Defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador took to the treacherous cobbled roads of northern France on Tuesday, preparing for terrain he admits could dent his bid for a third yellow jersey this year.

Contador gets some pointers from Peter van Petegem.
Contador gets some pointers from Peter van Petegem.

The 97th edition of the world’s toughest bike race will start in the Dutch port of Rotterdam on July 3 and snake its way down through Belgium and into northern France before heading for the first mountain stages in the Alps.

Stage four between Danze in Belgium to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, near Valenciennes in northern France, is one that could change the fortunes of several challengers for overall victory.

As a tribute to the tough one-day classic Paris-Roubaix, organisers planned stage four to include seven cobblestone sectors in the final 40 kilometers.

And with the cobblestones’ reputation for exacting a heavy crash toll on the peloton, Contador does not want to be caught out.

This is not the terrain Contador specializes in.
Contador concedes that this is not the sort of terrain that suits his talents.

“It’s fundamental to come here,” said the Spanish climbing specialist, who won the race in 2007 and 2009. “We have to test certain pieces of equipment and get a good feel for the conditions. Obviously, it’s going to be a tricky stage so we have to find the best and safest way to approach it.”

Contador was accompanied by Astana teammate Oscar Pereiro, the Tour winner in 2006, but was given more valuable insight by an old hand in the cobblestone race game – former Paris-Roubaix winner Peter Van Petegem.

“He’s got masses of experience of these kinds of races,” Contador said of the Belgian, who is now retired. “I learned more about the cobbles from him in a few hours than I have in my entire life.”

“It will be a drama-filled stage but one that can end your campaign if you suffer a heavy fall,” Contador said. “There will be attacks, for sure, but at the same time the Tour will be far from over. I’ve learned a lot today, and feel pretty good about things.”

Contador said that he’s been concerned about the risks posed by the cobbled sections on the stage.

“The risks are high,” he said, “But that is true in any stage. In this stage there is just more risk of equipment failure or a fall. No one is going to win the Tour on this stage, but you can certainly lose it there.”

Asked whether his time on the cobbles may prompt him to consider taking on Paris-Roubaix, Contador smiled.

Yes, of course. The forest of Arenberg is perfect for me and of course I will be at the start,” he said with a laugh. “Seriously, for the moment, I prefer to watch the race on television at home.”