CONQUERING THE COBBLES
Romain Bardet was among a handful of GC riders who took a giant leap out of their comfort zone this spring to ride a cobbled Classic, in the hope of gaining vital insight that will help them master stage 9 of the Tour when it takes on the Roubaix pavé. Procycling was there to witness their education
T he rain is still falling when Dwars door Vlaanderen finishes in Waregem, a small town in West Flanders, early one Wednesday evening in late March. It’s sheet-like drizzle, the kind that’s fine and comes down at a diagonal angle. In any case, it was different to the downpour that soaked the race start and meant riders took refuge in the comfort of their team buses for as long as they could. It’s cold, too. It might be spring, but this is Belgium and the weather is unpredictable.
Almost 10 minutes after Yves Lampaert had crossed the line to take his second consecutive victory in the semi-Classic, Romain Bardet rolls through the scrum of press and fans on his way back to the Ag2r bus. A year ago, the Frenchman had just finished the Volta a Catalunya and was days away from starting the Tour of the Basque Country. He was basking in the glow of the warm Spanish climate and testing his climbing form at two difficult, hilly stage races. Now he’s in Belgium, rubbing shoulders with the Classics riders, enduring a different kind of suffering. Under his jersey and shorts Bardet is wearing black arm- and leg-warmers, while the white band across the middle of his team-issue gilet has turned a murky grey after just over four hours’ racing in the wet and muddy conditions. His glasses are speckled with drops of murky water, his gloveless fingers red raw. Greyish mud has solidified around his mouth, like a clay facemask, after bits of the road surface splattered his face during the 180 kilometres of the race. He steps straight onto the team bus. When he emerges another 15 minutes later after drying off, having a shower and drying off again to talk to the handful of journalists, bits of the mud are still stubbornly stuck in place.
Bardet isn’t built for the spring Classics. The Frenchman may be 4cm taller than the Belgian race winner, but Lampaert is 10 kilos heavier – 75kg compared to Bardet’s 65. Lampaert is able to power over the rough pavé much quicker than that of the spindly, waif-like climber. This was Lampaert’s fifth start in the race, held on roads he knows inside out, just a few kilometres from his house in nearby Izegem. Bardet, meanwhile, had never started a cobbled Classic before.
Bardet wasn’t in Belgium exploring the possibility of a potential career change, however. When the Tour de France organisers ASO unveiled the 2018 race route last October and revealed stage 9 from Arras to Roubaix would take in 21.7km of cobbles, over 15 sectors of the Paris-Roubaix route, almost every rider marked the day down as one of the key stages. For those chasing the general classification, the stage comes with a big red warning of potential danger; many are predicting crashes and big time gaps between the GC riders, especially if the weather is less than favourable.
Of all the GC contenders at this year’s Tour, only Chris Froome and Bob Jungels have ever started Paris-Roubaix. Froome rode in 2008 when he recorded a DNF, while Jungels finished 84th in 2013. But when cobbles feature at the Tour, the stage can be decisive. In 2010, Fränk Schleck crashed out and fractured his collarbone, while Lance Armstrong punctured and dropped out of overall contention. Vincenzo Nibali memorably set up his overall Tour victory in 2014 on the cobbles, a day that also saw defending champion Froome crash out. A year later, Thibaut Pinot was the biggest loser on the cobbles, puncturing on the final sector and going on to lose almost three minutes. This year, there are more cobbles than any
of the other recent editions, meaning even more chance something can go wrong.
Such is the significance of the stage, Bardet was among a handful of GC riders getting a taste of what might be to come, by riding a Belgian Classic. Movistar also sent all three of its leaders to Belgium: Mikel Landa started E3 Harelbeke, and Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde rode Dwars door Vlaanderen. Meanwhile, Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali made his Tour of Flanders debut and finished a creditable 24th in Oudenaarde.
The inclement weather conditions were enough to give Bardet an authentic taste of life as a Classics rider and the race itself became a baptism of fire. He crashed near the start, before suffering mechanicals which meant he spent most of the race fighting to survive. “It was complicated, with the wind and the rain. It was a hell of a day,” Bardet says after the race, wrapped in the warmth of a dry team-issue sweatshirt. “For me personally, my lack of knowledge of these roads was evident.... These races come down to fine margins. I think you have to do these races regularly to have a chance of performing well.” K nowledge is power, although not the kind that is measured in watts. But what can a rider like Bardet really learn about the Roubaix pavé that will help him at the Tour, by riding a Belgian Classic once? Significantly, the cobbles in Roubaix are different to those in Belgium. “In Roubaix they are flat, so it’s not the same feeling. They are rough, most of the time the distance between the cobbles… there are bigger gaps. Sometimes you can put two or three tyres in between,” explains Team Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal. “If you don’t place your wheels on the right position there can be some issue, you can puncture, it’s much rougher and obviously they go quite fast because it’s flat. When you go 50km an hour, that’s why they have a special bike for Roubaix but not for Flanders, or E3.”
Dirk Demol, Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif and 1988 Roubaix winner, agrees the cobbles are not comparable.
“The cobbles that you have in the north like in Roubaix or the Tour de France, you can’t compare them to the cobbles we have here [at Belgian Classics],” he says.
“I don’t see any reason to bring a Tour rider, a GC rider, over to do some races here in Belgium, just except maybe that they understand more about the fight. But the Tour is a fight anyway.”
It’s this race craft and a taste of the tactics that is the biggest lesson Bardet is here to learn. While the 27-year-old and almost all of the GC contenders will recon the Tour’s stage 9, it’s very different riding cobbles in training and getting a feel for the pace, positioning and tactics in the heat of a race. “It’s important that for those kind of riders they have the teammates they need,” Demol says. “Those guys for, say, Bardet - a guy like Oliver Naesen will be super. This is the most important thing and it’s good that they have a good recon. In these races good positioning is important and they need the right team-mates,” he adds.
“When you go to a difficulty like a cobble section in Roubaix, it’s always more than worth doing the effort before the difficulty. When you, for example, start the cobble section in the first 20 and you lose 20 you are still top 40. When you start the cobbles in 120th position and you lose you are 130, so you are behind. It’s so important to have the right guys next to you, close to you all the time.” The most striking difference between riding cobbles in Roubaix and at the Tour is the make-up of the peloton. In the spring, almost the entire field are Classics specialists or riders with at least some experience racing the cobbles. At the Tour, the Classics specialists will make up a smaller fraction of the 176-rider peloton. “When you go to Roubaix, maybe 90 per cent of the riders, they want to do it and when you go to the Tour you have
At Roubaix, 90 per cent of the riders want to do it. At the Tour maybe 10 per cent want to do it, and the rest are scared - Grégory Rast
maybe 10 per cent who want to do it, and all the rest are scared. They are scared because they don’t want to crash,” says Grégory Rast, one of Trek’s most experienced domestiques at the Classics.
“It’s about the positioning and the flat tyres. I remember the one in the rain [the 2014 Tour]. We started and after 100ks we went through the cobbles, we were riding 55k an hour, all next to each other because nobody wanted to give up a spot. And this is why the biggest carnage was before the cobbles even started.”
The fact that many of the riders at the Tour have little experience of the cobbles or have different motives for the stage affects how it will be raced, BMC’s Michael Schär believes. “Lots of the Classics guys are 75 kilos or more and that makes a big difference. If you have a bunch of 175 riders of Classics specialists fighting for each sector it’s immense, it’s really big. In the Tour de France you have a lot of different guys: you have the sprinters, you have the GC guys and you have the Classics guys. I don’t say it makes it easier when you go into the sectors, but it makes it different because everybody has a different job,” he says. “Some take specific riders for that stage, others go to protect the leader and not lose time, so it’s a more conservative approach in some teams. Here, everybody has the same goal, winning the one race. At the end it’s going to be the same, the fight to be at the front is always a big fight.”
While Schär was supporting 2017 Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet throughout the spring, in the Tour he could be a vital ally to BMC’s team leader, Richie Porte. The Australian has never ridden a cobbled Classic and instead will rely on a recon of the route, and the support of his team-mates, to get him through unscathed. Schär admits he will have to adjust his riding if he is leading Porte, rather than Van Avermaet.
“It’s definitely different – much less aggressive,” he says. “You ride more conservatively, at the corner you try to be smooth, in the Classics you’re explosive, you’re always going for every corner full gas. With the GC guy behind you have to be very smooth. You can’t sprint out of a corner because he doesn’t have the same acceleration. Greg knows every corner here, he follows blind; he knows what to do by himself. Richie, he needs to trust.” T he GC riders who contested the spring cobbles endured a mixed bag of experiences. Quintana had a relatively quiet Dwars door Vlaanderen, cleverly choosing to shelter behind Sky’s Ian Stannard while riding one sector – learning already that if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s better to sit tight and follow someone who does. In the same race, Valverde continued to show that little fazes him and he almost revelled in the Flemish bergs. He even managed an attack before finishing 11th. Nibali similarly came to life at Flanders. The cobbles held no fear for him and he jumped clear just after the Kruisberg, a move that set up Niki Terpstra’s racewinning attack. Landa, meanwhile, had a day to forget at E3. He crashed midway through the race, arriving back at his bus with rips to his shorts down his right leg exposing the bloodied and muddy skin beneath. As he stepped onto the bus, he summarised his day as “Bad, bad, bad”, handed his bike over, turning to give a wry smile and shrug his shoulders when asked what he’d learnt about the cobbles.
As for Bardet, Dwars door Vlaanderen may not have been a race to remember, but the spring campaign revealed his versatility and a rarely-before seen penchant for one-day racing that should instil an air of confidence ahead of the Tour. Of the three French oneday races he contested, he won one and finished runner-up and eighth in the others. At Strade Bianche, Bardet took the white gravel Tuscan roads head-on, attacked early and finished second. It was a performance that left his experienced Classics rivals looking like the novices. At the Ardennes Classics he finished ninth at Flèche Wallonne and on the podium in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Will he, like Nibali in 2014, use the day to lay down a marker for a Tour win?
“I can’t wait to watch this stage on television,” says Rast. “Because this is going to be unbelievable. After 25km they are going to go full gas. There are going to be no breakaways, the bunch is going to go full gas to the first section. Then what’s going to happen? Let’s hope it’s nothing bad, but something is going to happen.”
A wet and muddy Bardet discovers what racing at the cobbled Classics entails
Nibali has pedigree as a one- day racer and used it to animate Flanders this year