So, after two quiet, uneventful days of the 2010 Tour de France, the riders head for the cobbles. With almost all the major contenders nursing bumps and scrapes, some more serious than others, the last thing any of them wants to do today is ride across nine miles of bone-jarring pavé. But somewill definitely be dreading the 133-mile stage three from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg in northern France more than others. In fact, many are predicting thatit will have a decisive impact on the whole race.
There is certainly some precedent for great riders falling apart on the relentless terrain. In the 1980 Tour de France there were two consecutive stages with around 15 miles of cobbles. Bernard Hinault won the first but his knee popped on the second and the formidable Badger had to surrender the race. In abysmal weather Lucien van Impe and Bernard Thévenet, both previous winners of the Tour, surrendered more than 10 minutes.
More recently the mercurial Spanish climber Iban Mayo came into the 2004 Tour de France having just inflicted a devastating defeat of Lance Armstrong at the Dauphiné Libéré, beating the Texan by more than two minutes on a time trial to the top of Mont Ventoux. He was going to be a contender until 3.9km of pavé was enough to send hysteria through the peloton. Mayo was left with a nasty gash in his thigh and a four-minute deficit; Denis Menchov, the best French rider Christophe Moreau and Thor Hushovd also left their chances in the gutters.
This year is the first time since 2004 that the Tour has returned to the cobbled roads of the North and before that the previous occasion was 1989. For many riders this is all right and sensible. “I find it a bit of a shame,” says Maxime Monfort, a Belgian who rides for HTC-Columbia. “It’s very unpredictable. I’m sure one of the favourites will lose the race that day. Apart from Armstrong they will all be stressed, as they are all light guys.” Then there is the issue of safety. “It will be great fun to watch, fun for TV but it won’t be fun on the road,” says Bjarne Riis, the team manager of Saxo Bank, whose line-up includes the Schleck brothers.
For others, however, it is just another aspect of bike racing. “I don’t understand why people complain,” says Sylvain Chavanel, who will aim to defend the yellow jersey in today’s stage. “A rider who wants to win a three-week tour must be able to defend himself on the flat, in the mountains, on the cobblestones, everywhere. That’s what makes a big rider.”
So, who will have had a particularly restless night? Everyone agrees that Alberto Contador, the defending champion, could lose time. Upper body strength is vital for controlling the bike as it goes over the bumps and the Spaniard has a classic climber’s spindly arms. He had also never even ridden on cobbles before two recent reconnaissance trips. “I would have preferred if they hadn’t put cobbles on the Tour route,” he admits.
Those most likely profit from any weakness or indecision shown by Contador include Armstrong and Bradley Wiggins. What everyone agrees, however, is that it is going to be unmissable entertainment. “At Paris-Roubaix there is a natural selection of the rider who actually wants to ride on the pavé and who knows how to ride on it,” says Robbie McEwen, who is riding his 11th Tour and finished third on the stage in 2004 that did for Mayo. “Then in the race there’s the natural selection of the race too. At the Tour we’ll have the classics riders wanting to win the stage, the overall contenders trying to make sure they don’t lose time and then all their domestiques, some who won’t have a clue about the cobbles, doing everything they can to help them. It’s going to be carnage.”
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