Battle of the pave: the challenges of Le Tour’s cobblestone stage

by Matt de Neef


Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France is one of the most anticipated stages of this year’s edition, thanks to 15km worth of cobblestone sectors made famous by Paris-Roubaix. As Kit Hinders writes, it’s a stage that’s got many of the riders nervous, and with good reason.

UPDATE: two cobbled sectors have been removed from stage 5 due to heavy rainfall in northern France. Click here to read more.

The general classification men were in a particularly bad mood when the ASO unveiled the 2014 Tour de France route back in October last year. It wasn’t the climbing, time trialing, or transfers that had them upset. Instead, it was the decision to include some of Roubaix’s toughest cobblestones on stage 5 that had riders in a sour mood.

What’s the big deal? The professional peloton spends most of March and April on the bumpy roads of Northern France so shouldn’t the GC contenders just harden up?

The physical confrontation

The Northern Classics that fall in the first half of the UCI calender are long, destructive, and dangerous races with cobblestones posing the key challenge towards the end of the races. The two most famous races that utilise cobblestoned roads are the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, both races contested over more than 250 kilometres and often in terrible weather of the European spring.

When the riders reach the pointy end of affairs in those races, only a handful of riders are typically left in the lead group, contesting the win. But when a large stage race utilises the parcours, a whole new slew of problems erupts.

parisroubaix11

Here we have an example of the peloton’s entry on to a section of cobbles. The road narrows from two lanes to less than one in a matter of metres. Such a bottleneck will create logistical problems for all riders with overall aspirations.

Teams will start fighting for position a long way out. The fight for position will leave several riders out in the cold. For those teams that make the selection, their protected riders should be shielded on the inside of the peloton. However, as stray riders push to make the selection, crashes occur and have the ability to take out the whole field. The only safe place to be is at the front.

parisroubaix2-600x504

The next danger confronts riders when pave sectors cross main roads. Riders that are caught out from the start will look to take back a few positions on this junction. When the pave bisects a road, the road temporarily widens. It is at this conjunction that riders must attempt to pass slower traffic.

It is a calculated risk because once back on the pave, it is much harder to move up. Despite the danger, this is the safest place to move up. Watch for action here.

parisroubaix3-600x450

Not only will teams be fighting for position entering the sections of cobblestones, it will be necessary to fight for position leading up to every corner. Unlike traditional road corners, the cobbled corners often exceed perfect right angles. This compounds the importance of position.

Furthermore, the uneven nature of cobblestones mean that predicting the camber of the turn is difficult. If a rider changes lines in the corner, he could lose control of the front end. This often happens at tricky corners in the largest UCI races; these instances will be amplified by the cobblestones. And this is before we talk about dropped bottles, fan interference, and mechanicals.

parisroubaix4-600x364

One of the biggest challenges of riding the cobbles is finding the best line. In the above image, we have zones color-coded according to their roughness. The red portion, at the center of the road, is known as the crown and is the roughest, most uneven, and most violent part of the road. In the Classics, you will see riders avoid the centre of the pave at all costs. The physical toll of riding on the crown is incredible.

The green lines are the smoothest. If you look closely, you will note that riders will often use the hard packed dirt on either side of the road. This decision offers riders the smoothest path; it also places them closest to crazed fans though. Just ask Zdenek Stybar how treacherous that can be.

Between the two extremes, the pave between the blue lines is much smoother than the crown and far enough away from the fans to be safer for the riders. This hierarchy, while helpful for the Classics, tends to fall by the wayside when there are 200 cyclists alongside one another. It will be chaos when the peloton hits the pave in a few hours’ time.

Teammates and communication will be crucial when the cobbles arrive. A puncture, mechanical, or crash on the cobbles could be catastrophic for riders and teams alike. With the lanes being so narrow, team cars have severely limited access to their riders. It could be minutes before a distressed rider is attended to.

To alleviate this problem during the Classics, teams will strategically place mechanics with spare wheels throughout the course to make help more readily available. If an overall contender has a serious problem in today’s stage, it will be essential to have a teammate beside him to exchange bikes. The fear of a mechanical will loom large for riders leading up to the stage.

3e etappe Wanze Arenberg  TdFr  2010

Cobbles at the Tour

For the most part, the Tour de France has stayed away from the rougher roads of France in the past 20 years. The two most recent exceptions were 2004 and 2010 and both visits saw huge gaps develop between GC rivals.

In 2004, Iban Mayo, the spritely Basque climber, was set to challenge Armstrong at the height of his power. Mayo was hot off a victory at the Dauphine and walloping Armstrong in the mountain time trial. Unfortunately for Mayo, that was all before the race reached the cobblestones. Armstrong and friends rode a safe and smart stage while Mayo crashed, lost contact, and dropped more than four minutes. He wouldn’t make it to Paris that year and would never challenge for Yellow again.

In 2010 another overall contender went down when Frank Schleck broke his collarbone in a crash. His brother Andy finished in the lead group, thanks to Fabian Cancellara’s leadership. The younger Schleck took huge time out of his opponents — lead rivals Brad Wiggins and Dennis Menchov lost 53 seconds, Contador lost 1:13, and Armstrong lost 2:08. After we account for the disqualification of Alberto Contador, we see that Schleck took 53 of his 82 second winning margin on this stage alone.

In short, the cobbles count.

3e etappe Wanze Arenberg  TdFr  2010

Reactions from the riders

Chris Froome has been open about his fear of the cobbles. When interviewed late last year he expressed his concerns saying:

“It is a risk, more risk having the cobbles in. Anything can go wrong on the cobbles; crashes, punctures, mechanicals. It’s something we’re going to have to train specifically for, get out there, see the cobbles, ride the cobbles. A mechanical problem in the wrong moment of the race when things are kicking off could lead to you losing the Tour.”

He faces an additional challenge today after falling in yesterday’s stage and injuring his wrist.

Alberto Contador too has expressed trepidation about tonight’s stage, saying in October last year:

“The first nine days, with tension especially on the fifth [stage], are going to be crazy. A short stage [five] with nine sections of paving stones. Falls might affect you or people who are in front of you and you can lose the Tour.”

It remains to be seen just what effect the nine cobbled sectors on today’s stage will have on the race overall but if recent history is anything to go by, the stage will well and truly be worth watching.

Editors Picks