Feared cobbles put Tour on 'Super-Sunday' map
Chartres (France) (AFP)
Overshadowed by the World Cup final and the Wimbledon men's singles final, Sunday's Arras to Roubiax Tour de France run, with its 22km of cobbled mining roads, has been foremost on the cycling world's mind all week.
The Wimbledon final starts an hour before the much-awaited battle over the cobbles ends, but it will be the France v Croatia World Cup final that massively reduces the roadside numbers, as the French get ready to watch the big game with kick-off scheduled for around half an hour after the stage ends.
This ninth stage of the 21-day Tour marks the end of 'the flat part', before the Tour climbs into the Alps and the Pyrenees on a race that remains ultra-tight with a rare open field of overall contenders whose chief concern has been safety.
Mechanical problems and falls have been the chief dividers in the struggle for the yellow jersey so far, and Sunday's stage could be marked by a continuation of the safety-first mentality.
"It will be a fascinating stage, and a really dangerous stage," BMC rider Greg Van Avermaet, who held the overall leader's yellow jersey after Friday's seventh stage, told AFP.
Former Paris-Roubaix winner Van Avermaet could be a victim of the fact this stage could prove crucial to the general classification.
Protection of the leader is paramount -- in BMC's case Richie Porte of Australia.
"Trying to protect Richie and protect the yellow is a good combination I think in the end, because we are always riding at the front.
"We'll take advantage of (respect for) the yellow jersey at Roubaix to create a little space around us and get Richie to the line in good time, he showed yesterday he has good legs."
- Peter the Great -
There are two teams who have an obvious chance of winning the Arras-Roubaix stage who do not have a leader to protect, and they are Bora-Hansgrohe with Peter Sagan and Quick-Step with Niki Terpstra, Bob Jungels and Philippe Gilbert, none of whom would be a surprise winner.
But such is the form of world road race champion Sagan, who flew over the cobbles from 50km out to win the one-day race this spring, few would bet against him adding yet another stage win to his growing haul.
The stage may also offer a rare glimpse behind the scenes at Sky, where Geraint Thomas is around a minute ahead of nominal captain and defending champion Chris Froome.
Former Sky man Porte said this week: "Sunday's going to be the roof shaker, it's all about Sunday now."
"Although you can never count Chris (Froome) out, Geraint is looking very strong," added Porte, who is part of a growing group who see the Welshman as the emerging force for Sky.
Another emerging force is the nephew of the 1987 Tour de France and Giro winner Stephen Roche, the UAE Team Emirates captain Dan Martin, who broke for a thrilling win on the Mur-de-Bretagne on Thursday.
"We want to get to the rest day with everybody safe and sound, I'm going to need the guys in the last week," he said.
"It's brutal. It's going to be one of those days where ahead of it people will be dreading the whole thing. There'll be a hell of a lot of nervous tension.
"But afterwards they'll be thinking 'Wow, what a day'.
"After first doing it in 2015 I have a whole lot of respect for those guys who do Paris-Roubaix."
Monday's headlines will doubtless be led by the World Cup final, but cycling boffins will be rifling through that on Monday to see who survived the cobbles, and who above all, who suffered the most.
© 2018 AFP