By Julien Pretot
QUIMPER, France (Reuters) - The top Tour de France riders will have to overcome brutal climbs and fearsome descents, but perhaps the most difficult terrain they will have to navigate is the humble cobble.
The riders most likely to be battling for the yellow jersey will be set for a shaky ride on Sunday in the much-feared ninth stage to Roubaix, where some of the overall favourites could lose the race.
The 156.5-km trek features 21.7km on cobbles, and the lightweights of the peloton, whose slender frames help them glide up the climbs, will be the worst affected.
The more powerful members of the peloton, who weigh around 75-80kg, are better able to absorb the vibrations, but climbers, such as Irishman Dan Martin, one of lightest of the top Tour de France contenders at under 60kg, will face a much rougher ride.
Unlike in the mountains, where Martin will battle his fellow climbers, the UAE Emirates rider will look only to limit the damage on Sunday and communication and composure will be key. “We checked the stage last Wednesday before the start of the race but it is so specific,” Martin’s sports director Philippe Mauduit told Reuters on Wednesday. “Artists like (Vincenzo) Nibali, who can do everything on a bike, it’s not a problem for them. Other riders like (Chris) Froome, or other leaders, it’s more complicated even if you work on it. You have it or you don’t have it.” There are more mechanical issues and crashes on cobbles than on any other terrain, and the key to success will be to avoid panicking. “I told my riders the first day. When there were crashes, nobody was communicating. Now it’s working well, when there’s a crash, everyone keeps us posted (though radio communication) so we can assist them,” Mauduit explained. “And composure will be crucial on Sunday.” In 2015, the last time the Tour went through cobbled sectors, overall contender Thibaut Pinot suffered a puncture. He should have swapped bikes with a team mate, but instead lost his cool and waited for his team car for assistance. On the narrow roads of northern France, that support arrived late, and Pinot lost his chance of victory. “We know that at some moments, we (the team cars) will be three to four minutes behind a group of riders because of road blocks and sometimes the road will be too narrow for us to go past a small bunch and reach our rider,” said Mauduit. "Sometimes you get your rider back 15km further down the road." To avoid such scenarios, riders need to be able to act without the support of their sports directors. "Since the season started I have been trying to teach my riders to be autonomous,” said Mauduit, who in his 15-year career as a sports director has guided multiple grand tour winners Alberto Contador and Nibali. "The goal is that they are able to make the right decisions without assistance. We plan everything, they have all the information to do well." Martin, however, will not be on his own on Sunday. “The whole team, with the exception of Alexander Kristoff and Marco Marcato who will go for the stage win, the whole team will be around Dan to protect him,” said Mauduit.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)