We now interrupt all regularly programmed pre-written Roubaix stage previews with this very important message: There’s (almost) never a dull stage at the 2018 Tour de France.
After Friday’s 231km Stage 7 yawner, what looked to be another uneventful stage — flat roads, token French riders in the breakaway, field sprint — turned into something else completely after a chaotic final 20km saw one GC contender injured and losing time, and two marquee sprinters relegated.
All this on the day before Sunday’s trip across the cobblestones to Roubaix — a day that has the potential to shape the race for the two weeks that follow.
First, the crash. With 17km to go, Stage 6 winner and GC hopeful Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) was one of several riders to go down in a pileup after what appeared to be caused by overlapped wheels. Also involved, and held up, were Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo), Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), and Simon Clarke (EF Education First-Drapac).
A crash with 17km to go saw Polka Dot jersey holder @Tomashuuns (@TrekSegafredo), @DanMartin86 (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi), and @tonymartin85 (@katushacycling) all caught up. It was captured on camera by @TimoRoosen (@LottoJumbo_road). Thankfully all riders made it to the finish #TDF2018 pic.twitter.com/dMOieW2R2h
— Velon CC (@VelonCC) July 14, 2018
Several other riders were caught up in the crash, but made it back in the pack. Among them were Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic), and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo).
A bloodied Martin was paced back by teammates Rory Sutherland, Darwin Atapuma, and Kristijan Durasek, but together they could not match the speed of the main peloton bracing for a field sprint. In the end, the Irishman lost 1:16 and 10 spots on the general classification.
Martin, who finished sixth overall last year while nursing injuries from a crash on Stage 9, now sits 31st overall, 2:47 down, and will again head into the mountains in pain. And though he has no broken bones, he’s lost a significant amount of skin and will be sore for days. Adding insult to injury, his first race day after the crash will include 21km of cobblestones on what’s sure to be the most nervous stage of the race.
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) July 14, 2018
‘I’ve got to try and ride tomorrow now and get over those cobblestones, but it’s going to be sore,” Martin said. “My back is a bit of a mess. Hopefully I can survive through tomorrow’s stage now, and we will see what the situation is after the rest day.”
Alaphilippe, who was also clearly in pain, dropped from fourth overall to 18th, any hope of wearing the maillot jaune at this Tour almost certainly erased.
Gaviria, Greipel relegated
Alaphilippe’s crash and time loss wasn’t even the worst of Quick-Step’s woes. Up ahead, a messy field sprint saw Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), pinned up against the barriers on the left side of the road, with a head butt into Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), resulting in relegation for Gaviria and likely ending any chance he had to contest for the points jersey.
The Colombian now sits 63 points behind Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who finished fourth in the sprint behind stage winner Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) but was bumped up into second after Gaviria and Greipel were relegated.
“I chose Greipel’s wheel and when I saw him going shoulder to shoulder with Gaviria I thought, ‘Now is the moment,'” Groenewegen said.
The UCI race jury said Greipel was relegated “based on images of the final kilometre,” which may or may not have also included an incident that happened at 800m to go, when the German head-butted Nikolas Arndt (Team Sunweb) as they fought for Arnaud Demare’s wheel.
While Greipel said Gaviria was guilty of trying to squeeze through a hole that didn’t exist in the closing metres, he added, “I am a fair sprinter, and I have enough experience to know what is and is not possible.”
Greipel took to Twitter to vent his frustration, writing, “Nothing more to say about that decision of the jury. When you do your sprint, you keep a line. I have no eyes in my back and I do not let myself get pushed out of the way from nobody. Hard to accept to get already robbed for the stage win and now the commissaries even take away 2nd?”
While Greipel was being asked to explain his regulation, another German sprinter, Marcel Kittel — who did not factor in the sprint — shoved his bike up against the Katusha-Alpecin team bus before screaming in frustration.
— CyclingCentral (@CyclingCentral) July 14, 2018
And with that, all eyes turn to Sunday’s trip across the cobblestones — a stage that has the potential to shape the two weeks that follow. At the very least, it won’t be called boring.
A little taste of Hell
The Tour’s most recent trips across the cobblestones used at Paris-Roubaix came in 2014, and again in 2015.
A rain-soaked stage in 2014, utilizing seven sectors of pavé and finishing in Arenberg, saw Vincenzo Nibali emerge as the day’s most victorious GC contender, finishing third behind Lars Boom while wearing the maillot jaune. Chris Froome, defending his 2013 victory, did not make it to the cobblestones, abandoning after two crashes on the wet roads aggravated a hand injury from a previous crash. Nibali went on to wear yellow into Paris, his first and only Tour victory. Second on that stage was Jakob Fuglsang, who now sits ninth overall.
One year later, on a stage that utilized seven sectors of pavé and finished in Cambrai, Froome marked moves from Nibali and even attacked after the final sector of pavé. German Tony Martin won the stage with a late solo attack, while Froome emerged unscathed and went on to win the Tour.
“It wasn’t about showing how strong I am on the cobbles,” Froome said after the stage. “It was all about staying out of trouble.”
Froome was aided by Geraint Thomas that day; three years later, they are co-leaders at Team Sky, with Thomas sitting second overall, 59 seconds ahead of Froome. There’s a very real possibility that Thomas could take yellow in Roubaix and head into the mountains with a significant lead over the defending champion. However with powerful riders like Gianni Moscon, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Luke Rowe at their disposal, both Thomas and Froome can expect to be well protected.
And therein lies what will make Stage 9 such a fascinating one to watch. Unlike at Paris-Roubaix, where (nearly) every rider is there because they want to race the Hell of the North, at the Tour de France it’s a necessary evil for lithe climbers and GC rivals who are simply hoping to survive unscathed. Varying abilities and experience and objectives, combined with the pressure cooker that is the Tour de France, could well combine to make it the most nervous day of racing on the 2018 calendar.
The stage includes 15 sectors of pavé totaling 21.7km and some of Paris-Roubaix’s most notorious sectors like the 1.8km four-star Camphin-en-Pevele,16km from the finish. (It’s the most cobblestone kilometres at the Tour since 1981, which included 27 sectors for 27km on a route from Compiègne to Roubaix.)
The first section of pavé is located 47km from the start; the final section comes at 8km to go. The stage finishes near, but not inside, the legendary Roubaix velodrome. It’s not the Hell of the North, but we can safely call it a little taste of hell.
“It’s not about riding tempo in the [cobbled] sector, you just ride at your maximum and once you get out of the cobbled section you just have to look where you are, where your leaders are and what’s your perspective going in the next one,” Kwiatkowski said. “Going into the cobbled section is the most important part, you should stay together as a team and then you can communicate. Even when racing with the the radio, it’s always better when you ride next to each other as you can react to other riders’ attacks or crashes.”
Among the GC contenders Thomas, Fuglsang, Nibali, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) are probably best suited to withstand the punishment of the cobblestones, though Nibali and Fuglsang have never raced Roubaix, and Roglic has never raced Roubaix nor the Tour of Flanders. Dumoulin has raced Flanders once, in 2012, though he did not finish, however a fifth at the 2017 Strade Bianche bodes well for the Sunweb leader.
Those who will likely struggle are the smaller, climber types with very little body mass — riders like Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates).
I can’t verbally explain how much i don’t want to do the stage of tomorrow.
— Thomas De Gendt (@DeGendtThomas) July 14, 2018
There’s no special insight to predict the day’s stage winner — just look to those who have won, or reached the podium, at Paris-Roubaix, and particularly those who are not supporting a GC leader.
Reigning Roubaix champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and 2017 winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) immediately come to mind. And while both men have GC contenders on their team, both have been given free rein to race for the stage victory. Sagan’s teammate Rafal Majka sits eighth overall, 56 seconds behind Van Avermaet, while BMC’s Richie Porte sits 10th overall, at 57 seconds. It’s a similar situation for 2016 winner Mathew Hayman, whose Mitchelton-Scott teammate Adam Yates sits 13th overall, 1:06 down.
“You will have GC riders being protected by their team but they aren’t going for the win, they are just going up there to not lose too much time,” Van Avermaet said Saturday. “I think there will be a small group of riders who can have a little bit of freedom so it will be pretty strange. I think it is going to be really hectic, really fast from start to finish and I think positioning will be key on every sector.
“For us, it will be a team effort. We are a team and have had a lot of guys working for Richie and me over these past few days. They are doing a great job so far and hopefully, we can keep up the good work tomorrow and get ourselves into position with Richie in my wheel. That would be the best and then he just has to try and follow for a long as possible and for sure, he can then maybe even gain time on the other contenders.”
Porte, who lost 17 minutes the last time the Tour hit the cobbles, told Eurosport that Van Avermaet had “every right to have ambitions,” adding that the rest of the team would surround him. It’s going to be a fight to get into those cobbled sections,” he said, “so bring it on.”
Meanwhile Sagan said after Saturday’s stage that he would be racing for the stage win, leaving Majka’s domestique duties to the rest of the Bora-Hansgrohe team.
Other cobblestone specialists who may be required to attend to their GC leaders include Sep Vanmarcke and Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac), for Rigoberto Uran, and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondaile), for Romain Bardet.
Video: Quick-Step Floors: “Cobbles are in our DNA”
Unencumbered by their team’s GC aspirations are two other Roubaix champions — 2015 winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), and 2014 winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors).
With Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, and Yves Lampaert, Quick-Step has three proven winners at cobblestone classics and semi-classics, and the team will no doubt be looking for redemption after Saturday’s incidents with Alaphilippe and Gaviria. The Belgian team nearly swept the cobbled classics this spring, and it’s worth remembering that the last time the Tour hit the cobbles, the stage win — and yellow jersey — was taken by Quick-Step rider Tony Martin.
“It’s pretty simple,” Terpstra said when asked if he advice for his teammates. “You have to go as fast as you can.”
The weather forecast for Sunday is 30C (86F) — hot and sunny. The cobbles will be dry and dusty. The battle for position will be fierce. Some riders will try not to lose time. Others will try to gain time. Some will crash, others will have mechanicals. When the dust has settled, it’s likely a few riders’ GC hopes will be shattered.
— Le Tour de France (@LeTour) July 14, 2018
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.