Joaquim Rodriguez recaptured his previous form upon Flèche Wallonne’s Mur de Huy to take Stage 3 of 2015’s Le Tour de France with a well judged acceleration to go clear in the final hundred meters. It was the performance of Chris Froome which possibly stole the show however, sticking with the victorious Spaniard on the steep gradients and going clear of rivals including Alberto Contador. At one point it even looked like the British rider could even steal the win once the road flattened out, but regardless, his late surge to the line took the maillot jaune by one second over Tony Martin. This result means Team Sky will be first car in the cavalcade heading into what is surely set to be a chaotic Stage 4 fought upon the cobbled road to Cambrai. With gold upon his shoulders and pave specialists Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard by his side, could we see a more aggressive performance than expected from Team Sky as they aim to find a safe passage from Seraing to Cambrai.
The cobbled stage of this year’s Tour de France caught the eye immediately upon the route’s release a long time ago now and finally the day is here. Terrain which a race champion usually requires little experience of is now placed to become a pivotal day for those aiming at the general classification; finishing safely being ambition number one. If the opportunity arises, there is a good chance that those who have already been unfortunate enough to ship time in the opening stages of this year’s edition of the race will push on and begin to recoup their losses. Though drama is wanted on such a day, nobody wishes the sort of misfortunate upon a rider so as to have to abandon; the departure of Chris Froome on a similar stage last year and the later retirement of Alberto Contador will forever undermine Vincenzo Nibali’s overall victory in 2014 for example.
Last year’s visit to these parts came under a rain cloud, causing many riders to crash on the greasy streets or fall hard on the jagged cobbles which can become like ice as moss begins to soak up the downpour. On this occasion a dry race looks more likely, something which sees more favourable at first, but such conditions should mean that a much higher race tempo is apparent as the battle for position over the sectors is ignited. Whereas yesterday’s stage was a reduced version of 2015’s Flèche Wallonne route, Stage 4 is more like an authentic classic in both terrain and distance; clocking up a total of 223.5km from the start in Seraing to the finish at Cambrai. Even the day’s profile should ensure a race structure similar to that of Paris-Roubaix, allowing an early breakaway to form ahead of a huge increase in tempo, as the general classification favourites seek protection at the front of the peloton alongside those wishing to end the day victorious.
It is easy to overstate and overdramatise this stage, so it is worth bearing in mind that the total number of sectors is only seven, all of which only add up to 13.3km of cobbles. So this is not exactly Paris-Roubaix, but the mental stresses and pressure from within teams to protect their leader will no doubt produce a similar maelstrom within which to race. As mentioned above, the day starts easy enough with over 50km of flat riding to let the legs tick over and judge any ailments as a result of yesterday’s horrific high speed crash which caused many to strike the tarmac with incredible force. The climb of Namur’s citadel is the sole categorised climb of the day (Category 4) and will be known to any rider here who has contested the GP Wallonie; exactly 2km long and ridden at an average of 4.8%.
Another 50km will then pass before the peloton encounter their first cobbled sector of the day after 103.5km of racing. The Pont-a-Celles a Gouy-lez-Pieton is 1.8km in length and should give the first insight as to those eager to stay at the front of affairs, beyond the obvious general classification hopefuls. Life will quieten down once more until they reach the intermediate sprint at 137km, before then having another 40km to get themselves organised for the start of the real rush of cobbles, beginning with the Famars sector. This lasts 1.2km and rapidly leads into the following Verchain-Maugre passage which stretches on for a slightly further 1.6km and offers little breathing time before hitting the sector of Saulzoir (1.2km in length.) Less than 35km will now remain as the riders are briefly provided with modern roads which must feel like silk compared to that of the sawtooth stones which have carpeted the route in the last 5km.
Next comes the 1.5km long Saint-Python, which is followed by the longest sector of the day Queivy, a 3.7km charge over dusty tracks and cobblestones that is likely to act as a good launchpad for any of the classics specialists who wish to go clear of the GC battle behind. The final sector of the day is Carnieres, the 2.3km stretch will conclude with a little over 10km of normal roads separating the leaders from the finish.
The day’s dry conditions should play into the hands of the true specialists on this type of terrain, making it likely that we shall see an elite group form at the head of affairs without the general classification favourites represented. Chris Froome is an unknown quantity, Alberto Contador evidently is not in top form, Nairo Quintana only possesses two riders capable of protecting him on such a stage and Vincenzo Nibali’s well documented performance on Le Tour’s cobbles last year was in the wet; where the pace would have been slower. Such factors should ensure John Degenkolb is given the perfect opportunity to strut his stuff once again on the cobbles which he seems to enjoy immensely without too much interplay from the overall riders affecting him. Most importantly for the German powerhouse is the fact he will have total support on the day, as he is team leader and they have no general classification interest which needs defending during Stage 4. Degenkolb has the required force to bring back threatening attacks on his own (and with the backing of his team), making the Giant-Alpecin colours a likely presence at the front once the pave begins appearing regularly. Given the considerable run in to the finish being raced upon standard tarmac, Degenkolb should simply be required to stay on the wheels and set himself up for a powerful sprint after an arduous day in the saddle. Though later stages do offer him further opportunities to win, he would be a fool to spurn such a well tailored day which provides him with a golden chance of winning.
Another specialist, but one who is lacking an equal palmares, is the Belgian rider Sep Vanmarcke; entering Stage 4 having made plenty aware of his intentions to win it. Lotto-Jumbo will no doubt provide Vanmarcke with free reign and a certain level of support on a stage which plays into his strengths as a lover of the cobbles. His Spring campaign was extremely disappointing for himself and fans alike, plagued by the sort of misfortune which seems to have also hung over Dan Martin and Geraint Thomas in recent classics seasons. Regardless of this factor, his class is well documented, but there is no doubt that he would have preferred a wet day in order to reduce the pace and truly test the mettle of his rivals. Vanmarcke will most likely look to attack solo or at least reduce the size of any leading group, especially if the two dominate forces of this year’s classics (John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff) are still sitting on his wheel as the pave begins running out.
The Norwegian Alexander Kristoff has experienced a brilliant year so far, turning in dominate performances from classics to week long races, demonstrating an ability to emerge victorious at the end of the toughest of races. His Flanders victory earlier this year was extremely impressive, but poor tactical decision making from behind did benefit him and there are no hellingen here for him to put the hammer down upon like the Ronde. Instead, his best chance here shall be to keep an eye on John Degenkolb and aim to benefit from their likely eagerness to control the race once it begins getting hectic. If he manages to save himself from committing too many efforts during the race, his already strong finishing prowess could be increased yet further and possibly even enough to better Degenkolb in a head to head sprint finish.
A man who has consistently performed well on the cobbles, but still lacks a major win is Greg Van Avermaet, likely to look upon Stage 4 in order to remedy this. The interesting blend of riders apparent in the BMC ranks in order to support Tejay Van Garderen should also offer some backing to Avermaet in his attempts to win here; Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato two such riders who could support or protect either man. Like Kristoff, Avermaet is likely to have benefited more if this route had included the sort of cobbled hills which shape Ronde Van Vlaanderen, though he cannot be discounted given his rapid finish. There is a possibility that he will already consider his chances of beating John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff so slim that he is better off forming an allegiance with Sep Vanmarcke for example; both agreeing to work together in order to drop their rivals and set up the finish for a greatly reduced sprint.
If given the team orders to get involved within the battle for the stage win, Etixx-Quick Step could allow Zdeněk Štybar to become a protagonist on a course which suits him well. The 29 year old Czech rider has a solid record at Paris-Roubaix and has already come close to winning ‘The Hell of The North’ on two occasions so far. At only 1’04” down on Chris Froome’s yellow jersey, he offers a better chance of taking the maillot jaune than Tony Martin, but could be restricted by the fact that teammate Rigoberto Uran sits closer still at only 34″ back. Team orders could request Štybar helps find a clear passage for the Colombian and aim to overturn the deficit to Froome with a late attack. Whatever the situation, there is no question of Štybar’s class on this type of course, making him well worth watching as ever on the cobbles.
The possibilities for Etixx-QuickStep do not end there either, as both Matteo Trentin who finished 9th on last year’s cobbled stage and even Mark Cavendish could cope well and be present in the finale as either part of a sprint or small breakaway. The British Road Race Championships certainly displayed exactly how well Cavendish is riding right now and it would not be surprising should he contest a larger bunch kick come the day’s finish. Michal Kwiatkowski was 7th on the wet ride to Arenberg in last year’s Tour and is clearly competing extremely well currently, though could instead be utilised to help Tony Martin once again. The German time trial specialist sits a solitary second off the leader’s jersey, making for an interesting dynamic within the team as to who might be the best man to support in the name of taking yellow. The Belgian outfit have been tactically lacking during this season, gaining much criticism for letting advantages come to nothing; a victory on Stage 4 could well be the perfect riposte to such claims.
Outsiders which all warrant watching should they smuggle themselves abroad the day’s winning move include Martin Elmiger, Jens Debusschere, Arnaud Demare and Sebastien Langeveld; all of whom possess an encouraging blend of history and ability to perform well during this cobbled adventure.
In the presence of dry conditions, we should see a race emerge which strongly favours those who have impressive form at Paris-Roubaix, though we must not get too hung up on this factor given how Stage 4 is hardly a cobbled classic. Though the distance may be similar, the much reduced amount of cobbled sectors means that previous form on such terrain is not necessarily an imperative, the winner may simply be an extremely strong rider who is on great form when it matters most. There is no doubt that the general classification battle shall impact upon the day in some form, though unless a real shock performance comes to the fore, it should come down to the big names strongmen to win here. Of such riders, John Degenkolb is clearly the favourite, having already won Paris-Roubaix this season and will have the entire team at his disposal to ensure that no break threatens his hopes of winning here too greatly. If required to go it alone, Degenkolb is powerful enough to reel back his rivals and should be the fastest man in any sprint as long as he has not cooked himself before the finale. The likelihood is that Greg Van Avermaet and Alexander Kristoff will be his two biggest rivals in a sprint finish, both should be operating with a reasonable level of freedom and clearly have the skill-set to perform well on Stage 4. The biggest variable is obviously luck, any winner will no doubt have had a considerable helping of the stuff in order to win a stage fraught with banana skins. Should a breakaway manage to make it all the way to the line, then Sep Vanmarcke, Jens Debusschere and Zdeněk Štybar could prove an extremely difficult task to bring back once they hit the final tarmac section.
1st John Degenkolb 2nd Greg Van Avermaet 3rd Alexander Kristoff