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Paris-Roubaix cobbles alter Tour riders’ 2018 plans

Stage 9 of the French grand tour will feature more than 21km of pave borrowed from the Paris-Roubaix route.

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Paris-Roubaix’s cobbles are making a rare appearance on the grand tour menu in 2018. With the Tour de France featuring 21.7 kilometers of the famous stretches, most of the top riders plan to preview them and Sky’s Geraint Thomas says he will race on them April 4.

The nasty rutted and pitted farm roads in northern France near the Belgian border often see crashes, especially in the famous Arenberg Forest sector. Skinny grand tour types rarely visit the harsh lands.

Only the toughest survive to the Roubaix Velodrome every spring. Those lucky enough, including four-time winner Tom Boonen and 2017 victor Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), are able to raise their arms in celebration.

Since Tour organizer ASO announced last October that 15 of the cobble sectors would feature in the 2018 race, grand tour riders had a reason to worry and to prepare if they wanted to have a chance at winning the overall.

Frenchman Romain Bardet, third in the 2017 Tour, rode over the cobbles on January 26 with his Ag2r La Mondiale teammates, guided by Belgian champion and classics rider Oliver Naesen.

“It will be a mess at the Tour,” Bardet said. “It will be without doubt the hardest stage, the one that will create the biggest gaps between the favorites.”

Tiny Colombian climber Nairo Quintana is planning a visit around his race schedule and when the weather is right, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué said.

Four-time winner Chris Froome (Sky) should visit sometime this spring.

Thomas, who will race alongside Froome as Sky’s co-leader in the Tour, took it one step further. He announced Monday that he put one-day monuments Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on his program heading to the Tour de France.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I love racing the classics — they are the races I grew up watching and I’ve had a little bit of relative success in them in the past,” Thomas said.

“I’ll still be training as a stage racer, trying to go up hills as fast as I can, but I’m super excited about dropping in and doing Roubaix.”

ASO last included Roubaix cobbles in the 2014 Tour, 13km of them. Froome crashed multiple times the previous day and abandoned before even reaching the cobbled sectors in stage 5.

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) won that race partly thanks to the gains he made on the cobbles. Even he said they are too much to race on, but he is planning to participate in the Tour of Flanders for the first time this year instead.

“I’ve seen [Flanders] on TV, it’s always drawn me in,” Nibali explained. I’ll admit, I know nothing about the race. Nothing. Those men are Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan.

“I’m not doing Roubaix! That’s for sure! I’ve already did my bit in 2014 in the worst possible conditions.”

Thomas, to be fair, has more in common with men like Van Avermaet and Sagan. He developed by racing on the track and put his big engine to use over six seasons racing the cobbled classics. He won E3 Harelbeke in 2015. Of his five Paris-Roubaix appearances, a seventh-place finish in 2014 is his best result.

However, Thomas adjusted his program in 2016 to focus on stage racing and winning grand tours. He only included the Tour of Flanders in 2016 on his way to capturing the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice titles.

Last year, he won the Tour of the Alps overall heading into the Giro d’Italia as the co-leader with former Sky teammate Mikel Landa. They both crashed in stage 9, however, and lost time. Thomas returned to the Tour de France to win the opening time trial and wear the yellow jersey for four days. A crash in stage 9 led to him abandoning.

Thomas’s body has changed slightly since he transitioned to a stage racer. Last year he indicated he would weigh around 152 pounds for 2018. He will return to Paris-Roubaix a different cyclist.

“I’m definitely not going to be as good as I could be when it comes to that real punch and capacity effort over a few minutes. But the form should be good and it’s still a bike race — anything can happen, especially at Roubaix. There have been surprise winners in the past,” continued Thomas.

“You never know, but I would hope to be there towards the final. If I can be there to help one of the other guys win that would be great.”

As cycling has become more specialized, few grand tour riders bother with the cobbled classics. Followers have to turn back to the days of steel frames and wool jerseys — to Bernard Hinault in 1981 — to find the last time a Tour champion won Paris-Roubaix.

Thomas, who trained this winter in Los Angeles, will begin his 2018 season Wednesday in Portugal at the Volta ao Algarve. He also circled Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 22 for the first time on his schedule.

“It’s a race I’ve always loved watching and have always wanted to do but it’s just never worked out,” the Welshman said. “Because I’ve always done the cobbled classics I’ve always been a bit nailed — I was going to do it a couple of years ago but I was a bit tired and it didn’t happen.

“From the training I will have been doing it should suit me a bit better [than Roubaix]. I’m certainly looking forward to going there.”