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Tour Stage 4 Preview: The Hell, You Say?

It's a journey to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, and all the chaos that implies.

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Stage 4: Seraing (BE) -- Cambrai, 223.5km

The Tour de France comes home, via Hell. Apparently it's not a short trip to Hell, no matter what your religion teaches you. This one is over 220km, the Tour's longest day.

About Cambrai and Nearby

The race features the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France, an area of somewhat mixed Flemish and French influence. The Schelde becomes the Escaut and the kasseien become pavé, but like most border areas of Europe it's not as black and white as all that. The region is known for mining of coal, and legends of Jean Stablinski riding over the mines he and his family previously had worked in the Arenberg Forest are taught to every French schoolchild in the area. [Cycling is part of the local curriculum, right?] OK maybe not, but where there's coal, there's a history of immigration, and the culture becomes quite a tapestry, which this already was anyway. Speaking of tapestries, back when this was part of the County of Flanders, it was also part of the whole Low Countries textile boom. But that's been a while.

You know the story of the cobblestones -- small roads from another era, which the local towns tried to pave over until the Paris-Roubaix race organizers made them prized possessions rather than a symbol of backwardness. You may not know the story of why the cycling world calls the Nord-Pas de Calais region "hell." That would be because of World War I, which devastated this area beyond what words can describe. Cambrai itself was notable for the Battle of Cambrai, in November 1917, where tanks were first used, to great "success." Paris-Roubaix returned in 1919, but only after its organizers took a trip up north to see if there were any roads left to use, and had various Hell-metaphors to offer on their return. Here's the shorter one, from L'Auto:

We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There's not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There's one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell!

Indeed. But it was still France, and when Henri Pélissier won the 1919 race, he described it less as a contest than a pilgrimage.

AmyBC's food and wine pairings:

Beer: Fantome Artist series beer (Brasserie Fantôme) is a small brewery in Soy, Wallonia, Belgium. Founded in 1988 by Dany Prignon, it produces Saison, a type of farmhouse ale. From the producer: "Our little brewery would like to highlight a young Belgian artist Gaëlle Boulanger. She’s a magnificent painter, illustrator and graphic designer."

Food: Liège waffles. [Yes, we've left Liège, but the waffles came with us.] We use the Blue Bottle recipe, which K actually helped test for their first cookbook. I even blogged about it back in the day. An adapted version can be found here.

Stage Details

It's a flat day...

Stage 4 tour profile

But not any flat day...

Tour stage 4 map

Embedded in that map are the locations of the seven pavé secteurs, the cobblestones, which will define this race. Cobblestones from this region feature in a Tour de France stage every so often (somewhere I'm sure there's a comprehensive list), and whenever they do nowadays in the age of specialization, there is a mix of strong opinion. The race's basic position is that the Tour de France is a tour of all of France, and riders should be able to handle all potential conditions, of which the northern cobbled roads are certainly one. Riders either love them or hate them, with the summer stars generally falling in the latter category. Who wants to see crashes and DNFs among the top guys, or anyone for that matter?

But the reason we get cobbles is not because of the danger, but rather the spectacular racing that so often happens on them. In 2010, Frank Schleck crashed out but his younger brother Andy did not, finishing with the winning bunch (led by Thor Hushovd), while Alberto Contador was a minute back and Lance Armstrong two minutes in arrears. Last year's cobbled stage was arguably the single most important day of the Tour, as Vincenzo Nibali navigated the rain, wind and stones to incredible effect, dropping Contador (again) by more than two minutes, and seeing Chris Froome crash out, albeit on tarmac roads. Nibali was never threatened again.

Course Analysis

This year's cobbled secteurs are as follows:

7. Pont-à-Celles -- Gouy-lez-Piéton, 1800 meters, not officially rated

6. Artres -- Farmars, 1200m, possibly related to a five-star secteur used in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix course

5. Quérénaing -- Verchain-Maugré, 1600 m, three stars

4. Verchain-Maugré -- Saulzoir, 1200m, three stars

3. Saint-Python, 1500m, two stars

2. Fontaine-au-Tertre -- Quiévy, 3700m, four stars

1. Avesnes-les-Aubert -- Carnières, 2300m, not officially rated

Coming at the end of a hard day, 13.3km worth of cobbles is going to make everyone very, very tired. Whether the peloton breaks into bits is to be determined by the racers -- packs can regroup after the cobbles if they're spread out, btu these aren't, at least in the final few secteurs. So even with nice weather, it will be a tough day to stay in touch with the lead group. Add in the cobbles specialists and you have at least two if not several more races happening at the same time.


General Classification

Maillot Jaune Tour
This is a stage to be feared for the overall contenders, one of whom (Froome) is currently in yellow. Not much can go right unless you possess the particular skill involved here, and if not, a lot can go wrong. Froome, to his credit, has been very attentive to positioning, and has an excellent cobbles team around him. Nibali has proven his individual worth, and his teammate Lars Boom won the stage in Arenberg last year. Quintana will be hanging on for dear life, most likely, and Contador has not fared well on the cobbles in the past. Tony Martin of Etixx-Quick Step sits a mere second behind Froome for yellow, and though this is hardly his native terrain, it's very much the province of his team, and they will be keen to steal that second back for their time trial workhorse. Whether they do is up to Sky as well.

Points Competition

Maillot Vert
Another important day, with both the intermediate and the finish in play. Current leader André Greipel (75 points) has made himself into a cobbles stud recently, so he figures to extend his lead unless second-placed Peter Sagan (48) can do something special... which he can, but shaking Greipel is another matter. Mark Cavendish (37) remains relevant for the time being.

King of the Mountains

Maillot a Pois
Joaquim Rodriguez is our first leader, with two whole points! It's a shame Joop Zoetemelk and his Mercier lads were nowhere to be seen as the Tour hit the climbs in Namur province today. Oh well. There is one point on this course, a climb to the Citadel de Namur, home to both classics and cyclocross, and a very cool site to see along the way. Rodriguez is unlikely to contest it, but Michael Schaer may, or Rafal Majka, both of whom can tie J-Rod for the jersey lead.

Young Rider

Maillot Blanc
Sadly, Tom Dumoulin's Tour came to an end in stage 3's crashes, and Sagan inherits the jersey. He may keep it for a while, though Warren Barguil is at only 36 seconds, and if he can hold his place for a day, the climbs of his native Brittany beckon!

Stage Favorites

Conventional wisdom says to look at the classics guys, and while some of them will falter, it's a good bet one will hang around long enough for the win. Of course that includes Greipel, who will be the heavy favorite if he's there in the final kms, or Sagan. But it could just as easily fall to Jon Degenkolb, Lars Boom, Greg Van Avermaet, Geraint Thomas, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke, Filippo Pozzato, Fabian Cancellara, Sebastian Langeveld, or even our old friend Stijn Devolder. Tyler Farrar would be a longshot (he likes the Flemish cobbles better than the French ones). My money is on a sprint, won by Greipel over Sagan and Degs.