Column: Tour de France plays with cobblestone fire
The route-makers at the Tour de France should be crossing their fingers Tuesday because the gamble they’ve taken could go awfully wrong.
Forcing Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and other contenders to race down narrow paths of horribly bumpy cobblestones will look stupid and irresponsible if they fall and are badly hurt.
Undoubtedly good television but it could be mayhem. If it backfires, with one or more favorites knocked out by a crash, then Tour organizers had better have some good answers about why they risked riders for the sake of spectacle.
I had a close-up look at the cobblestones in April, in the company of someone who knows them intimately, Thierry Gouvenou. As a rider, he completed six Tours and rode 12 times in the Paris-Roubaix. That one-day race earned its nickname “Hell of the North” because it travels over the jarring cobblestone paths near the border where France and Belgium meet.
No one disputes that the Tour should be hard. It wouldn’t be as famous if it was easy. From its inception in 1903, when riders rode all day and into the night, the Tour has tested the body’s limits. And borrowing parts of the Paris-Roubaix route pays a nice compliment to the classic race that is anchored in cycling tradition.
But perhaps just a short stretch or two of cobbles would have been sufficient. Instead, on Tuesday’s stage 3, the 193 riders will bump, rattle and roll over seven separate sections, 8 miles in all of cobbles that at times will feel more like riding on the rocky bed of dry river than on a road.
These aren’t the neatly laid baby little cobbles you get in the city centers of Paris and elsewhere. They are roughly hewn rocks so bumpy that special metal protective undersides are fitted to the cars that carry race officials, mechanics and team bosses following riders during the Paris-Roubaix race.
There are potholes and, often, large gaps between the stones, perfect for snagging a tire. The paths also have what amount to nasty speed bumps. Riders will have to either ride in the dusty channels that run along both sides of the paths or on top of the bumpy spine in the middle.
“It’s like holding a jackhammer, your arms, judder, judder, judder,” says Gouvenou. “When you go through here, you always ask yourself: ‘How did my bike not fall apart?'”
A blessing is that rains that turned Tour roads into ice rinks Monday – there were multiple crashes, one involving both Armstrong and Contador – are not forecast for Tuesday. With time to dry, the paving stones shouldn’t be the “real bar of soap” Gouvenou says they become when wet. But there could be slippery patches of mud and undoubtedly choking dust.
It’s commonsense that the best place to be will be at the front of the pack, out of the dust clouds and out of trouble when bikes go down, as they undoubtedly will. Riders are going to sprint and jostle for position – on roads barely wide enough for a car. It is going to get ugly. They’ll have to slow for tight bends and then sprint out of them, a physical effort that when repeated over and over is brutal on the legs. Gouvenou says the stage will rival a day of riding in the mountains for exhaustion. The pack will break up as fatigued riders fall back.
“Going.To.Be.Carnage,” Armstrong tweeted after inspecting the cobbles last week.
Lighter, smaller riders like Contador risk being bulldozed aside by bigger brutes. Armstrong, who is somewhat chunkier but hardly the Incredible Hulk, may find it a little easier to hold his ground. Everyone will be praying that they don’t puncture or break down, because it could take their mechanics precious minutes to reach them. That could ruin the Tour for the top contenders. Iban Mayo, a small, light Spanish rider like Contador, crashed in the fight for position ahead of a cobbled section in 2004 and lost a whopping 3 minutes and 48 seconds to Armstrong. In that instant, his Tour hopes were crushed.
Gouvenou fears a similar fate could befall Contador, the defending champion.
“I am worried for him. I think he’s going to be too weak to stay at the front and then as the pack breaks up he’ll fall behind and get caught at the back,” he says. “Armstrong has the build for the paving stones.”
Tour organizers make no apologies for the minefield they have laid.
“There is always the possibility of punctures or falls. This stage will frighten everyone and the race favorites may lose precious minutes,” says the Tour’s official website.
But it would be best if the cobbles don’t skew the Tour outcome too much and the top contenders make it through safely. It would not be convincing if Armstrong or others win simply because the paving stones hobbled their rivals.
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