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LILLE, France (VN) — This 2014 Tour de France — like all Tours de France — can be distilled into slivers of moments that shape a race, and determine who would be king of cycling for a year.
Wednesday’s fifth stage is one of those moments, a day fans and contenders have looked to with glee and apprehension, respectively. It’s finally time for the Tour’s version of the Hell of the North, 15.4 kilometers of pavé that would crush a wheel, a dream, a race.
And that was all before the forecast called for a 90-percent chance of rain.
“I’m sure the GC guys are concerned. It’ll make for a really nutty sage,” said Cannondale’s Ted King, who will be working for green jersey Peter Sagan. “Everybody has a lot of high interest in that day, and it’s going to make for a very stressful day.”
The teams in it for general classification will hope to get through while others, like Cannondale and Trek Factory Racing, will ride for a win. Time gaps could certainly happen (see Alberto Contador vs. Lance Armstrong in 2010, for example).
Sky will look to keep Chris Froome safe, especially after his tumble Tuesday that skinned up his left side and sent him for wrist X-rays.
“Every day here for us is stressful, even if it’s a sprinters stage, we have to keep him up there, not losing time,” Sky’s Bernhard Eisel said. “The last thing we want is him crashing and hurting himself. This is the most important [until] we get to the Vosges. The Roubaix stage will be the key stage for it.
“I think it is going to be too tough for all the GC riders up there, to be playing a really big role, and all of them will lose time. I don’t see them going to the finish with the best five … I think Fabian (Cancellara) will get a free card there. He didn’t lose much time … and Trek need the yellow jersey.”
Garmin-Sharp director Charly Wegelius said the team was as ready as it could be, but that there will be some degree of havoc, no matter what. Garmin’s Andrew Talansky sits just two seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) with a herd of others, including Froome and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), among others. Talansky rode the cobbles in April with Garmin sport director Andreas Klier. Teammate Johan Vansummeren is a 2011 Paris-Roubaix champion.
“He’s had the advice. The thing is, the way the peloton here is made up, it isn’t a Paris-Roubaix peloton,” Wegelius said. “So that’s another unusual element to it, and we have to see how the weather develops. You can prepare well, which we’ve done, but you also just have to accept that there’s a random element to racing over cobblestones.”
That randomness is unnerving for GC riders; an entire season of training can come down to just one puncture, just one crash. The Tour included the pavé anyways. But should it have?
“That’s not an easy question. Because if you do the races the same every year, then the sport will never progress,” Wegelius said. “Because nobody was super happy about the sand roads in the Giro, but I think that’s a great addition. And you know, sometimes you have to try new things. But on the other hand, I think everybody in general wants to see the best rider win the Tour de France. And it would be a shame for a mechanical or some kind of crash issue, something like that, to drastically change the context of the race.”
Even the savage opportunist Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is hesitant. His strategy? To cross his fingers. “The weather forecast is very bad. If it was dry, it was already a complicated stage, with rain it will be like a skating rink,” Contador said. “Tomorrow is a day to cross your fingers and hope that everything goes well.”
All eyes will be on Sky, and how Froome recovers from Tuesday’s dust-up. The stage would normally be something Eisel and teammate Geraint Thomas would chase after, but the larger goals here will keep some classics riders bouncing along their GC contenders.
“We won’t have a free card to go. We came here to win the Tour. We did not come here to win stage 5,” Eisel said. “We will try to support everybody — even Mikel Nieve, who is in really good form. We all need those guys in the mountains, and the Tour de France still has two and a half weeks to go from Wednesday on. And after Roubaix everybody will say the Tour de France hasn’t started.”
Eisel also said the opportunity isn’t one he’ll rue watching ride away, either.
“The enthusiasm is still there because that keeps you going and you get good legs out of it,” he said. “It will be different. Normally Roubaix you say, ‘Don’t show yourself, don’t go in any breaks’ but this time it will be ‘show yourself’… ‘kill yourself’ — I mean the legs — and bring the boys home.”
A day before the cobbles, it was very long, very rough road home.