The fear stage. Today the Tour de France borrows a day from April and uses the cobbled farm tracks of Paris-Roubaix and if there’s not a mountain in sight this stage is crucial for all the overall contenders. A summer classic? Perhaps but the weather forecast predicts grim conditions straight from the spring.
Stage 4 Wrap
The trouble with asking for a sprint royale is that you get a king. We wanted a contest between the sprinters but got a coronation. Still King Kittel III had to work harder than his predecessors of recent days. Coming into the final straight Mark Renshaw eased up of Alexander Kristoff’s wheel to create a gap hoping to force Kittel into a longer sprint but the German played it cool and chose his own moment to sprint and beat Kristoff on the line with Arnaud Démare finally showing he can rival the others too. At the risk of lèse-majesté can I point out Kittel’s sprinting style gives him the air of a beefy Chris Froome? It’s less angular but look at the knees pointing out and watch how he even dips the head to view his stem during the sprint. Once you start seeing it you can’t un-see it.
The stage was marked by an early crash with Chris Froome who landed on his left side, seemingly scraping the scars from the Dauphiné. He was left shaking his hand and wrist and the latest is that he’s good to ride but this news took several hours to emerge yesterday as opposed to a five minute “he’s fine” response. If his wrist is sore it’s going to be even more sore after today’s stage. Andy Schleck didn’t start and Greg Henderson crashed out, reducing Lotto-Belisol’s sprint chances further.
A start in Ypres with a commemoration of the WW1, where the King of Belgium will send the race on its race from the Menin Gate to the Military cemetery where the KM0 point. The Tour is meant to be a festival but can’t ignore the locations it borrows for a day. Then it’s through familiar places like Wevelgem and Roubaix. The cobbles rightly hog the attention but there are some awkward roads before which twist and turn. These start right after Wevelgem and continue after the race passes Roubaix. Here the race picks up the route of the classic in reverse although it ignores the cobbled sectors for a while.
The sectors above start with 68km to go and if we add the intermediate sprint as a pressure point it means 10 important sections for the next 60km. ASO haven’t given the sections star ratings (the Tour avoids the worst sections so the star ratings would look a bit flat) but the names should be familiar. Carrefour de l’Arbre for starters… but the race is in reverse only goes to the carrefour, the crossroads and doesn’t continue onto the legendary section. Still each section is hard and their accumulation is even harder.
- Update: cobbled sectors 7 and 5 have been removed from the route because of the bad weather and flooding.
No velodrome but a familiar route all the same. The final 5.5km are on tarmac as race takes the Paris-Roubaix route in reverse towards Wallers-Arenberg and then switches at the last moment to take the same direction as the classic, borrowing the very same roads as the spring classic takes on the approach to the Arenberg Trench section. It’s also the same finish that the Tour used in 2010. As the map below shoes there are some twists and turns and the roundabout with 4km to go is small and then the road is on relatively small residential roads before the flamme rouge and the left turn to finish outside the old Arenberg mine.
There are two ways to see the cobbles. First is the fearsome stones that break bikes and bones and this creates a vicious cycle of nervousness and pressure which leads to mistakes and breaks. The second is to see this as only a fraction of the contest of Paris-Roubaix, today’s stage is only 155km and the pavé total 15.4km rather than the 50km. If the race visits the Hell of the North, it’s only the first circle.
There are two races today: the fight for the stage win and with it the yellow jersey and the defensive contest between the GC candidates not to loose any time. Which means a different kind of race, because the GC teams will look to set an even, high pace for the race in order to pace their riders through the sections. Should a cobble specialist decide to take a flyer they could find Sky, Tinkoff, Movistar, Belkin, BMC Racing and other teams bearing down on them.
We can expect an early move to go clear perhaps with a few optimists hoping to take an option on events, being up the road is the guaranteed way to enter the cobbled sectors first. But behind expect the teams to set a fierce pace as they try to deliver their leaders into position. The cobbles are tough but often the big stress is the sprint for position ahead of the sector.
Expect some to lose plenty of time. The likes of Pierre Rolland have already surrendered time while yesterday’s stage briefly saw Joaquim Rodriguez caught out in the crosswinds. Today will see many more punished for the slightest handling error.
Today’s the day for the classics specialists to kick mud in the face of the climbers who will make their race hell for the next two weeks. So we revert to the obvious classics names.
Fabian Cancellara is the prime pick. He’s shown his form on the opening stage when a late attack left the sprint trains scrambling to bring him back. In addition his Trek Factory Racing team are bound to be behind him, he’s not needed to protect the Schleck Bros any more.
Next is Alexander Kristoff. There’s a good chance of a sprint from a reduced group and the Norwegian is in excellent shape and one of the fastest in the race. After him there’s a similar story for Arnaud Démare.
Niki Terpstra is an obvious pick but he’s a solo specialist and it’ll be hard to ride away. That’s might sound obvious but he’d probably find it easier after 245km than 145km and to complicate things he crashed yesterday and didn’t look his usual mellifluous self pedalling back to the peloton. Otherwise we could look to Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb and Greg Van Avermaet to win from a sprint too.
As for the overall contenders we can expect to see them surrounded by bodyguards. Geraint Thomas thrived on the pavé in 2010 but this time could be on duty for Chris Froome. The same with Belkin where Sep Vanmarcke and Lars Boom are contenders for the stage win but might be shepherding Bauke Mollema for the day. Ditto for Sebastian Langeveld with Andrew Talansky although the American might be protected by Johan Vansummeren instead. Given the weather is foul, watch Sylvain Chavanel and Heinrich Haussler too.
What about the GC riders? It’s hard to rate their skills and besides they could be sunk by the crash of another. It’s a lottery, remember in 2010 Andy Schleck was fifth on the stage while Frank crashed out. Each team with GC ambitions will try to pace their riders, surrounding them with bodyguards.
|Fabian Cancellara, Alexander Kristoff|
|Arnaud Démare, Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb|
|Niki Terpstra, Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, Michał Kwiatkowski|
|Sylvain Chavanel, Sebastian Langeveld, Jurgen Roelandts, Lars Boom|
- Talking of chainrings note Chris Froome uses oval chainrings. This means varying chain tension and it’ll be interesting to see if he uses them today because a slack chain on the cobbles can mean a dropped chain
- On another technical matter the order of team cars is being touted as important issue. I’ve put the order on Twitter already but am unsure about the importance. It helps to have your car close but the final 60km are going to be so fast that any mechanical could prove ruinous
Weather: wet. A rainy day on the Tour de France is hard for many but today of all days makes it harder. The cobbles don’t offer much grip on the best of days but when the polished stones are wet it’s even worse. It hasn’t rained in Paris-Roubaix since 2002 and some riders in the bunch know what it is to race on wet cobbles but plenty don’t.
It’s forecast to rain for much of the day and it’ll be cool too at 15°C. The wind will blow at 20km/h from the west meaning a light crosswind but if it picks up this will only add to the difficulty.
TV: live from start to finish, 1.45pm to 5.30pm Euro time with the cobbles reserved for the last 90 minutes.