When cobbles attack: The 2014 Tour features a dramatic twist

The inclusion of cobblestones during a Tour de France stage next summer could potentially blow apart the GC leadership

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Cobblestones are back for the 2014 Tour de France, and you could almost feel the tension fill the room as nervous GC candidates watched in growing gloom from their seats Wednesday in Paris as Tour officials confirmed their worst fears.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme seemed to reveal the potential trap with relish, vowing that no stage during next year’s Tour will be predictable or boring.

“Cobblestones are part of racing,” Prudhomme said Wednesday. “It’s appropriate they are featured in the Tour.”

The cobbles are the real deal, with nine sectors totaling 15.4 kilometers of bumpy, potentially hazardous roads. The sectors are not the Arenberg trench or the Carrefour, but cobblestones are cobblestones.

The pavé are the bane for any GC rider, especially ones like Chris Froome (Sky) or Nairo Quintana (Movistar), two riders with exotic backgrounds who have little to no experience on the cobbles. Froome once started but did not finish Paris-Roubaix while Quintana has never touched rubber to cobbles.

Defending champion Froome liked what he saw Wednesday in Paris, with the lone exception of the pavé that’s featured as the centerpiece of stage 5.

“It is a risk, more risk having the cobbles in. Anything can go wrong on the cobbles; crashes, punctures, mechanicals,” Froome said Wednesday. “It’s something we’re going to have to train specifically for, get out there, see the cobbles, ride the cobbles.”

In a Tour packed with climbs, especially in the second half, the bumpy roads will create the added touch of drama that Tour organizers are hoping for to keep tension tautly wound all the way to Paris.

“We don’t want to see two or three days without something happening,” Prudhomme said Wednesday. “We don’t want the Tour to be predictable.”

Fair or not fair?

The presence of the pavé will reignite the debate of whether or not the cobblestones are appropriate for a three-week stage race. Traditionalists insist cobblestones are simply part of the cycling landscape, and that a complete GC rider should have the skillset of racing on cobbles part of their quiver.

Others, however, say it’s unfair and almost cruel to force skinny, all-around riders to risk all to pound across a few kilometers of pavé that will not decide who will win the Tour, but certainly could eliminate a few candidates.

It’s one thing to feature the pavé in races such as Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) or Roubaix, but more than a few privately mutter that the cobblestones have no place in a grand tour, where a mechanical or an accident can undermine an entire season of preparation and training. A grand tour winner should be decided on the mountains or in the time trials, not in a handful of gratuitous kilometers that offer little more than a cheap spectacle, or so the thinking goes.

A bumpy precedent

A century ago, cobblestones used to play an integral part of the Tour, simply because at the beginning of the 20th century, many of France’s roads were made of the small chunks of rock. Those roads began to slowly disappear from the landscape with the march of progress, meaning that today’s modern Tour rarely features cobblestone roads.

Of course, the punishing cobbles are the star in Paris-Roubaix and other northern classics, but GC riders like Froome and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) avoid them like the plague. In fact, neither come close to the northern classics for the exact reason that the races are highly dangerous and are prone to leading to season-ending injuries.

Road conditions have improved greatly over the decades, and the cobblestones and gravel roads of Europe have been paved over with asphalt. Today’s ever improving roadways allow speeds to have increased dramatically on the flats, with the downside of ever-growing “traffic furniture,” with traffic islands, speed bumps, and roundabouts making even the best road surface treacherous with 200 highly nervous riders fighting for position.

It’s one thing for Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) or Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) to pound across the pavé, but they’re specialists who have the bulk and brawn to withstand the incessant pounding. GC riders rarely race the northern classics. Bernard Hinault raced Paris-Roubaix once, and won, simply to prove that he could, and never came back, pooh-poohing the race as a “gimmick.”

Gimmick or not, the cobblestones are back in the Tour, and they certainly will create a stir, raise tensions, and, if two recent experiences over the cobbles are any indication, are sure to change the dynamics of the race.

Armstrong and the cobbles

The Tour, in fact, didn’t feature cobblestones for more than 20 years, bringing them back in 2004 and again in 2010.

The now-dethroned Lance Armstrong played the protagonist with gusto in each occasion.

In 2004, Armstrong was at the height of domination and megalomania in the Tour, roaring toward a then-record sixth straight victory. All of those wins have since been erased from the history books, but back in 2004, Armstrong was king of the Tour, and two sectors of cobblestones in the 210km third stage weren’t going to stop him.

There was one rider who dared to take on the Armstrong challenge, and that was weasel-like Basque climber Iban Mayo. The previous year, Mayo had dashed to an impressive stage victory up l’Alpe d’Huez, and in the early part of 2004, had won the Critérium du Dauphiné, including taking two minutes out of Armstrong on a climbing time trial up Mont Ventoux. Confident and brash, Mayo was making noises about knocking Armstrong off his Tour throne.

Armstrong, of course, was going to have none of that. The Tour hit the cobbles, with Armstrong and then-U.S. Postal Service teammates Viatcheslav Ekimov and Pavel Padrnos leading the stampede. Armstrong, always an excellent bike-handler, made it safely over the cobbles. Mayo, fighting frantically for position, crashed on the approach to the cobbles, then lost contact with the lead group, losing nearly four minutes. Mayo later abandoned, and never returned to seriously challenge in the Tour again.

The other recent cobblestone adventure came in 2010, but this time, Armstrong came up on the losing end of the battle.

Into his second year of Comeback 2.0, Armstrong looked even fitter and stronger than he did in 2009, when he finished third behind then-teammate and archrival Contador. Things turned sour quickly for Armstrong, however, when he punctured on the cobbles just as the race was breaking apart in stage 3. It was worse for Frank Schleck, who crashed out with a broken collarbone.

Suddenly, all the things that never happened to Armstrong in his previous seven Tours — punctures, crashes, and injury — were sprouting up like weeds. Call it karma. Contador made it through that day, but Armstrong could not chase back from his puncture and ceded more than two minutes . The Texan would later crash in the Alps to fade out of contention, and then limped into Paris, rejoining the ranks of the mortals.

Preparing for the worst

How stage 5 plays out next July will only be determined that day. Riders such as Cancellara or Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), who won on a similar stage in 2010, will be bucking for the stage victory. For the rest, it will be a stage to endure and limit the losses.

The inclusion of the cobblestones, however, will greatly shape the race in the weeks and months before as well as the dynamics on the day, and after.

Riders such as Froome and Quintana will be getting a crash course — not literally, their teams will hope — on how to ride the cobbles. Riders will recon the stage at least once and practice the technique of bouncing over the bumpy roads. Sky riders such as Bernard Eisel as well as sport director Servais Knaven, who won Roubaix in 2001, will prove invaluable to Froome in the lead-up to the stage.

In fact, Sky is already planning a special training camp for that very purpose, telling L’Equipe that team brass will scout out the cobbles.

“At the end of November, we will go there to analyze everything of the route, and then we will make a plan for the Tour,” team principal Dave Brailsford said. “The situation is uncontrollable on the cobbles. We will certainly organize a camp to train on the cobbles. Chris will not race, but he will have a chance to train on the cobbles.”

Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli has suggested that Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who will be one of Froome’s top rivals, could race the Tour of Flanders to get a taste of cobbles under duress.

Team mechanics will also be building special bikes for Froome on the stage, with wider tires, lower tire pressure, and extra tape on the handlebars — little details that are part and parcel of racing the northern classics, but that Froome hardly knows.

Come Tour time, teams will be taking a harder look at just what kind of riders they will want to bring for the race. Even though the second half of the Tour is laden with climbs, the first half of the course is packed with long, tricky transition stages that will require a strong, go-the-distance support for the GC riders.

Much like Cadel Evans and BMC, which almost brought a team of classics riders to the 2011 Tour at the expense of skinny climber domestiques, teams such as Sky, Movistar and Saxo will want to bring along at least a few power riders to get through the first half of the Tour, not to mention the cobblestones featured in stage 5.

“The first half of the race is going to be full of tension, especially with the cobbles on top of what will already been a stressful first week,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “No one will know who is strong until the ninth day, and with the cobbles added in, it will make the first eight days a battle of survival.”

Perhaps it’s with a sadistic twist of the knife that Tour officials have included pavé.

As the saying goes, it certainly will not crown who wins the Tour, but it will all but surely eliminate a major candidate or two for overall victory.

Who will it be? We’ll all have to wait until July to find out who, but what’s all but sure is that it will be someone.

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