The stones of ‘Le Nord’. They instill fear in many teams. No less than eleven cobblestone sections, good for 19.2 kilometers of those merciless stones. Not a stage where you can win the Tour as a classification rider, but a stage where you can sometimes lose the Tour powerlessly.
Where it is trembling for the classification riders, it is a playground for the classic specialists. In 2014 Lars Boom won the Roubaix stage in the pouring rain, while the last time the Tour was sent through the ‘Hell of the North’ (in 2018) John Degenkolb was the best. At the time, there were fifteen zones, no less than 21.7 kilometers of cobblestones. Remarkably enough, the first five in the stage result included four winners of Paris-Roubaix: Degenkolb, Greg van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan. It proves that this ride is specialist work.
That is why many in the Tour caravan also hope for a duel Mathieu van der Poel versus Wout van Aert. In recent years, the two of the world’s best riders have been on the cobblestone roads. They can push each other to unprecedented heights.
At Jumbo-Visma they have been working on this cobblestone ride since November. When the team went to explore Paris-Roubaix, they immediately started working on this Tour stage in ‘Le Nord’. Fifteen people specially come over so that there is someone with extra wheels at all cobblestone zones to be able to react as quickly as possible if one of the riders has a material problem.
This ride to Arenberg also left a mark on the Tour selection for the Dutch team. Of the eight Tour riders, four are known as classic specialists on the rocks: Wout van Aert, Christophe Laporte, Tiesj Benoot and Nathan Van Hooydonck. “We do indeed see this stage as an opportunity where our classification riders Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard might gain time”, sports director Arthur van Dongen says.
The big question, especially after his impressive victory in Calais, is whether jersey wearer Wout van Aert can and may drive for his own chances on the eleven cobblestone sections or whether he should mainly assist the classification riders. Van Dongen: “We have more riders who can assist Roglič and Vingegaard in this area. The main purpose for which we came to this Tour remains in this stage.”
To put it more clearly: When Roglič and Van Aert are in a leading group. So what should Van Aert do when Roglič has a puncture?
“If it is necessary that Wout has to wait, he will certainly do so,” confirms Van Dongen. “Wout also thinks in the team’s interests and the team also thinks in Wout’s interests. If necessary, Wout will sacrifice himself. That will certainly not be an issue. But again, we can think of many scenarios. We know what our goals and our plans are. We will stick to that.”
Doesn’t that sound like a tricky dilemma?
Van Dongen: “I think that everyone is currently trying to make it difficult and rightly asking questions about it. But we know our goals.”
Also in Mathieu van der Poel’s team, at Alpecin-Deceuninck, nothing is left to chance for this cobblestone stage. Sports director Michel Cornelisse emphasizes the importance of this fifth Tour stage: “Everyone knows that the ride over the stones of Roubaix is a legendary Tour stage to win. Of course, that’s just a little bit more common with us. Mathieu is keen on this stage and the team is ready to assist him as best they can.”
How does this ride live at ‘MVDP’ itself? Cornelisse: “One of Mathieu’s strengths is that he is never nervous. He doesn’t even have that for the Tour of Flanders. He stays relaxed and cool. The more relaxed he is, the better the result is often.”
At Alpecin-Deceuninck, they are counting on Van der Poel to meet his ‘eternal’ rival Van Aert again in this stage. That the Belgian will still be given freedom to defend his yellow jersey.
Cornelisse: “On the one hand, I would understand if Van Aert also had to think of Roglič and Vingegaard. If you have such good classification riders in the team, then you will not do everything to defend that yellow jersey. The great thing about the stones, however, is that a topper like Wout van Aert doesn’t really need a team. If he is well deposited before the first stones, then it is quite easy for such a top rider to stay ahead in this stage.”
Then there could be a duel between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert?
“That could very well be. Maybe I hope for that too”, says Cornelisse with a wink.