GC riders brace for rough ride on Tour’s cobblestone stage

They’re back. The feared, cheered, and jeered cobblestones of northern France return to the Tour de France with a bang in 2018.

Intimidating portions of the bone-rattling pavé are a major ingredient of the first half of the engaging and spectacular route unveiled Tuesday for the 105th edition of cycling’s biggest show.

“We will see the return of the pavé,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said with glee. “There are 21.7km of the cobbles on 15 bone-shaking sectors.”

You could almost hear the collective gasp in the Palais des Congrés when Prudhomme revealed the details. These aren’t window-dressing cobblestones or a sprinkling of bumpy roads to spice up a finale. This is the real deal: 15 sectors at 21.7 kilometers of pavé on the 154km ninth stage from Arras to Roubaix.

To put that into perspective, this year’s Paris-Roubaix featured 55km of cobblestones over 29 sectors.

Just call it Le Petit Roubaix.

Stage 19 of the 2018 Tour de France has 21.7km of cobblestones. 

“You could see a lot happening that day,” said four-time champion Chris Froome (Sky). “It’s going to be very nervy and dangerous up in the northwest of France before we hit any of the big mountain stages. We could see the race torn to pieces.”

Froome is right. These cobbles will shape the 2018 Tour de France in a dramatic way.

With many bumpy sectors — ranging in length from 500m to 2.7km — stacked up in the meat of the stage, it’s hard to imagine the GC landscape not dramatically altered by the time the peloton trundles into Roubaix.

In fact, this many cobbled sectors will certainly be a race-changer. With today’s GC riders sculpting their bodies to as trim and light as possible, the cobblestones are the antithesis of what a modern grand tour rider is tailored to do.

Tour de France contenders are built to climb mountains, not barrel over the punishing treachery of France’s rough-cut pavé.

“No one will be calm before the morning of the stage,” said French star Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). “With so many sectors of pavé, there is danger lurking for everyone.”

The Tour stars were putting on a brave face Tuesday, but one can imagine teams are already taking a closer look at what lies ahead.

Preparation will be key to surviving the stage with GC options fully intact. Recon trips to the cobbles will be required and equipment testing will begin over the winter. A few of the GC stars might add early season spring classics to their racing calendars to become more comfortable racing on the cobbles. We’ve seen riders like Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, who’ve rarely if ever raced on the pavé, take on a few Belgian races to get a taste of the pavé in the past.

There’s good news. Roubaix’s most notorious cobbles — Carrefour de l’Arbre won’t be in the stage. There’s at least one five-star sector from Roubaix with the 900m sector at Mons-en-Pévèle. The longest sector, d’Auchiy à Bersée, is 2,700m about midway through the stage.

The cobbled sectors are spread out over roughly 100km of road. The first sector hits at 47km (1.6km at Thun), and the final sector at 8km from the line (1.4km at Hem). That means it will be an unending parade of treachery once the bunch piles onto the cobblestones.

Teams will certainly tweak their lineups to bring added muscle to help their scrawny GC captains survive the Tour’s harrowing first half.

“We will have to be very attentive on the stage with the pavé,” Quintana said Tuesday. “If I am surrounded by specialists like [Daniel] Bennati, [Imanol] Erviti, and [Juanjo] Rojas, I am sure I will be able to get through it without problems.”

That might be easier said than done. Positioning is key. And so is luck.

A lot of it depends on the weather. In 2014, the Tour traced 15km of cobbles over nine sectors, but under cold and rainy conditions. The race blew up, and Vincenzo Nibali emerged with a two-minute advantage to his nearest GC rivals.

The cobbles were back in 2015, but raced under drier conditions. As a result, the top GC favorites finished just three seconds behind stage winner Tony Martin. No worse for wear.

Vincenzo Nibali’s brilliant ride on the wet cobblestones in 2014 helped him win his first Tour overall. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Do the cobblestones even belong in the Tour de France?

The pavé has been featured in the Tour three times since 2010. Thor Hushovd won that year, with Lars Boom winning in 2014, and Martin in 2015.

There is some debate within the sport about whether or not the cobblestones should even be in a grand tour. Some argue their inclusion is unfair and perhaps even dangerous to the GC riders, who rarely if ever race on the pavé. Others insist the cobblestones part of racing’s skillset, and that a grand tour winner should and must be a complete rider. It’s like in baseball; if you can’t hit a curveball, you probably won’t be a star.

Bardet, who clearly isn’t built for the cobbles, seemed ready to embrace the challenge.

“I love the historic dimension of the Tour,” Bardet said. “The cobbles? They’re part of the Tour. It is the beauty of our sport. It’s obvious that the pavé can seal our destiny, and that our race can end right there. It’s part of the allure of cycling, something is beyond the calculations.”

The return of the cobblestones will put a punctuation mark on the end of the first full intense week of racing in the 2018 Tour.

Whoever comes out of Roubaix with their GC options fully intact will have the pole position going into the Alps following the first rest day.

It should be a spectacular, hard-fought, and likely dramatic day of racing. A handful of GC riders could see six months of hard work and planning dashed in an instant. For survivors, the pavé might be a launching pad to a successful Tour.

What’s sure, the cobblestones will mark the 2018 Tour and reset the GC going into the second half of the race.