HUY, Belgium (VN) — It’s been called a mini Paris-Roubaix, but it’s not. Not really. The Tour’s fourth stage, across the pavé of Northern France, is more complicated.
Beyond the luck and legs required on any trip across the stones, the stage will be defined by the balance between team obligation and individual glory, as some classics stars seek to protect their climbers while others hunt for the stage win, and everyone, climbers and classics men alike, tries to be at the front at the same time.
The 223.5-kilometer route is only 30 km shorter than the April classic, and passes over seven sectors, 13.3km, of its renowned pavé, but the dynamic within the peloton is entirely different.
The peloton is split, quite distinctly, between those who want a stage win and those seeking to survive, or to help a team leader survive. Issues arise when both groups want to be in the same place — the front — at the same time.
“It’s hard to predict in a stage like that,” said Mick Rogers, one of Alberto Contador’s chief lieutenants at Tinkoff-Saxo. “Random things happen, they can be in the front, middle, or back. What can we do to mitigate that? We can ride together as nine guys. If you have two guys here, three over there, and four in the back, it’s hard to do anything to try to overcome a bad situation. If you’re all together, you have a better chance. Our only job is to protect Alberto.”
Classics stars without a major GC contender will be given free reign on Tuesday, permitted to be aggressive and make the race. The classics men on teams aiming for overall success, like Rogers, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, and BMC’s Daniel Oss, will be charged with ushering and protecting their respective GC leaders, shelving personal ambitions for team goals.
Slight climbers, who are often physically, tactically, and experientially unsuited to the rough pavé, will be towed into the head of the race. At Paris-Roubaix itself, such riders would never see the front, or even the start line, for that matter.
“It’s very different, it’s so nervous,” said John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin). “You need to be so early in front because the GC teams are riding there with eight guys, nine guys in front, they’re trying to protect their leader.”
“Many of the guys are not used to riding in the cobbles … you need to be prepared for everything,” he added.
The course itself may work in the GC men’s favor, Degenkolb said.
“Most of [the sectors] go uphill, that means it’s not typical for Paris-Roubaix, it’s more like maybe in Flanders,” he said. “It suits the GC contenders a little bit more. It’s going to be a big war, the only way to survive there and to hold the chance to win is to stay in front and don’t drop position.”
Many of the sport’s biggest classics stars will be relegated to protective duties for Tuesday’s stage.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) proved his mettle on the cobbles last year, taking time on all of his rivals. He crossed the line ahead of men like Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo). This year, Astana has added Boom, the winner of last year’s Tour cobble stage, to its arsenal.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) has faithful domestiques like Rogers at his side, as well as specialists Peter Sagan and Matteo Tosatto.
Froome has Thomas and Stannard, as well as Luke Rowe, eighth this year at Paris-Roubaix.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) will be accompanied by Daniel Oss, who crashed Monday, as well as Manuel Quinziato, Michael Schar, and Greg van Avermaet.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is perhaps the most exposed of the top overall contenders. He’ll rely on time trialists Alex Dowsett and Adriano Malori.
Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) will be well-protected with Sebastian Langeveld, Jack Bauer, and Kristijan Koren.
Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick-Step) has the might of Etixx-Quick-Step behind him, but the team hasn’t shown full dedication to its GC leader thus far and a few of its strongest riders, like Zdenek Stybar, may be allowed to ride for themselves.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) can rely on Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren, provided he isn’t too injured from his Monday crash, while Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) has Arnaud Démare.