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Tour Stage Nine: Omigod omigod omigod cobbles Cobbles COBBLES!

Arras – Roubaix (157km)

Arenberg cobbles

We’re going to Roubaix. Bumpily.

Here’s the official stage profile:

Here is the less widely used profile, that is actually of some value:

So, before we look at the runners and riders, what are we actually dealing with here? There are just over 21km on cobbles, with 15 named secteurs. You’ll see some areas that aren’t on the Paris - Roubaix route, but there’s some familiar secteurs, too.

Of particular note, Mons en Pevele, a 3km (5*) secteur is raced in part here, as a 900m section. That is among the tougher sections, but pales in comparison to the full 1.8km secteur of Camphin en Pevele, rated 4* in Paris-Roubaix and raced as the penultimate secteur on Sunday, inside the final 20km. The map is below, but for a detailed preview, it is worth putting up with some of the irritating editorial aspects of this video preview.

This isn’t Paris-Roubaix, let’s be clear about that. It just might be the closest the Tour has come in recent years, however. 21km in 15 secteurs comes out more relentless by far than the 2015 edition (13km in 7) or the 2014 version (13km in 9). Even 2010 saw just 13km in 7 secteurs. 2014 was of course dogged by poor weather, and an otherworldly performance from Nibali, who demonstrated his all-rounder skills with a third place finish that put nearly two minutes into Pinot and Contador, whilst Froome was unable to finish the stage. He took yellow that day.

Weather looks fair for Sunday, with Lille forecast dry, very hot, and windless. So it may not be a total grindfest. However, the volume of cobbled riding, and the frequency with which the secteurs crop up late in the race means I think we’ll see significant gaps through the field. For riders unable to stay in the right groups, expect gaps in the minutes. The 2015 “not hugely significant” day is, I think, too straightforward to be a useful comparison.

This is the stage I picked as my most exciting of the Tour, just after Conor picked the ITT (forget, for a moment, that I picked the Mur de Bretagne at number six and the TTT at number eight). In attempting to justify that to a typically obdurate Conor, I made reference to the fact there’ll be multiple sub-plots. Let’s stop for a drink with Amy, and then take those sub-plots one at a time.

Amy’s drink of the day

The alcohol: Bellerose Biere Blonde

We weren’t going to make it through this area without at least one beer. Five stores later, I found one!

From the producer, with some help from Google Translate: The most awarded French beer internationally. Made with a cocktail of 3 hops. Straw yellow color with golden highlights. Fresh and floral nose with a fruity contribution of lychees. Notes of lychee and orange. Refreshing and slightly bitter beer with sweet notes.

Sub-plot one: Chaos and disaster

I’m expecting chaos towards the back of the field, and I’m expecting at least a couple of leaders to be involved. I hope I’m wrong, genuinely, and I certainly hope that we avoid crashes and injuries. Still, plenty of the riders taking part (and some of the support staff) will be new to cobbles and even experienced riders crash on these roads. There will be gaps in the field, there will be dust, and this is a lot of riders taking tight bends and rough roads. On top of that, there will be riders scrapping for seconds and minutes down the field in a way that doesn’t happen in one day races.

So, the last race home may be the most significant – who will be thrown right out the back, and how far back will they be? Could we see riders finishing outside the time limit? Probably not. We could see tens of minutes lost, however, and it could easily be a big GC name or two. I don’t want to pick names, but I think we all could if we had to.

Sub-plot two: The GC race

Even if avoiding disaster, there will be a range of appetites among the GC names here.

I’d have Valverde, Nibali and maybe Bardet as comfortable. Froome and Dumoulin nervous but with reasons for positive thinking. Martin, Quintana, Porte and others will be ecstatic to get to the rest day within three minutes of the lead and without serious injury.

Those groupings are a ridiculous exercise and you may well consider them to be flat wrong. My point is, however, that we have riders (Nibali, Valverde) who have demonstrated a degree of comfort on cobbles. We also have riders (Froome, Bardet) who have every reason to expect they’ll be given great support by riders like Naesen and Rowe. We have skilled bike handlers who’ve ridden well in races like Strade (Bardet, Dumoulin) but aren’t particularly experienced on cobbles. Then we have Dan Martin who, uh, doesn’t have those advantages.

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A strung out race with minutes between groups will have an impact on the GC come Paris. A controlled race with few risks taken and the GC guys close together and we’ll forget all about it. I think the former is more likely than the latter, but it is incumbent on teams like Sky to make life as tough as possible for rivals whilst protecting their leader. I mention Sky because they have Moscon, Kwiatkowski, Thomas, Rowe and Castroviejo, easily the best cobbles team supporting any GC hopeful. Can they make it tough? We’ll see.

Sub-plot three: The stage win

This one is wide open. The top eight from this year’s Paris-Roubaix are here for this stage, as are the winners of the last five. A spring cobbled specialist can easily turn into a rouleur, sprinter and all around helper come summer, and plenty will be doing just that. However, of those riders, some will need to put personal ambitions on hold to shepherd GC leaders through the race. Who will be able to ride for the win?

Peter Sagan is the biggest name – he’s a Tour and green jersey specialist and the winner of this year’s Paris-Roubaix. He’ll be wanting the win and will be the rider every other winner wants to drop, if they can.

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Greg van Avermaet won on the cobbles in 2017. He might have been expected to look after Richie Porte, but these are his roads and he’s in yellow – expect him to be given free rein whilst Kung and Bevin help the Tasmanian.

We’re back to thinking about cobbles, which means you can expect Quick Step to be involved, and Bob Jungels’ GC ambitions are clearly secondary to stage hunting. Niki Terpstra has a cobble on his mantelpiece from 2014 and would love to add a first GT stage to a superb year. Yves Lampaert and Phillipe Gilbert need watching, too. It’d be a shock if we didn’t see an early attack from at least one of the Wolf Pack.

How much help Uran is given will dictate whether Taylor Phinney or Sep Vanmarcke are allowed to ride for this, but both have solid credentials and I think they’ll be making the race tough. Similarly, Nils Pollitt and Michael Valgren will be hoping Zakarin and Fuglsang respectively can get on without them.

Arnaud Demare and Eddy Boassen Hagen will have highlighted this stage when planning the race, as will Alexander Kristoff. Any of these guys could compete. Wanty haven’t done much to justify their wildcard status yet but Guillaume van Kiersbulck will be hoping to change that. Even in Benoot’s absence, Lotto Soudal will be glad to see these roads and Jens Keukeleire can’t be discounted.

That’s fourteen names. I’m not entirely sure I’ve captured the winner, but I’ll stop there.

Prediction time

I see a race where control is lost on the later cobbled sections and the Camphin en Pevele sees the gaps in GC growing. The Quintanas, Martins and Landas are set to lose three minutes to the Valverdes and Nibalis, and thus the Movistar “who leads” debate can be expected to reach fever pitch over the rest day. Perhaps more surprisingly, I see Porte, Froome and Dumoulin avoiding difficulty and finishing together a couple of minutes behind the stage winner.

Up front, I predict that a group of about five or six riders including van Avermaet and Sagan will chase home a solo winner, with a familiar spring refrain returning. Yes, the “Quick Step have too many attacks to cover” encore will happen on Sunday, and it’ll be Yves Lampaert, in the Belgian Champ’s kit, on the cobbles, with the plaudits.

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