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Nairo Quintana and other Tour de France favorites...

Tour favorites Bardet, Valverde, Quintana join midweek cobbles bash

More Tour de France GC riders are signing up to race on cobblestones, this time in Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen.

GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Three more Tour de France favorites are throwing themselves into the classics cauldron Wednesday for a small taste of race-speed pavé with a start at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

The prospect of racing across the cobblestones during July’s Tour de France has drawn a few yellow jersey contenders north this spring. Mikel Landa (Movistar) raced last Friday at E3 Harelbeke. On Wednesday, his teammates Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana will race. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet is also scheduled to line up.

“I won’t be taking any risks,” Valverde told Het Nieuwsblad when he arrived Monday evening in Ghent. “It’s not worth it, but I think it’s important that me and Nairo race across the pavé. You cannot simulate that in training.”

Skinny climbers racing over punishing cobblestones usually does not end well, and it will be an oddity to see these lean GC riders line up next to big, brawny cobble-bashers like Tim Declercq (Quick-Step Floors) Wednesday morning. Quintana weighs 128 pounds, while the hulking Declercq is 55 pounds heavier.

Finding room on the calendar and rosters was a challenge for teams boasting strong GC ambitions with a complete classics focus. That was easier at Movistar, which doesn’t have a front-line classics assault. Other teams, such as BMC Racing or Quick-Step, are not willing to give up on its precious seven starting spots to a GC rider on a recon mission for July.

Ag2r is making room on its seven-man Dwars roster to squeeze in Bardet. The 143-pound climber also wants at least a short portion of cobbles at race speed ahead of July’s big test in stage 9.

“I know the cobbles are different here than in Roubaix, but it’s important to get a feel at high speed to race over them,” Bardet told AFP. “I have no real ambition other than that, [the] exception [being] to help [Oliver] Naesen if I can in any way.”

Bardet already did a recon mission to inspect the much more treacherous cobbles over the winter. And he raced to a podium spot at Strade Bianche earlier this month. In fact, Bardet’s first four race days this year were one-day events. Like Valverde, he will race next at the Tour of the Basque Country and return for Liège-Bastogne-Liège to close out the spring classics in April.

For all the GC favorites targeting the Tour, there is a big X on stage 9 from Arras to Roubaix. Everyone knows the treacherous cobbles of northern France will play a key role in deciding who wins the 2018 Tour.

“That stage will be decisive,” said Movistar sport director Chente García Acosta. “This year there will be two Tours. The first, up to stage 9, and then we’ll begin another Tour. We’ll see who is still alive after that ninth stage and who is still in the fight for the yellow jersey.”

Of course, Harelbeke and Dwars feature a different kind of pavé than what the Tour peloton will face in July. Flanders’ cobbles are typically smoother and more rounded than the rougher, sharp-edged pavé of the rural farm roads featured in Roubaix.

As García Acosta pointed out, the Tour stage is essentially the second half of the Paris-Roubaix course. The 154km route features 21.7km of pavé, broken up into 15 sectors. To put that into perspective, last year’s Paris-Roubaix featured 55km of cobblestones over 29 sectors.

“We know these cobbles are different than what they will race in the Tour, but it’s still important to get a little taste,” García Acosta said. “Keeping your position is very important when racing the cobbles.”

There’s also a danger of crashing and injury for these Tour de France favorites, but it seems worth the risk. Landa was caught up in a big pileup midway through Harelbeke but escaped without serious injury.

Don’t expect to see these Tour riders to someday transition to classics riders, especially not Bardet and Quintana. Valverde admitted that the Ronde van Vlaanderen intrigues him and he hopes one day to race it. Milano-Sanremo winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will race the Ronde for the first time Sunday, and then fly that night to start the Vuelta al País Vasco on Monday morning.

“I want to race Flanders one day,” Valverde said. “My problem now is that I weigh 61kg, and I am targeting Liège to try to equal Eddy Merckx’s record of five wins. Racing in Flanders is a big adventure for me.”