Team Sky is shifting into Paris-Roubaix mode for Sunday’s bumpy stage across the cobblestones of northern France. The team is organizing a fleet of helpers to have wheels and bidons waiting on all 15 sectors of pavé.
“Like in Roubaix, we have all the sections covered,” said Knaven, a winner of Paris-Roubaix in 2001. “It’s good that it is close to Belgium and Holland, and I have found a nice group of people who are coming. It is a big logistic plan that we try to work out. Of course, you want to avoid all the risk.”
If the stage looks like a version of Paris-Roubaix, Knaven said the team should prepare for the stage as if it’s racing the one-day monument.
Knaven has been the point man for Sky’s preparation for the stage. He’s worked out a logistical plan to have six to seven wheels waiting at each sector along the route as well as a steady supply of water bottles.
Team Sky knows it cannot control the chaos the stage will likely deliver, but it is doing everything it can to protect Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
“Anything can happen,” Knaven said. “Chris didn’t make it to the cobbles [in 2014], that’s true, and the next year, we went to the cobbles, and nothing happened. A lot depends on the weather.”
Forecasters are calling for hot temperatures in the upper 80s, a slight chance of afternoon showers, and winds up to 15kph kicking up. Knaven said the dust can make the cobbles slick and there’s the permanent risk of crashes and mechanicals.
Froome made it safely over the cobbles in 2015, when the Tour last visited the pavé, but crashed out in 2014 in rain even before reaching the first cobblestone sector.
“It’s going to be brutal, and there is no two ways around that,” Froome said. “Everyone knows that and everyone’s prepared for it.”
In addition to manning each sector with a fleet of bottles and wheels, the team’s mechanics have been busy preparing for the stage as well.
Team Sky will be using a fleet of special equipment with three bikes per rider brought in just for the Roubaix stage. Rob Arnold of Ride Media reported the bikes are fitted with 27mm tires and mounted with aluminum handlebars. The wider rubber provides more grip and a smoother ride over the pavé, and aluminum bars won’t crack or break in a crash, unlike carbon-fiber ones, so riders can keep riding after a spill.
Knaven said the stage will have an interesting dynamic that will make it very different than racing Roubaix. First off, Sunday’s stage is not as long as Roubaix, 156.5km compared to 259km. And there are not as many sectors as Roubaix, 15 compared to 29.
“There are some nasty sections. They didn’t put in the hardest ones,” he said. “There is no Carrefour, and they took some of the hardest bits out of Pévéle. It’s a nice mix. It’s not a proper Roubaix but it’s not too easy.”
Another twist will be the inclusion of the pavé right in the middle of a three-week stage race. At Roubaix, riders come in fresh with nearly a week of training after having raced the Tour of Flanders the weekend before. The peloton tackles Sunday’s stage after eight stages of racing with more than 1,000km in their legs.
“Tactics will be different than in Roubaix, because you have guys who ride for the stage and you have specialists who will ride for the leader,” Knaven said. “The good GC guys have a good engine. They are not as strong as Sagan on the cobbles, but it is hard for Sagan to drop them when they are on the wheel.”
Team Sky also has riders such as Gianni Moscon, Luke Rowe, Michal Kwiatkowski and Jonathan Castroviejo to help protect their leaders across the pavé.
“The whole day is going to be full gas,” said Thomas, who has more experience than Froome racing on the cobbles. “The first two or three sectors are a bit spread out, but after that, they come thick and fast. It’s just about being in the front all day.”
Knaven said the team knows it cannot prevent chaos from unfolding. What Team Sky is hoping to do is limit its impacts if it does.