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David L. Stanley

2015 Tour de France: July 6
Stage 4 reviewed and assessed

Back to Commentary index page | 2015 Tour de France

David Stanley is an experienced cycling writer. His work has appeared in Velo, Velo-news.com, Road, Peloton, and the late, lamented Bicycle Guide (my favorite all-time cycling magazine). He blogs regularly for Dads Roundtable. Here's his Facebook page. He is also a highly regarded voice artist with many audiobooks to his credit, including McGann Publishing's The Olympics' 50 Craziest Stories and Cycling Heroes.

For those of us who came of age as racing cyclists during European racing’s first “Anglophone Invasion” in the 1980s, cobbles hold us in their sway. In 1984, CBS provided the first English language coverage of Paris-Roubaix seen in the USA. We listened to John Tesh’s cobblestone-inspired synclavier as it thumped synchro- jazz-disco-rock. We memorized every word of his dramatic “voice of doom” commentary. We watched Sean Kelly’s triple-pump victory salute in one of the wettest, muddiest P-R’s in history. And the gestalt stuck with us. Cobbles are how we measure the toughest of the tough.

Sean Kelly

The great Sean Kelly

When cobbles feature in a one-day Classic, there are always two races. The first race is the race for the front as a cobbled sector approaches. One, the sectors are always narrow, which squeezes you to the back if you do not ride aggressively.

Two, if you are not near the front, you cannot see. If it’s raining, the mud gets flung. If it’s dry, the dust is unbearable. Three, any crash in front of you will, at best, bring you to halt. At worst, you’ll hit the stone deck yourself. When cobbles feature in a stage race, there is a third race, as teams must be mindful of the GC contenders, in addition to the worry over a good stage finish for the cobblestone specialists.

My thoughts as the 223 km stage hit the cobbles between Seraing, Belgium and Cambrai, France. The cobbles start with Sector 7, and count down from there.

Sector 7 (63.5/103 km to go):
Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quickstep)  leads the peloton onto the stones. He must be riding to help teammate Tony Martin. Martin is in second place, one second behind yellow jersey Chris Froome of Team Sky. There’s no question that Sky would not mind giving up the yellow jersey. It’s a long way to Paris. The hard work of working for the jersey for the next 17 stages is hardly worth the merits of keeping the jersey until the Pyrenees.

If there is any doubt about Cav as a teammate, today should finally lay that aside. He carries water. He guides his teammates. He wins sprints. Cavendish looks very comfortable at speed over the cobbles. At age 30, as he ages out of the top fuel speedster class, perhaps he might turn into a classics specialist.
Along the road side, farmers have created a giant bicycle, with rotating wheels, from about four dozen tractors in assorted colors. So far, this is the coolest non-racing moment from the fans of the Tour.

The Giant-Alpecin team of stage favorite John Degenkolb has been very active today. Degenkolb is a cobblestone expert, and a very fast finisher. Should this stage come to a sprint (unlikely), or an escape by a highly select group, he’s a favorite. Alpecin is a caffeinated shampoo that touts its ability to regenerate hair. Its tag was “Doping for your hair” prior to the Tour but wisely, they changed it to “German engineering for your hair.” On Amazon, the reviews are mixed. As my friend BusterSci said, “I tried it. My hair didn’t sleep for three days.”

John Degenkolb

John Degenkolb

Sector 6 (28 mi/46 km to go):
Here comes the rain. Four km before the start of sector 6 and it is spitting rain. This could turn into a true “L’enfer du Nord. There is nothing more slippery on a bike than macadam with just a little bit of rainwater. It’s not just raining. It’s also windy, and simultaneously dusty. Not a combination one often sees on the cobbles in April during Paris-Roubaix.

Tony Martin wisely takes no chances. He goes straight to the front and makes the pace. Small gaps have formed throughout the length of the peloton. Most riders will be able to close the gaps once back on the tarmac. On a day like this, that’s an energy expenditure that’s wasteful but unavoidable when a high-performance diesel like Tony Martin is flying across the stones. All the favorites are present. Only 4 kilometers to the next sector.

Sector 5 (25 mi/40 km to go):
The rain has stopped. Team Sky’s Luke Rowe leads Chris Froome onto the cobbles. Lars Boom (Astana) accelerates and takes Vincenzo Nibali with him as they open up a noticeable gap. Spinning up to about 120 rpm, the yellow jersey Froome nails back the attack. On his bike, Froome may look, as his first coach described “like a baby bird trying to take off” with those wide elbows of his, but there is no doubt that Froome has an enormous motor.

Nibali once again shows that he is the class of the GC field on the cobbles. No surprise, as Peter van Petegem, one of the all-time great cobbled classics riders, was signed on to the Astana payroll to school Nibali on his technique. Nibali, a smart guy, has clearly listened to Brakel, Belgium resident Pete van Petegem as they rode together on these very cobbles early this season.

Sector 4 (22 mi/35.5 to go):
A sight not often seen on the cobbles of Belgium and northern France - all the big, beefy, muscular guys of the Classics; Sagan, Degenkolb, Boom, Stybar, et al are at the front. And they are elbow to elbow with the scrawny super-climbing stage race specialists. Andre Greipel has forearms bigger around than Nibali’s biceps.

Good news for the USAians, Tejay van Garderen(BMC) is riding a top notch stage. He’s never been out of the lead group over any of the cobble sections. Contador is never far from Froome, and hey, there’s Nairo Quintana bouncing around in the middle of the group.

Sector 3 (16 mi/26 km to go)
Bonus for the yellow jersey-Froome is fending off anyone around him with those elbows. Perhaps a little Muy Thai training in the offseason? He’s definitely demanding his space. The wear and tear of the stage’s 138 mi/223 km length and the pounding of the cobbles have started to show. Guys are getting shed out of the back groups as they hit the cobbles like a teenager’s dandruff on prom night. Everyone in the front group is hanging tough. Sectors 2 & 1 are said to be very difficult and nobody who has worked this hard to be in front with 15 miles to go is going to go out without a major fight. Quintana is in a smart spot, right on Froome’s wheel, about 6 men from the front.

Sector 2 (14 mi/23 km to go)
Daniel Oss, with a fist-sized bandage under his eye, looks like he’s gone 3 rounds in the Octagon. He, along with a host of others, took a horrific whacking in yesterday’s crash. Alberto Contador is riding a brilliant stage, always in the top ten on the cobbles and never in the wind. He knows that there is nothing to be gained by winning today that is worth the energy. Nibali has incredible panache on the cobbles-he might as well be racing on tarmac, so comfortable he looks – but I have to wonder about the wisdom of showing one’s strength so early. For the GC contenders, the time for pounding a shoe on the table is generally in the mountains.  On the other hand, Astana followed a similar script in Tour 2014, so what do I know? Peter Sagan has looked tough over this sector, riding smoothly and with no wasted effort. If this lead group stays together, he’s my pick today as the closing 200 meters is a bit uphill.

Vincenzo Nibali

Vincenzo Nibali (baby blue kit)

Sector 1 (8 mi/13 km to go)
As the last cobbled sector approaches, Froome is #3 man, behind two Team Sky mates. It looks like Team Sky is  lining it out for a field sprint. This is a beast of a final sector. There will be 6 miles to go when we exit the cobbles and everyone is in with a solid chance: Nibali, TVG, Froome, Contador, Quintana  all in the top ten, and holy cow, that’s Valverde. Can I get a re-do on my prediction? No?
Nibbles has not missed a chance to attack on the cobbles. Every time he senses the pace ease behind him, he hits the throttle. He is wicked strong today.

We’re off the stones. With the cobbles gone, there are 10 km to go,  and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) leads off the cobbles. He’s also a favorite for today.  Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) has Froome on his wheel and he is flying up the road with a group of 6 which includes Nibali. They gain a few seconds, but those in the group are staring at Thomas, rather than pulling through. Sagan has Contador on his wheel and he drags Alberto (and a cast of very tired men) up to the Froome-Nibali group.

We are gruppo compatto in the front with about 40 men. It’s a different story in the back of the peloton. From the copter, it looks as if the riders are strung out 4 to 5 miles behind the leaders. (Indeed, the final results show the back group of 30 riders will come in nearly 18:00 behind.)

Cavendish still looks great in the group. He is sitting in the wheels at the moment. Clearly, Etixx has two cards here. One is a flyer by World Time Trial champion Tony Martin. Should that move not take, then Cavendish will be free to contest the sprint. Good news for Pitbull fans- I just spotted Andrew Talansky. In the front twenty, near the outside edge of the group. Quietly, he’s having a fine day.

Holy crap- there goes Tony Martin! He’s attacked like he was shot from an electromagnetic rail gun. There are 3 km to go and he’s near-instantly away with an 8 second gap. He had to be going close to 38 mph as he rocketed up the side of the field. Perfect timing, a tactically brilliant move, with the horsepower behind it. Team Sky will not chase. They are happy to cede the jersey. If Martin stays away, he gains a ten second bonus and he’s only one second behind Froome.
Tony Martin takes the stage by 4 seconds. What a well-taken victory! Such confidence- to race over the cobbles and the wind for 220.5 km and then dare everyone to chase you over the last three km.

Tony Martin win stage 4

Tony Martin wins stage 4

Ausgezeichnet, Herr Martin!

Degenkolb and Sagan and Greg van Avermaet lead the group in, three seconds behind the day’s winner, Tony Martin.

Not only did Martin dare the field with his move, he did it on a teammate’s bike. When Martin flatted earlier in the day, his teammate Matteo Trentin was right there and gave up his bike. Even if Trentin’s frame size is identical, the set-up is anything but. To make that attack on an ill-fitting machine adds to the legend of Tony Martin’s win.

What did we learn today:
1) Mark Cavendish is a consummate professional teammate, and should he desire, his talents might show well in the spring classics as he ages out of rock star sprinter status.

2) Nibali continues to amaze on the cobbles. I’m not certain, if his main competitors stay healthy, that his show of strength was wise, but I certainly can’t argue the Astana blueprint.

3) Froome can ride a bike with the best of them. If you’re one of those armchair yellow jerseys who whine that “Froome can’t stay upright,” just shut up. I mean it.

4) Nairo Quintana should be brimming with confidence. He took the race’s toughest day, the one for which his skills are least suited, and flew the Colombian flag with high honors.

5) Ditto for our American boys, Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen. Right there every step of the way, the lads rode tactically astute races. The stayed in the front group, let very few gaps open up, and stayed upright. Again, top marks. TVG is in third place, just 25 seconds behind Tony Martin. Talansky is further back, 20th place at 2:51, but no worries. Most of the men between Andrew and the top ten cannot hold Talansky’s wheel on a climb with a bungee cord.

6) Contador is very smart on a bike. He knows how to hide from the wind, he knows how to use his team, and he knows when to burn a match or two. For all the work Nibbles did today to try and gain some time on Contador, AC is still 1:02 ahead of him.

7) Who doesn’t love a winner that looks like a 13 year old boy on the podium?

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