Don't ask me exactly when Le Tour posted all the final details, but the blockbuster third stage, a mini-Paris-Roubaix, is now available for review and doesn't look exactly like we (OK, I) had imagined. Here's the map showing the pave sectors:
The headliner here is that they managed to find a way around Wallers/Arenberg without actually going through the famed Trenchee d'Arenberg, a/k/a the Arenberg Trench. Why?
Because the Arenberg Forest cobbles suck, that's why. Actually, I love them with all my heart, but IIRC the race moves left to right in this picture... and you can see a nice tire-sized rut in the middle, leading straight for some jagged rock. It's a bit much. Frankly, the Tour simply doesn't live by the standards of Paris-Roubaix: that's a one-day race designed to crush the wills of all but the strongest riders, leaving the rest in tatters by the roadside. Whereas the Tour isn't designed to crush anyone's will until the third week. Also, ratings go down when the top GC guys pull out in the first week with injuries. So the trick for Le Tour was to find some cobbles that could put people in difficulty... but not that much difficulty. So let's go sector by sector and see what's in store:
- Ormeignies, 350m: Not part of the Paris-Roubaix parcours, so your guess is as good as mine. It's actually in Belgium, where the cobbles typically aren't quite so rough, and at 350 meters it's merely an amuse bouche. If any gaps open, they'll quickly close on the flat roads ahead.
- Hollain, 1200m: Another Belgian sector of unknown (to me) quality. At 1200 meters you can expect to see riders falling off the back.
- Rongy, 700m: Somewhat on the heels of the Hollain sector, this could grate on some of the non-cobbles, non-GC riders. Last of the Belgian sectors.
- Sars-et-Rosieres, 2400m: This sector was featured in Paris-Roubaix, where under the L'Equipe system of star ratings (1= "easy", 5=hell) this rated three stars, meaning it won't be fun for anyone who doesn't kinda love this sort of punishment. My guess is that the cobbles are survivable but the length will wear you down.
- Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes, 2500m: Another three-star sector, but with almost no break since the Sars sector, making this five km where your Tour could be in jeopardy if you don't watch your step. All three of the big 3-star sectors include turns, which should add to the degree of difficulty.
- Wandignies-Hamage, 3700m: Yet another three-star sector, only this one is loooooonnnnggg. By now riders will be sick to death of cobbles.
- Haveluy, 2300m: One to go! Only it got four stars from L'Equipe, and in this case I know from personal experience why. This is the Secteur Bernard Hinault that my brother and I rode, seemingly unearthed from a farmer's field days before the race. See picture below. The stones are packed with mud and the "road" is pretty narrow, often with some nasty surprises to the left and right. So the pack will get completely strung out and anyone not close to the front will be at the mercy of every single rider between him and his GC competitors. The only comfort is that the roads ahead are flat and offer about 10km to close whatever gaps appear.
IMHO Le Tour has played a little give-and-take with the riders. They avoided any five-star sectors where riders can really get squashed... but that last sector, I dunno, does one less star mean much to Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador? It'll be tricky enough for most people's tastes. One of the saving graces of Paris-Roubaix is that the pack breaks up early and often, so you don't usually hit 2.3km of mud-packed cobbles in a farmer's field in a huge peloton. As a matter of physics, this race will break down the peloton, the only question is whether anyone of importance gets left out.
But while hammering the field in some respects, Le Tour can fall back on saying that it could have been worse. There were plenty of ways to find a route through the Forest or Mons-en-Pevele. And by tacking on 10km of normal, flat streets on which to chase back any unacceptable splits, nobody can say they didn't have a chance to stay close. If nothing else, I would expect guys like Contador to minimize any losses here. The handfuls of seconds conceded won't mean much after the Pyrenees, in all likelihood. So expect a great stage battle, some cheeky moves by someone from the GC list, and by day's end not much more than the pleasing aftertaste that comes from watching a great show.