Cycling: Armstrong fears carnage on first cobbled stage on Tour for six years

Warning, bumpy road ahead: riders voice crash concerns as 'Hell of the North' awaits

This year's Tour de France will cover 3,600 kilometres [2,236 miles], including some of the most fearsome climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees. It's one of the toughest Tours in years, and yet perhaps the moment the peloton has been fearing most will arrive at about 4.30pm today, in between one bleak post-industrial town in southern Belgium and another in northern France. This is when the Tour hits the cobbles. Lance Armstrong predicted last week that there would be carnage and he wasn't exaggerating.

Riding on cobbles might not sound as difficult as all that, but these are far from the perfectly ordered rows of neatly carved elongated ovals you might find in any city centre seeking to give itself an olde-worlde air. Rather they will be great broken chunks of stone, 15 or 20 centimetres long and seven wide, and clustered in poorly formed, half-broken patterns across muddy, wind-lashed country back roads: as one British magazine once poetically put it, "tossed randomly from the sky by an angry cycling god".

In fact, not even the cyclists dare to use these roads very often. The professionals visit these lost, rural lanes of what the French call pavé just once a year, in the Paris-Roubaix one-day Classic in April. Dubbed the "Hell of the North" or "The Race That Time Forgot", just three or four of cycling's top 20 riders are brave enough to risk their careers and take part in a 260km event that invariably contains a welter of punctures, broken bikes and crashes.

Physically it can exact a huge toll. Most top Roubaix riders reckon it takes at least two days for their hands to stop trembling from the constant, bone-shaking vibrations the race has inflicted on them, three days for the pain to start to go. British specialist Roger Hammond, who has taken third and fourth in Paris-Roubaix, once said it takes around a week for him to recover fully.

Paris-Roubaix regularly ends careers. Mark Madiot, who is a double Roubaix winner, broke his hip in 1994 and never rode again. When Johan Museeuw broke his leg during the 1998 Paris-Roubaix so much dirt from the road infected the wound it was touch and go whether it would have to be amputated. He eventually recovered, and won the Paris-Roubaix in a downpour for a third time in 2002, so plastered in mud he was barely recognisable.

When the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, announced last October at the 2010 Tour presentation that the race would take in some seven sections of Paris-Roubaix pavé for the first time in six years, the favourites' usual polite smiles gave way to stunned silence.

"There will be a lot of crashes for sure," warned Bjarne Riis, the team manager of two top contenders, Andy and Frank Schleck. "If all hell breaks loose, as it will, there will be a lot of time differences."

The reason why the Tour contenders are so worried is that riding over such terrain calls for very unusual bike- handling skills, more suited to former cross-country world champions such as Hammond than three-week stage racers.

"Dry weather makes for better racing and rather than riding on the top of the pavé, where it's safer in the wet, you're best off in the gutters," Madiot said. "But when it's dry there's dust too, so it's hard to see more than a few metres ahead. You mustn't follow the next guy's wheel too closely like you would in other races. If you do that on the pavé and he crashes, then you've had it. You've got to keep your distance, watch the whole line ahead of you. Above all, anticipate."

Following Prudhomme's announcement, almost all of the top Tour favourites almost immediately began elaborate preparations. Alberto Contador , who has never ridden any of the so-called "Cobbled Classics", visited the area in April on a bike specially designed to resist the vibrations of the cobblestones. Bradley Wiggins, one of the few top contenders who has taken part in Paris-Roubaix, has checked out the cobbles twice in April and again last month – because the "wet and dry conditions make it so different".

Other teams, such as Rabobank, are refusing to confirm their overall leader until the stage is over. Will it be the double Tour of Spain winner Denis Menchov or his promising young Dutch team-mate Robert Gesink, both equally inexperienced on such terrain? "We're not saying," sports director Adri Van Houweligen said. "It's better off waiting until the stage is over."

Lance Armstrong, the only rider vying for yellow in Paris to have ridden in the 2004 Tour, has been uttering dire warnings about the stage for some time.

Most of them – consciously or not – will strike home at Contador, who is certainly viewing his first experience of racing over cobbles with some trepidation. "It's not so much the cobbles themselves, but the approaches that could be dangerous," Contador said. "Everybody wants to be in front, everybody wants to stay out of trouble. Somebody's bound to go down."

Cyclists from Contador's part of the world have been protesting about the cobbles for over half a century. The Tour came this way in 1959, when the race had another top Spanish favourite, the eventual overall winner Federico Martin Bahamontes.

For over 150 kilometres of the 217 in that 1959 stage the Tour riders covered a never-ending succession of pavé, something Spanish sports daily Marca said snootily in its report from the race, "was inhuman in this age and day, when we can all ride along nice smooth motorways.

"Why bother with these cobblestones which stick out so much, round here the locals call them 'priests hats'?"

Fifty-one years on, if most of the Tour peloton will have similar feelings about today's stage, at least one of Britain's eight Tour riders is looking forward to hammering over the pavé of northern France.

"I love riding on the cobbles, I get upset that I can't usually do races like Paris-Roubaix," HTC-Columbia's Mark Cavendish said. "Me, I'm not nervous about it at all." Cavendish, though, will be very much the exception that proves the rule.

How they will cope with cobbles

Teams will make a number of changes today to combat the effect of the cobbled streets:

Wheels Tyre pressure will be lowered from the usual 100 psi to 65 psi. This means less risk of getting caught between cobblestones, so less risk of punctures. Wheels will be fatter by up to three or four millimetres.

Handlebars These will be raised by a centimetre. Some riders use cyclo-cross brake levers on the bars while others add double handlebar tape round the bars to decrease vibrations.

Help from teams Mechanics are posted at the end of cobbled sections with spare wheels and tyres as the following team cars may be delayed.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
tech
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PPC Executive - Manchester City Centre

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This forward-thinking agency wo...

Recruitment Genius: Artwork Design Apprenticeship

£7200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Artwork Design Apprenticeship is avail...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web design and digital age...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor