Mur-de-Bretagne: Matt White pictures a tightly packed Tour de France peloton racing at 60km/h down a three-lane stretch of road that is about to turn into one lane barely the width of a car. The riders are in a desperate elbow-to-elbow tussle for the safest positions, readying to hit a corner before the first of 15 sectors of cobblestones that will total 22km in Sundays 156.5km ninth stage.
“One hundred and seventy guys are not going through that corner … as simple as that,” says White with a wry grin that hints at impending disaster at that 47.5km mark. “If it was flat, the strong teams could take control a little more, but downhill it is just a washing machine.”
The stage starts in Arras Citadelle and ends in Roubaix, the former mining town in northern France best known nowadays as the finish of the Paris-Roubaix classic, dubbed “The Hell of the North” for its stretches of bone-jarring cobblestones that this year numbered 29.
When the Tour visits "Hell'' on Sunday, anxiety levels will be sky high about a stage that could reward the strong and brave for their daring to attack or ruin a riders Tour in a pedal stroke on a route so fraught with the danger of crashes and mechanical issues.
White, who is head sports director of the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team in which British rider Adam Yates is an overall contender, believes this passage over the loaf-sized ancient Roman cobbles is potentially more hazardous than when riders race Paris-Roubaix in April.
He says most Tour riders will have little, if any, experience of cobbles and lack the skills needed to race over them safely and without incident, unlike riders in a Paris-Roubaix field, who are the rare breed in professional cycling who relish the punishing nature of cobblestones.
Asked if racing the cobbles in a Tour will be different to a Paris-Roubaix, White said: “Very much so. Its the quality of the field. Here we have probably got 10 specialists instead of 50, then probably another 30 or 40 guys who are pretty competent, and the rest of the blokes are just bloody surviving really. For Paris-Roubaix, everyone is there for a job. Everyone wants to be there. It is not a race you should start unless you want to be there. A lot of guys are going to be really out of their element. It is going to really change the race. If you havent done Roubaix … its a frightening experience. Some of these climbers have never seen these type of cobbles. They are going to be just bouncing off the other side.”
Mitchelton-Scott have a well-equipped team with strong and robust Paris-Roubaix-styled riders – Australians Matt Hayman, the 2016 Paris-Roubaix champion, Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn, and New Zealander Jack Bauer – to protect Yates, who at least has experience racing on the cobblestones in his younger days.
Yates did reconnaissance of the cobblestone sectors for two days in May with Hayman, and the team recently rode over the 15 sectors.
Talking about the stage, White was still unsure what tactics he would employ for his riders once they feel the first reverberating thud under their wheels.
Much will hinge on the weather conditions.
White said he had two choices.
He could order them to position themselves at the front of the peloton if possible and then “say a Hail Mary before they go into the first sector".
Or they could “avoid the mess altogether, sit in at the back".
“If there is a crash it is in front of us. We might lose time but the worst possible thing that could happen to us is that Adam crashes.
“Try to put him in position for that sector, there is risk. Yes, there is risk at every sector, but the whole bunch is arriving at sector one.
“Its one or the other. If you go in the middle, you are asking for it. You either want to be in the first 10 or 15 wheels or at the back.”
The BMC team is also well-equipped to support their contender, Australian Richie Porte.
Their eight rider line-up includes riders such as Belgian Greg Van Avermaet, Switzerlands Michael Schar and Stefan Küng, New Zealander Patrick Bevin and Australian Simon Gerrans.
Porte road the cobblestones in April with Van Avermaet who, according to team manager Jim Ochowicz, showed Porte “how to transition” on the cobbles.
“You are moving around all the time because you have to try to stay on the smoothest piece you can find," Ochowicz said.
“Sometimes you have to go to the left side. Sometimes you have to go to the right. Sometimes you are on the crown in the centre.”
As with all teams, BMC will set up each riders bike to their specific needs, such as having lower tyres pressure and shock-absorbing handlebar tape.
The team will also have extra personnel positioned on the cobblestoned stretches to supply their riders with spare wheels should they puncture or sustain wheel damage, given that team cars may get too far behind the race on the narrow roads to service them.
“You can have a lot of plans but they kind of come apart on a day like this,” Ochowicz said.
Ochowicz said Porte was "getting better at managing his emotions in a stressful situation” but he will still remind him that “a flat tyre doesnt mean the end of the day. Stay calm, use your team as best you can".
Friday: Stage 7 – Fougeres to Chartres, 231km
The longest stage and flat except for a fourth category climb over 1.5km midway. But while it may lead one to forecast a bunch sprint, the stage could see a break stay away if winds across the Beauce plains blow hard and split the peloton.
Saturday: Stage 8 – Dreux to Amiens Meteropole
A sprinter may win t Sundays cobblestoned stage, but this stage is the last one suited for pure flat land sprinters before the Tour steers into the Alps. Good for a French win, with it coming on Bastille Day.
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