It is still months away from the 2018 Tour de France, but the protagonists already have one day on their mind. It’s not Paris. Nor is it l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s stage 9.
The 154km stage across northern France would otherwise be innocuous if it weren’t for 15 fearsome sectors of pavé. The potential damage and opportunity the stage presents has been resonating in the minds of every GC favorite since the 2018 route was announced last October.
It’s a make-or-break stage in this year’s “grande boucle,” and anyone who cannot survive it won’t be in the GC frame once the real race starts.
As Movistar general manager Eusebio Unzué said, “There are two starts to this Tour de France; the first in the Vendée, and another after stage 9.”
Last week, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) was the first of many Tour favorites who will be trekking to northern France to inspect the perils that lie in wait. Along with classics favorite and teammate Oliver Naesen, as well as three other Ag2r riders, Bardet got a glimpse of the suffering that he can expect.
“These are not [second-rate] cobbles. These are the real deal,” Bardet said. “Even if I will feel vulnerable in July, it is a race that certainly will give some definition to the race.”
As Bardet said, these are the “real deal.” There won’t be infamous sectors such as the Carrefour de l’Arbre or the Arenberg forest, but these cobbles are the backbone of Paris-Roubaix.
The stage covers 21.7km spread over 15 sectors in the race from Arras to Roubaix. They range from 500m to 2.7km spread along about 100km of the stage. The first sector opens at 47km and the final sector is 8km from the finish line, so that means it will be an unending parade of danger once the bunch piles onto the cobbles.
Without a doubt, stage 9 will be one of the major turning points in this year’s Tour. It might completely blow up the race (like it did in 2014), or it might not have that much impact act all (like in 2015). But simply having the pavé back on the menu will alter the approach and outcome of this year’s Tour irrevocably.
First off, the GC riders will need to make special preparations for this decisive stage. Bardet might have been the first Tour favorite to hit the sectors, but he won’t be the last. There’s also equipment, wheels, and tires to test in the coming weeks and months. Not to mention tactics and strategy for the decisive day.
Second, many Tour-bound riders will likely be racing in some of the northern classics this year to get a taste of race-speed chaos. It’s one thing to trundle along with a few teammates, it’s quite something else to take them on at shoulder-to-shoulder at 40kph. Don’t expect to see them lining up for Paris-Roubaix, but a few big names will likely show up on the start list for E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen or Driedaagse De Panne.
Third, teams will be in a pinch on who to bring to their Tour lineups for this year’s edition. With the UCI shrinking the Tour squads from nine to eight starters, teams will be even under more pressure to make the right choice when it comes to selecting support riders. Do you bring a few extra brawnier riders to get your skinny GC captain through the first half of the Tour? Or do you cross your fingers and hope they make it, and then pack your team with lean climbers to help in the end of the race?
“This new rule will make the Tour selection even more complicated,” said Quick-Step sport director Rik Van Slyke. “It’s always better to have one more rider for the flats. It will be trickier in the Tour for teams who want to bring a sprinter.”
And finally, the stage itself will alter the dynamics of the Tour. Some say it’s inappropriate and even unfair to force the skinny GC riders to have to tackle such rigorous race conditions in today’s highly specialized peloton. The northern classics attract a special breed of riders. Why force skin-and-bones climbers over the bone-rattling pavé? Traditionalists counter that the cobbles are simply part of cycling’s tapestry, and if a GC rider cannot handle them, well, they’re not a true rider.
No matter your take on whether or not they belong in the Tour, the cobblestones are already front and center of every GC rider in the peloton.
Their presence re-enforces that old adage; the Tour won’t be won the pavé, but it certainly could be lost.
“This could be one of the most decisive stages of the Tour,” Bardet said. “Every mishap and every setback, you will pay in cash.”