CON­QUER­ING THE COB­BLES

Procycling - - Le Tour - Writer: So­phie Hur­com Im­age: Chris Auld

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

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