Preview of stage 5 of the Tour de France 2022 – the peloton hits the cobbles

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For some members of the peloton, riding the cobblestones is natural, normal, an ordinary thing they do at races several times a year. For these riders, a stage like Wednesday’s doesn’t pose any extreme problems, especially if it’s just a battle between Classics specialists like them. Sure, a cobbled race can be chaotic, but it’s something they’re used to.

However, a Tour de France stage that crosses the cobblestones of northern France is a completely different beast. It’s not just the strong runners who will run, not just the rolling ones like Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), the last two Paris-Roubaix winners in this peloton.

When the Tour tackles the cobblestones, that means lightweight climbers like Nairo Quintana and Adam Yates have to ride it too. This means that riders in the general classification are forced out of their comfort zone on courses that do not suit them, on terrain where any mistake could cost them time or put them out of the race.

It’s the worry of riders aiming to win the Tour overall, to stop on the podium in Paris, that the cobblestones cause an accident that ruins their entire three weeks. In 2014 it was Chris Froome who suffered as defending champion, collapsing even before the cobbles and ending his run early. Richie Porte did the same in 2018, hitting the deck before the race even left the tarmac. It is fear.

There may only be 19.4 km of cobbled sectors tomorrow, or 35% of Paris-Roubaix this year, and there may not be a five-star sector, but it could well be crucial in the fight for yellow.

Ben O’Connor, the Australian of AG2R Citroën, who finished fourth last year, is more concerned about his survival than anything else on Wednesday.

“I just know that in 2018 most of the GC guys finished together,” he explained ahead of stage four. “I know Romain Bardet had about five punctures, three bike changes and he finished 10 seconds behind.

“It’s a good example to show that it’s more of a danger of falling and getting out of the race than a waste of time. It takes a very concerted effort to finish. It’s just an important thing to hold back. I’m not really too nervous for tomorrow now; I’ll sit down tomorrow.”

“I’ve seen them before [the sectors]“, continued O’Connor. “It was good to do them. As we have all done, we are all in this together. This week is all about minimizing mistakes, not getting lost in the wind, trying not to crash and then going up the mountain.

The 20km of cobblestones worried some GC riders as they changed their schedule to prepare for this stage five, with Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingaard (both Jumbo-Visma) unusual suspects heading into the GP Denain earlier this year, a semi-classic that feature cobblestones. It’s usually a forgotten race, a little button on the season, but this year it had a better cast all because of the Tour de France.

Sepp Kuss, one of Jumbo’s main mountain servants, only hitting the cobbles for the first time as the Tour approaches, said he’s “just going to do my best, it’s definitely going to be an experience “. He will aim to hold out as long as possible on the stage, his saddle height being the closest to his two co-leaders: this makes it easier to swap bikes in the event of an incident.

While GC riders are concerned about not crashing or experiencing a mechanic at an inopportune time, there are many more riders in the peloton who see this as an opportunity. All three of the Roubaix podium this year are present, with the yellow jersey Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) joining Van Baarle on the starting line.

Last year’s winner Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) is not on the Tour, but the riders who finished behind him, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal) are and eagerly await the experience.

Mathieu van der Poel in Paris-Roubaix

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Van der Poel told the media on Tuesday: “Going up the sections will be more nervous than the sections themselves, I think. It will be really nervous, and if you can say without trouble and avoid any mechanics, I think you can already go far.

“It’s tough on the Tour, the GC guys also want to be there in front, and we have the stage win to play for but the GC guys can lose more, so it’s understandable that they’re nervous.”

With a decisive attack, a driver like Van der Poel could also take the lead. There are currently 16 runners trailing Van Aert within a minute, and that number includes the Dutchman, as well as Küng, Vermeersch and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) among others.

“There is a chance to take the yellow jersey for sure on this stage,” he explained. But like I said, all the guys who are within a minute of Van Aert can still aim for the yellow. I think for me a stage win is what I’m aiming for, but it won’t be easy.”

Vermeersch told Cycling Weekly: “I think it will be even more nervous before the first cobbles, really hectic. It will be crazy.”

Another runner who thinks it will be chaos is Connor Swift (Arkéa Samsic), the British runner who won the Tro-Bro Léon, the French race that features agricultural tracks, and has therefore proven himself capable of ride on different surfaces. One of his tasks on Wednesday will be to make sure his team manager, Nairo Quintana, stays out of trouble.

“Tonight and tomorrow morning I will think about it a lot more,” he explained ahead of stage four. “Everyone knows it’s going to be carnage, and you just have to make sure you’re up front. Even then there can be collisions up front. It’s just a case where if something is wrong, stay calm, make sure the team is around you, and together we will be stronger.

“I haven’t done it yet, but I think it’s different because in Paris-Roubaix everyone did the reconnaissance and they’re classic guys. Whereas this time around you have some domestics trying to protect their GC guys, you’ve got GC guys needing to be up front, you’ve got classic guys who want to win. You literally have the whole peloton fighting. It’s different. “

He disagreed with the idea that it could be an anticlimax, like the promised crosswind action on the bridge during the second stage of this year’s Tour.

“I can’t see it,” he said. “Because even that first sector there’s a nasty 90 degree turn and if you come into that corner pretty hot… We went into it in reconnaissance not at race speed and it was already a nasty turn. Add full race speed and the full group on the cobbles, it’s going to be totally different.”

Geraint Thomas

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There is a third type of person in the race today: an overall rider who could also enjoy the action on the cobbles. It might even be an “opportunity” for someone who likes to ride on the cobblestones, a chance to put their GC rivals under pressure.

weekly cycling was reminded on Tuesday that Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) finished second in the cobblestone stage of the 2010 Tour, which also ended at Arenberg Porte du Hainaut. In 2014, when another stage ended at the same place, Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech) was second.

Speaking after stage four on a day when he seemed mindful of the threat posed by Jumbo-Visma, Thomas appeared ready for Wednesday’s fight.

“It would be nice if it was an offensive run,” he said. “But the main thing is to be out there in front and out of trouble first. It’s like crosswind days.”

Ineos Grenadiers assistant team principal Rod Ellingworth echoed his driver, saying the stage would be an “opportunity” for his team. With Thomas, Pidcock and Yates less than a minute behind Van Aert, a split could work in favor of the British side.

“They want to stay in cycle racing, and I’m sure they’re in,” Ellingworth said. “It’s difficult because it’s so technical. They don’t see it as ‘oh my god, it’s the cobbled stage’, they see it as an opportunity.”

So there could be less than 20km of cobbles on Wednesday’s stage, but for several riders and teams this could prove crucial for the outcome of the whole Tour de France. A nervous peloton awaits the test.

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