VN Archives: Shocks & setbacks as the 2010 Tour de France hits the cobbles

A look back at the 2010 cobblestone stage, which pitted Lance Armstrong against Alberto Contador and the Schlecks and caused a shakeup in the general classification

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The 2022 Tour de France hits the pavé Wednesday.

What better way to celebrate the carnage that is a cobblestone stage of the Tour than to look back on one of the most memorable days when a modern grand tour hit bumpy ground.

Rewind your clocks 12 years and relive the chaos caused by Fabian Cancellara in 2010: 

Though the stage into soggy Spa was largely neutralized, it left the peloton somewhat battered, and when they lined up the next day on a bright, breezy morning in Wanze, riders were afraid they’d have to deal with more crashes in the much-anticipated stage of the cobblestones.

A typical view came from Fränk Schleck, who, after his travails of the day before, said, “I’ve got pain everywhere, so we’ll see how we get through today.” The co-leader of Saxo Bank had reason to be circumspect because neither he nor his brother Andy had raced on Paris-Roubaix style pavé before. And it was predicted that they and the other lightly built climbers, including Contador, would have a hard time limiting their losses on such unfavorable terrain.

Almost five hours later, after a tumultuous 215km stage ended in the shadow of gaunt steel and brick structures at the historic Arenberg coal mine, the results were very different from the expectations. The cobblestone experts did come through strongly. Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd won the stage from Sky’s Thomas, while Cancellara also finished with the leaders to re-take the yellow jersey. But also in the winning six-man break were an excellent Evans, a surprising Andy Schleck (ably guided by Cancellara) and the day’s true hero, Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin.

The lanky Canadian was covered in the dust kicked up on the cobblestones, as were the other 188 men who survived this stage, just like the local miners who, for more than eight decades, emerged into the daylight here with blackened faces after long hours working the deep Arenberg coal seams. Hesjedal, relieved that morning of his support-rider duties for Vande Velde, was on the attack for most of the day. “I was jumping around, and two bridged up, then two more,” he said about the opening kilometers, “but my one real goal was making it happen. I picked this stage because when I left mountain biking everyone said, ‘You’ll be good in Roubaix.’ But my first experiences in the classic weren’t that great, so when I got into the break at the start of today I just figured I’d get as far as I could up the road and see what happens.”

What happened was that his breakaway group gained four minutes in the opening half of the stage, and was only two minutes clear after Team RadioShack drove the chase onto the first of seven sectors of pavé. The gap was less than a minute when they reached the key, 2.4km-long section of cobbles at Sars-et-Rosières after crossing the border into France. By this point, there were only 60-or-so riders left in the peloton after flat-out efforts by riders from Saxo Bank (for the Schlecks) and Cervélo (for Hushovd).

Also riding strongly was BMC. “We were good,” team leader Evans said. “Not as good as Saxo, but good enough. Markus [Burghardt] and George [Hincapie] put me in great position before the pavé.” “Getting to the cobblestones was the hard part,” echoed RadioShack’s Horner. Indeed, Armstrong, Contador and Evans all jumped onto sidewalks to get close to the front when five Saxo riders, led by Voigt, surged toward that crucial fourth sector. Yet, despite the chase getting closer and closer, a confident Hesjedal twice attacked the break before going solo with 26.5km, including more than 10km of the toughest Roubaix cobblestones, left to race.

Just as the Canadian went clear, there was drama behind. A high-speed crash right at the front of the chase pack sent Fränk Schleck sprawling to the ground, breaking his left collarbone in three places and putting him out of the Tour. His fall temporarily blocked the narrow road and forced many to stop, including Armstrong and Leipheimer.

At the same time, Cancellara accelerated from the front, taking Andy Schleck with him, while Evans, Hushovd and Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas quickly bridged the gap caused by the crash. The RadioShack riders, who had been expecting so much from this stage, cursed their bad luck. “I got stuck behind that crash,” Horner said, “and I had to open up a gap for Levi to get through a hole. Then I got through, but it took me about 10 seconds to get clipped back in my pedal as my bike was bouncing around so much.” Armstrong squeezed through a little quicker. And with 20km remaining, where Hesjedal was still in a solo lead by half a minute, Armstrong led a small chase group 23 seconds behind by the Cancellara fivesome, while Contador was in the next group, another 40 seconds back.

It was looking hopeful for the Texan, but on the second-to-last sector of cobbles, with just over 16km to go, his front tire went flat. Because the race was so split up on the narrow roads, there was no service vehicle close and Armstrong had to wait to get a wheel from his teammate Jani Brajkovic in the next group. So instead of gaining more time on Contador, the RadioShack leader was now behind. He eventually dropped everyone with him, including Yaroslav Popvych, who buried himself to help Armstrong catch back on, and began the final section of pavé alone, with 10km remaining, just over a minute behind the Spaniard’s seven-man group that also contained Menchov, Vinokourov and Wiggins.

But this was just limiting his losses. Hesjedal was still alone in front, riding magnificently, and looking as though he might even win the stage. “I was hoping they weren’t coming up,” he told VeloNews. “I was holding the time for a little while, and I thought it was possible to get through the last pavé. That was definitely the most encouraging, to think I had a shot, but those guys were going pretty good. I got caught with 5K to go. It would have been nice to win but there were some pretty classy guys there.”

Hesjedal stuck with the small Cancellara-led group and even attacked them on a turn in the final kilometer. But Hushovd came through to win from Thomas and Evans, with the Canadian in fourth, followed by Schleck and Cancellara — who was back in the yellow jersey. Next came a group with Menchov, Wiggins and Omega-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broeck at 53 seconds; Contador, riding with a broken spoke, conceded 1:13; an awed Kreuziger was in the next eight-man group at 1:46; and Armstrong ended up with a 19-strong group at 2:08.

The time gaps weren’t as disastrous as predicted, but they were large enough. More significant was the fatigue in the riders’ dust-stained faces as they slowly worked their way through massed crowds to their team buses. Evans was one of the freshest. “I’ve never raced on the cobbles before so I’m really happy,” he said. “George would have been in our group without his puncture, and I think there’s a pretty good chance it would have been a bigger gap at the finish; but it puts me in a pretty good position for now.”

The other main beneficiary was Andy Schleck, who lucidly said this about his mixed emotions: “I felt pretty good today. I knew I wasn’t so bad on the stones even though nobody believes that I can manage to go fast over the cobbles. But it was not a good day for the team as we lost Fränk. I rode for the GC … and I gained back today what I lost in the time trial Saturday.”

One of the favorites, Tour of California winner Rogers, was extremely frustrated to lose 2:25. “I was in the front group after the second cobbles section and punctured the back wheel on the third,” he said “I had [Mark] Renshaw there, and he gave me his back wheel, but the change took a minute and once you’ve lost contact…. That’s life, eh? You have to be pretty lucky not to puncture. I’m not renowned as a cobbles rider, but I felt nice and powerful, and the legs are certainly there.”

As for Farrar, who came in 6:28 back, he said, “That was no fun [with] my broken wrist. But somehow I survived … live to fight another day.” The sprinter disappeared into the crowds just as a media mob gathered at the back of the RadioShack bus to quiz a philosophical Armstrong, who’d lost 55 seconds to Contador because of a flat tire. “It’s just bad luck,” he observed. “Like I always say, sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. Today I was the nail.”


OVERALL STANDINGS (after stage 3): 1. Cancellara; 2. Thomas, at 0:23; 3. Evans, at 0:39; 4. Hesjedal, at 0:46; 5. Chavanel, at 1:01; 6. Schleck, at 1:09; 7. Hushovd, at 1:19; 8. Vinokourov, at 1:31; 9. Contador, at 1:40; 10. Van den Broeck, at 1:42.

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