Editor’s note: This VeloNews Show includes images from TDWSport.com, BrakeThrough Media, Flickr Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons, YouTube/Cycling Sports, YouTube/Le Tour de France, YouTube/UCI, YouTube/La Vuelta, YouTube/Gravel Guru.
Organizer ASO stunned the cycling world with an unusual Tour de France route for 2018. It has cobblestones, a super-short climbing stage, precious few time trial kilometers, and even a bit of dirt road. Is the Tour de France headed in the right direction with an innovative approach to spice up the race? Or, are these just gimmicks that detract from the Grande Boucle’s heritage?
Plus, we discuss the 2018 La Course route. ASO has found another climber-friendly route for the Women’s WorldTour race, but is one day enough for what should be the season’s marquee event?
“We will see the return of the pavé,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said with glee. “There are 21.7km of the cobbles on 15 bone-shaking sectors.”
You could almost hear the collective gasp in the Palais des Congrés when Prudhomme revealed the details. These aren’t window-dressing cobblestones or a sprinkling of bumpy roads to spice up a finale. This is the real deal: 15 sectors at 21.7 kilometers of pavé on the 154km ninth stage from Arras to Roubaix.
To put that into perspective, this year’s Paris-Roubaix featured 55km of cobblestones over 29 sectors.
Just call it Le Petit Roubaix.
“You could see a lot happening that day,” said four-time champion Chris Froome (Sky). “It’s going to be very nervy and dangerous up in the northwest of France before we hit any of the big mountain stages. We could see the race torn to pieces.”
Froome is right. These cobbles will shape the 2018 Tour de France in a dramatic way.
With many bumpy sectors — ranging in length from 500m to 2.7km — stacked up in the meat of the stage, it’s hard to imagine the GC landscape not dramatically altered by the time the peloton trundles into Roubaix.
In fact, this many cobbled sectors will certainly be a race-changer. With today’s GC riders sculpting their bodies to as trim and light as possible, the cobblestones are the antithesis of what a modern grand tour rider is tailored to do.
Tour de France contenders are built to climb mountains, not barrel over the punishing treachery of France’s rough-cut pavé.
“No one will be calm before the morning of the stage,” said French star Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). “With so many sectors of pavé, there is danger lurking for everyone.”
The Tour stars were putting on a brave face Tuesday, but one can imagine teams are already taking a closer look at what lies ahead.
Preparation will be key to surviving the stage with GC options fully intact. Recon trips to the cobbles will be required and equipment testing will begin over the winter. A few of the GC stars might add early season spring classics to their racing calendars to become more comfortable racing on the cobbles. We’ve seen riders like Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, who’ve rarely if ever raced on the pavé, take on a few Belgian races to get a taste of the pavé in the past.
There’s good news. Roubaix’s most notorious cobbles — Carrefour de l’Arbre won’t be in the stage. There’s at least one five-star sector from Roubaix with the 900m sector at Mons-en-Pévèle. The longest sector, d’Auchiy à Bersée, is 2,700m about midway through the stage.
The cobbled sectors are spread out over roughly 100km of road. The first sector hits at 47km (1.6km at Thun), and the final sector at 8km from the line (1.4km at Hem). That means it will be an unending parade of treachery once the bunch piles onto the cobblestones.
Teams will certainly tweak their lineups to bring added muscle to help their scrawny GC captains survive the Tour’s harrowing first half.
“We will have to be very attentive on the stage with the pavé,” Quintana said Tuesday. “If I am surrounded by specialists like [Daniel] Bennati, [Imanol] Erviti, and [Juanjo] Rojas, I am sure I will be able to get through it without problems.”
That might be easier said than done. Positioning is key. And so is luck.
A lot of it depends on the weather. In 2014, the Tour traced 15km of cobbles over nine sectors, but under cold and rainy conditions. The race blew up, and Vincenzo Nibali emerged with a two-minute advantage to his nearest GC rivals.
The cobbles were back in 2015, but raced under drier conditions. As a result, the top GC favorites finished just three seconds behind stage winner Tony Martin. No worse for wear.
Do the cobblestones even belong in the Tour de France?
There is some debate within the sport about whether or not the cobblestones should even be in a grand tour. Some argue their inclusion is unfair and perhaps even dangerous to the GC riders, who rarely if ever race on the pavé. Others insist the cobblestones part of racing’s skillset, and that a grand tour winner should and must be a complete rider. It’s like in baseball; if you can’t hit a curveball, you probably won’t be a star.
Bardet, who clearly isn’t built for the cobbles, seemed ready to embrace the challenge.
“I love the historic dimension of the Tour,” Bardet said. “The cobbles? They’re part of the Tour. It is the beauty of our sport. It’s obvious that the pavé can seal our destiny, and that our race can end right there. It’s part of the allure of cycling, something is beyond the calculations.”
The return of the cobblestones will put a punctuation mark on the end of the first full intense week of racing in the 2018 Tour.
Whoever comes out of Roubaix with their GC options fully intact will have the pole position going into the Alps following the first rest day.
It should be a spectacular, hard-fought, and likely dramatic day of racing. A handful of GC riders could see six months of hard work and planning dashed in an instant. For survivors, the pavé might be a launching pad to a successful Tour.
What’s sure, the cobblestones will mark the 2018 Tour and reset the GC going into the second half of the race.
Chris Froome’s Team Sky wilted at world team time trial championships in Bergen this September as the 2017 Giro d’Italia winner Dutchman Tom Dumoulin led Sunweb to victory over the 45km route. This test is shorter, but Sky will have to think long and hard about the makeup of the team it selects in a tactical balance between the power for here and the lightweight climbers Froome will need for the slog through the mountains.
Stage 9: Arras – Roubaix, 154km
Pure climbers will be fretting about their eventual place on the podium when they look at this one with 15 cobbled sections from the fabled Paris-Roubaix classic. It will be the longest section of cobbles for the Tour since the 1980s. This stage requires power and endurance with middleweight riders doing well. It starts and ends early to avoid clashing with the World Cup final.
Not one, not two, but three feared climbs feature on this Alpine stage. It first tackles the Col de La Madeleine, then the Col de la Croix de Fer, and finally the Alpe d’Huez’s 21 mythical turns lead to the summit finish. With almost 71km in total of climbing, defending champion Chris Froome thinks the Tour can be won or lost here.
Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon – Saint-Lary-Soulan (Col de Portet), 65km
This is a short, sharp shock. Tour organizers believe this stunningly beautiful backdrop and summit finish at 2,215m will encourage attacks. Plus, the finish is the highest elevation ever for the Tour. Pure climbers should thrive in the rarefied air.
Stage 20: Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle – Espelette, 31km (individual time trial)
Froome and Dumoulin are already on many people’s minds when they look at this penultimate stage. It’s a pure 31-kilometer test with a hilly profile in France’s Basque country. Judging by how Dumoulin beat Froome in Bergen on the tough individual time trial course at worlds, the Dutchman may be feeling good about his chances in July.