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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Mikel Landa was all smiles outside the Movistar team bus Friday morning ahead of his first race ever over the treacherous Flanders cobblestones. He probably wasn’t smiling a few hours later.
The Movistar captain is among a wave of Tour de France-bound riders lining up in races they normally avoid like the plague. In fact, Friday’s E3 Harelbeke was only the second day of racing ever in the Basque climber’s career in Belgium.
“I will try to enjoy it as much as possible,” Landa said with a laugh. “We have an important stage in the Tour de France, and it’s important to know the way on those roads. I am not worried. I am here to learn.”
Flanders becomes the gravitational center for most of the cycling world for the next two weeks, but for riders like Landa, July is the only reason they’re here. Landa’s only other Belgian start was in the 2013 Flèche Wallonne on more fitting terrain.
With the Tour serving up a dangerous dose of cobblestones in 2018, Landa isn’t the only other big GC name making unlikely appearances in Flanders country. Many of the top stars have altered their schedules to make room to come to cobble country.
His Movistar teammates Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana will race Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet will also race Wednesday. Recent Milano-Sanremo winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who electrified the cobbles stage in the 2014 Tour de France, will line up at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Chris Froome (Sky) was spotted reconning some of the Roubaix cobbles this week.
For all the GC favorites targeting the Tour, there is a big X on stage 9 from Arras to Roubaix. Everyone knows that the unforgiving cobbles of northern France will play a key role in deciding who wins the 2018 Tour.
“That stage will be decisive,” said Movistar sport director Chente García Acosta. “This year there will be two Tours. The first, up to stage 9, and then we’ll begin another Tour. We’ll see who is still alive after that ninth stage and who is still in the fight for the yellow jersey.”
Teams hope that a day of racing here and a recon there will help their GC stars brace for the pivotal stage. Many of the Tour contenders have never raced on the cobblestones before, so even one day at race speed across the smoother Belgian pavé helps them know what they’re in for.
“I have to learn how to take the best and fastest over the cobbles,” Landa said. “I have to learn to fight to keep the position and to check the pressure of the tires. I’ve never raced over the cobbles. I have never trained on the cobbles.”
Of course, Harelbeke and Dwars feature a different kind of pavé than what the Tour peloton will face in July. Flanders’ cobbles are typically smoother and more rounded than the rougher, sharp-edged pavé of the rural farm roads featured in Roubaix.
As García Acosta pointed out, the stage is essentially the second half of the Paris-Roubaix course. The stage features 15 sectors at 21.7 kilometers of pavé on the 154km ninth stage from Arras to Roubaix. To put that into perspective, last year’s Paris-Roubaix featured 55km of cobblestones over 29 sectors.
“We know these cobbles are different than what they will race in the Tour, but it’s still important to get a little taste,” García Acosta said. “Keeping your position is very important when racing the cobbles.”
Recent editions of the Tour featuring cobbles have delivered dramatic racing. Much will depend on the weather. In 2014, the Tour traced over 15km of cobbles in nine sectors, and all hell broke loose in cold, wet conditions. The race blew up, and Nibali emerged with a two-minute advantage over his rivals that helped pave the way to his eventual Tour victory. The cobbles were back in 2015 but raced under drier conditions. Most of the GC riders safely negotiated the stage, finishing together in a group behind stage-winner Tony Martin without any major loss of time.
The Tour-bound riders obviously know the stakes of what’s on the line in stage 9.
“No one will be calm before the morning of the stage,” Bardet said of July’s cobbles. “With so many sectors of pavé, there is danger lurking for everyone.”
Teams will also be following the footsteps of Froome and Bardet, who have already done reconnaissance trips to the cobbled sectors of northern France.
“Everyone knows the parcours that waits for us in the Tour,” Landa said. “If they do not like it, they can stay home.”