervous, and if you can say out of trouble and avoid any mechanicals, I think you can already go far.
"It’s difficult at the Tour, the GC guys also want to be there in front, and we have the stage win to play for but GC guys can lose more, so it’s understandable they’re nervous."
With a decisive attack, a rider like Van der Poel could also grab the race lead. There are currently 16 riders who trail Van Aert by under a minute, and this number includes the Dutchman, as well as Küng, Vermeersch, and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) among others.
"There’s a chance to take the yellow jersey for sure on that stage," he explained. But as I said all the guys that are within one minute of Van Aert can still aim for yellow. I think for me a stage win is the thing I’m aiming for, but it’s not going to be easy."
Vermeersch told Cycling Weekly: "I think it will be even more nervous before the first cobbles, really hectic. It will be crazy."
Another rider who thinks it will be chaos is Connor Swift (Arkéa Samsic), the British rider who has won Tro-Bro Léon, the French race which features farm tracks, so has proved he is adept at riding on different surfaces. One of his jobs on Wednesday will be making sure that his team leader Nairo Quintana stays out of trouble.
"Tonight and in the morning I’ll be thinking about it a lot more," he explained before stage four. "Everyone knows it’s going to be carnage, and you’ve just got to make sure you’re at the front basically. Even then there can be crashes at the front. It’s just a case of if anything does go wrong staying calm, making sure the team’s around you, and together we will be stronger.
"I’ve not done it yet, but I think it’s different cos at Paris-Roubaix, everyone has done the recce and it’s classics kind of guys. Whereas this time round you have domestiques trying to protect their GC guys, you have GC guys needing to be at the front, you have classics guys wanting to win. You literally have the whole peloton fighting. It’s different."
He disagreed with the idea that it could be an anticlimax, like the promised crosswind action on the bridge on stage two of this year's Tour.
"I can’t see it," he said. "Because even that first sector there’s a nasty 90 degree bend and if you go into that pretty hot… We went into there in the recce not at race speed and it was already a nasty corner. Add full race speed and the full bunch on the cobbles, it’s going to be totally different."
There is a third type of person in the race today: a general classification rider who could also benefit from action on the cobbles. It might even be an "opportunity" for someone adept at riding on the pavé, a chance to put their general classification rivals under pressure.
Cycling Weekly was reminded on Tuesday that Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) finished second in 2010's cobbled Tour stage, which also finished at Arenberg Porte du Hainaut. In 2014, when another stage finished at the same place, Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech) came second.
Speaking after stage four, on a day which he looked attentive to the threat posed by Jumbo-Visma, Thomas seemed up for Wednesday's fight.
"It would be nice if it was an attacking race," he said. "But the main thing is being there in front and out of trouble first. It’s like crosswinds days."
Ineos Grenadiers' deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth echoed his rider, stating that the stage would be an "opportunity" for his team. With Thomas, Pidcock and Yates within a minute of Van Aert, a split could work very much in favour of the British squad.
"They want to stay in the bike race, and I’m sure they’re up for it," Ellingworth said. "It’s a difficult one because it’s so technical. They’re not seeing it as 'oh my god it’s the cobbled stage', they’re seeing it as an opportunity."
So, there might be less than 20km of cobbles on Wednesday's stage, but for multiple riders and teams, it could prove crucial for the outcome of the whole Tour de France. A nervous peloton awaits the test.
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