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The 2014 Tour de France's cobblestone stage was a...

With pave on tap and yellow jersey in reach, cobbles riders face team dilemma

As cobbles specialists sit within striking distance of the yellow jersey, stage 4 will be a glimpse into the sacrifices teams make for GC

In the days before the Tour de France started, 2013 winner Chris Froome (Sky) predicted that the first week of this Tour de France would play out like “nine one-day classics” before the race for GC hits the mountains.

Froome’s assessment has proven correct thus far, with Sunday’s windy stage to Zélande, reminiscent of the coastal battles of Gent-Wevelgem, and Monday’s crash-marred stage, finishing with an uphill sprint on the Mur du Huy, the climb made famous at Flèche-Wallonne.

And the next serving at this “classics buffet” will be perhaps the most substantial — Tuesday’s stage 4 will cross over seven sectors of cobblestone roads, or pavé, utilized in the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix. Six of these sectors come within a 30km span of the stage finish, with the last sector coming 13km from the line.

Froome, who took ownership of the maillot jaune on Monday atop the Mur, is one of several major GC leaders whose team roster also contains a cobblestone classics specialist — and one who happens to also be well-positioned to take the race lead at the finish in Cambrai on Tuesday afternoon.

Virtual GC of cobblestone specialists whose teams have GC contenders

1. Greg Van Avermaet, BMC Racing
2. Peter Sagan, Tinkoff-Saxo, at 0:03
3. Geraint Thomas, Team Sky, at 0:35
4. Zdenek Stybar, Etixx-Quick-Step, at 0:36

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), fourth on the cobbles at the Tour last year and sixth at Paris-Roubaix a few months earlier, currently sits sixth on GC, 31 seconds behind Froome. His team leader, Alberto Contador, lost a bit of time on the Mur du Huy, and currently sits eighth overall, 36 seconds down — or five seconds behind Sagan.

Even higher on the classification is Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who finished third at Paris-Roubaix in April, and fourth in 2013. Van Avermaet sits fifth overall, 28 seconds behind Froome. He also sits 15 seconds behind his teammate, American Tejay van Garderen, who would surely benefit from his guidance across the pavé.

While others in the race, such as current Roubaix champion John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and runner-up, Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step), will have free rein to contest for the stage win, it’s likely that Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Thomas will be forced to ride in the service of their GC leaders. (Three-time Roubaix champion Fabian Cancellara of Trek Factory Racing was forced to abandon the Tour with fractured vertebrae.)

Stybar sits in a most unusual position, in that his Etixx teammate, Rigoberto Urán, while twice second overall at the Giro d’Italia, has never contended for victory at the Tour de France and has not been viewed as a podium threat.

Also complicating matters at Etixx is German TT specialist Tony Martin, who has sat second overall behind three different riders for three consecutive days. While Martin has no Roubaix pedigree, the three-time world time trial champion finished 17th on the Tour’s pavé last year, 2:02 down on stage winner Lars Boom. He, too, could well ride into the maillot jaune Tuesday, assuming he can stay within reach of the front of the race.

“I didn’t expect to even be this close,” Martin said Monday. “I am looking forward to tomorrow. The whole team is motivated for the cobbles and we will again fight for yellow.”

In Sky’s case, it’s a bit more straightforward — the team would not “gain” the maillot jaune if Thomas were to go up the road, as Froome is already holding the race lead. And in order for Thomas to take the yellow jersey, he’d need to take over 30 seconds from Van Avermaet and Sagan. However, given that Froome will also have classics stars Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe pulling him across the stones, Thomas may be given a bit of freedom.

“It’s a great position to be in going into the cobbles stage tomorrow,” Froome said. “Hopefully, being in yellow will motivate the whole team to stay together tomorrow and stay safe over the pavé.”

When each scenario is taken into consideration, it’s an interesting glimpse into the gambles and sacrifices, teams must make when prioritizing the general classification above all else.

Last year, when the Tour visited the cobbles on stage 5, it was Vincenzo Nibali, already wearing the yellow jersey, who emerged as the best-placed GC contender across the cobblestones, aided by super-domestique Jakob Fuglsang. The winner that day, Boom, now rides in Astana colors. This time around, no Astana riders are in in contention to take the maillot jaune, with Nibali the team’s best-placed rider, 13th overall, 1:38 behind Froome.

A better example of a cobblestone star riding with dual purpose across the pavé at the Tour came in 2010, when Cancellara shepherded Andy Schleck across the cobbles. Along with Cadel Evans, Schleck was the only major GC favorite to finish in the six-man front group. Cancellara didn’t win the stage — that honor went to Thor Hushovd — but he was able to take the maillot jaune by finishing sixth on the stage, in the same time as Hushovd.

Thomas finished second that day, while Contador rode well, finishing 13th, 1:13 behind the front group, and, memorably, 55 seconds ahead of Lance Armstrong, who had punctured on the cobbles, the beginning of his unraveling at his final Tour de France.

What’s likely is that this time around, cobblestone stars like Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Thomas will only be given leash to run in the context of their team leaders, and their relative position to GC rivals — i.e., if Contador has distanced Froome late in the race, Sagan may be allowed to contest for the win in the closing kilometers.

Sagan, who has worn the green jersey for nearly 60 days in his career but has never worn yellow, was characteristically muted on the subject, saying only, “We have to ride for Alberto [Contador] tomorrow. It will be a very dangerous stage. We will see.”

Posed the question on Twitter, Tinkoff road captain Michael Rogers replied, “Difficult Q to answer right now. Decision most likely to be made during the stage tomorrow.”

Van Averamet struck a similar tone as Sagan, deferring to his team leader, though he did directly address his own ambitions, saying, “The cobbles suit me a little bit better, and it is also not totally flat, which is good for me. There is a little bit of uphill on the cobbles, so I am looking forward to tomorrow. The main goal is Tejay for sure, but I hope to go for a stage victory.”

And when it’s all said and done, perhaps the only thing that’s certain about the cobblestones is uncertainty — even for a cobblestone specialist, protecting a team leader is easier said than done. Crashes, punctures, and poor positioning can all see large time gaps open quickly. In 2010, on the same stage that Cancellara shepherded Andy Schleck to through to the front group, his older brother Frank was one of the pavé’s first casualties, breaking his collarbone and exiting the Tour. It’s a very real scenario, and one that could change the dynamic of the stage, and GC, in an instant.