Here’s a little hypothetical, posed to Trek-Segafredo’s classics journeyman and cobblestone specialist Koen de Kort: Let’s suppose you, big Koen, were instead tiny Koen, a little climber type. Let’s suppose you were aiming for yellow in Paris. How would you feel about Sunday’s cobblestones? How would you approach them?
Koen’s first answer is a laugh.
His second answer is a pause.
His third answer: “I could only rely on my team.”
It’s difficult to overstate the visceral dread many of the Tour’s smaller men currently hold, less than 24 hours ahead of the most difficult cobblestone stage the Tour de France has seen since 1981. The riders with GC ambitions put on a good show, speaking of teamwork and confidence, but their pauses and sighs and purses of lips betray them. One doesn’t have to be an expert in body language to see the concern.
“I can’t verbally explain how much I don’t want to do the stage of tomorrow,” Thomas de Gendt Tweeted Saturday evening.
“It’s nerve-wracking. It’s not what we’re used to,” said Richie Porte, the understatement the day.
The 156.5km stage from Arras Citadelle to the Roubaix velodrome is not the Roubaix sampler of 2014 and 2015. It is the real deal. “It’s going to be different,” said Greg van Avermaet. Is that a wry smile? Might be. “It’s the first time there’s been so many cobbles in the Tour de France stage.”
Fifteen sectors, including Orchies and Mons-en-Pevele. Nearly 22 kilometers of cobblestones, beginning at 47km to go and finishing with 8km remaining.
So how does a climber cope? The common refrain is that it’s hardly up to them. Sunday will be a battle of team strength and positioning skill, heavily influenced by lady luck. Perhaps that’s what scares the climbers most: It isn’t up to them.
Paris-Roubaix, the real one, is a tactical event, where the front group occasionally sits up and assesses itself. It’s possible to come back from a mishap if the front group lets off the gas for a moment. But in the middle of a Tour de France, such slowing is less likely.
“Sometimes [in Roubaix] they slow down a little bit, they look at who’s where, what’s happening,” de Kort said. “But here, as soon as there is a gap to another GC rider they are more likely to keep racing. In Roubaix it’s all about the one day finish, now it’s all time gaps as well. It’s going to be an interesting day for sure.”
Van Avermaet concurred. “It’s going to be pretty strange. But I think it’s going to be really hectic, really fast from start to finish, and I think position is the key on every sector.”
The most important moments may actually lie before and after each cobbled sector. The thing about cobbles is you just go as fast as you can — that’s what everyone does. The tactics lie in between, on the pavement.
“Once the race splits up you need to be in a group with people that are committed to riding, because if you’re in a group of people that aren’t committed, and you’re isolated then it’s a real problem for you,” said Tom Southam, who has been part of Rigoberto Uran’s preparation for the day.
“We think the chances of those gaps being significant are probably bigger chances of the gaps in the mountains,” Southam said. “Even though it breaks in the mountains, it’s often really really late. So all the leaders get to the last 3k and then there’s a big movement and if you’ve got it you’ve got it, if you don’t you don’t. But that’s still only 30 seconds. Whereas tomorrow is 3 minutes.”
Three minutes. Or four, even. That’s your GC run over.
All the GC men have done recon. Many have done it more than once. They’ve ridden out onto the stones with teammates more suited to the task, trying to pick up a skill better honed over years than hours. They’ve played with tire pressures and made detailed plans — Trek said it will have over 50 people out on course with wheels. They’ve learned to trust their big men, trust their lines, and trust their power. They’ve tried to make their own luck through preparation.
They know, as a group, that for a few them Sunday will be the end. They know that the thing that might save them isn’t their own legs, but those of their team.