Cobbles. Pavé. Setts. Words that strike chords of trepidation, nostalgia and excitement in the minds of cyclists and fans alike. Romanticised for over a century by some of cycling’s greatest races, the Tour de France visits the revered granite stones of Arenberg for tonight’s fifth stage of the Tour de France.
The stage begins in Ypres, Belgium, scene of five of the most devastating attritional battles of WWI, to mark the centenary of the start of that war.
The route takes us south into France and through Roubaix, home of the most famous of all of cycling’s single-day classics, Paris-Roubaix.
Known as l’enfer du Nord, the “Hell of the North”, since race organisers surveilling the route after the Armistice of 1918 discovered the utter destruction inflicted on the region, the race and the town itself hold a special place in cycling folklore.
The route continues south, taking us backwards through nine of the most famous cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix, finishing in the town of Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.
Fortunately for the riders, the Tour doesn’t race through the Arenberg Trench, widely considered the most sadistic piece of road in road cycling.
It does, however, visit the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector, which is also rated 5 stars for difficulty.
Stage 5, at 155km in total, is a good 102km shorter than Paris-Roubaix. Differing team objectives and tactics will change the way the race is approached.
Riding on cobbles is a highly specialised skill, and there are relatively few riders who are expected to be among the favourites for the win today. The cobbles suit bigger, heavier, more powerful riders who can maintain their momentum without being bounced around as much as the lighter climbers.
The hot favourite for the stage win is Trek’s Fabian Cancellara, who has won each of Paris-Roubaix and cycling’s other cobbled Monument, the Tour of Flanders, three times.
This year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra (OPQS), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Sebastian Langeveld (Garmin-Sharp), Geraint Thomas (Sky) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) will also be among the favourites.
Orica-GreenEdge will have high hopes for Matt Hayman and Jens Keukeleire.
For the GC men, it will be a day of survival, staying upright at all costs. There will be no way of hiding in the peloton: the safest place to be will be out in front. Teams will ride hard to get the best position before each cobbled sector.
That old cliche about the Tour being impossible to win today, but easy to lose, is entirely apt. The likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador normally wouldn’t go near a cobbled race, not for a million bucks.
As Richie Porte wrote in his column for Fairfax:
“I’ll be front up, but I have no experience racing on cobbles. We did a reconnaissance ride over them in preparation for the Tour. So how do we get on and face the cobbles in race conditions?
From what I understand, positioning in the bunch on the approach to each sector is the key, as is keeping a calm and cool head under pressure.”
Today, riders like Porte have no choice. They have to face up to one of cycling’s sternest tests.
The weather forecast predicts an 80% chance of rain in the region, which would make conditions exponentially more treacherous for the riders. If the Tour organisers wanted to commemorate an attritional bloodbath in Northern France, a stage across wet cobbles is certainly one way of doing it.
For the spectators, it promises to be an intriguing spectacle.
I’ll be live-blogging the stage over at The Roar – Cycling from 10pm.