The 157 km from Lille to Wallers Arenberg Porte du Hainaut isn’t particularly long, but it’s what’s on the way that matters: 11 cobbled sectors totalling almost 20 km packed into the second half of the course, including a couple of boneshaking four-star sectors. Because of that, it’s likely to have been circled in red in the calendars of the Tour’s GC riders since the route was announced.
The cobbles of northern France are not the natural habitat for many Grand Tour contenders, and cobbled Tour cameos of the past have often delivered a blow to the hopes of at least one favourite. The last time (2018), Richie Porte crashed out and Rigoberto Uran withdrew due to his injuries a couple days later. The time before (2014) – which the finale of this year’s ‘Roubaix’ stage follows – was a springboard to Vincenzo Nibali’s GC win, while Chris Froome crashed out.
There’s not just potential for crashes, of course, but positioning and mechanical issues as well. In all, it should be a nervous and exciting day of racing.
So what should we expect from the Tour de France GC favourites on the pavé?
Vulnerability for Pogačar?
Let’s start with defending champ Tadej Pogačar, who set tongues wagging with his recon ride back in April. The Slovenian prodigy is relatively untested on the cobbles and has never ridden Paris-Roubaix since turning pro, although he’s shown that rough terrain isn’t an obstacle in and of itself with a win at Strade Bianche and fourth place at Ronde van Vlaanderen this season alone.
There’s also a clue deep in his palmares that suggests he’s not going to be too badly out of his depth – he rode Paris-Roubaix Juniors way back in 2015 and 2016, finishing as high as 13th.
Of the top crop of GC contenders, Pogačar lacks a standout lieutenant on the cobbles – Matteo Trentin was expected to fill that role, before dropping out of the squad due to COVID the week before. Vegard Stake Laengen and Mikkel Bjerg will be expected to step up, but they lack the Italian’s experience. That means Pogačar could find himself isolated, and his rivals will be hoping to capitalise on the chaos if so.
As Pogačar put it himself, “Tomorrow I just need to survive. It’ll be a big stage and I hope nothing serious, like crashes or something happens. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really hard stage for everyone and a great show on television.”
Also: it’s Tadej Pogačar. He could win the thing. Who knows.
Jumbo-Visma’s double prong (+ bonus Wout)
Jumbo-Visma enters stage 5 with the yellow jersey on the shoulders of Wout van Aert, and two GC contenders to support in the form of Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard. If this stage stood on its own, divorced from the three-week context of the Tour, Van Aert would be a favourite for the win, but the Belgian star may have to temper his personal ambitions to shepherd his team leaders.
Van Aert won’t be alone in that task – Christophe Laporte, Nathan van Hooydonck and Tiejs Benoot are valuable allies on terrain like this – but with two leaders to protect, along with the yellow jersey, there’s the risk that the team will spread itself a bit thin.
The riders of Jumbo-Visma tested themselves against the cobbles at the GP de Denain back in March, and left with a big dollop of confidence. There, Roglič surfed the pavé with ease, was an animator in a breakaway, and finished a pressure-free 36th. “We were here to test the men and the equipment and Primož did a great job,” Jumbo-Visma sports director Grischa Niermann said after that race. “We learned a lot for the cobblestone stage in the Tour de France.”
Roglič brings a bit of experience to this year’s cobbled sojourn. He was racing the Tour de France the last time it played on the pavé; on that occasion, like at GP de Denain, he was pretty unfazed and built on that to finish fourth overall.
Vingegaard is a bit of an unknown. At GP de Denain, he suffered a puncture early on, finishing 11 minutes off the pace. He’s strong enough on the flat, as shown by his TT abilities, but there’s no obvious indication in his palmares that he’s a cobbled star of the future.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Jumbo-Visma goes into the stage with a tactical trick up its sleeve. With Van Aert in the yellow jersey, they’ve got the first support car in the convoy – which means that a spare bike or wheel can quickly be available for Roglič or Vingegaard if the cobbles choose violence. In the Tour de France, every little bit helps.
Ineos Grenadiers’ trident
The British supersquad heads into stage 5 with not one, not two, but three potential GC contenders in the form of Adam Yates, Geraint Thomas, and Dani Martínez. Thomas in particular seems thoroughly unflustered by what lies in store, telling CyclingTips that he has “done my share of cobbles in the past” and is “looking forward to it”.
Yates “handles himself very well” on the cobbles, according to former teammate Matt Hayman. Martínez, meanwhile, finished in the front group at GP de Denain earlier this year, although he’s the least experienced on this terrain.
Like Jumbo-Visma, Ineos’s roster is stacked with strong riders for this terrain – big diesel engines that can forge a path through the carnage. On their Tour squad this year is Dylan van Baarle, who you might remember from such hits as ‘winning Paris-Roubaix in April’. There’s world time trial champ Filippo Ganna, and Welsh powerhouse Luke Rowe. There’s also reigning Olympic MTB champ and CX world champ, Tom Pidcock, who seems more than capable of shrugging off the roughest ruts that the race organisers can throw his way.
That gives Ineos Grenadiers some confidence ahead of stage 5, and an opportunity to shape the race to their advantage, before they hit the high mountains and the playing field tilts away from them and towards the Slovenians.
Should disaster strike, there’ll be help six cars back in the convoy, but with so many GC leaders the stage could be a natural shake-out within the team, too.
The best of the rest
Outside the top tier of contenders, there will be many other riders hoping to improve, or at least conserve, their positions in the GC.
West Australian climber Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) finished fourth at the 2021 Tour, and will come into the stage with some jitters, memorably describing his cobbled demeanour as “shitting myself”. He’ll have Oliver Naesen to look out for him, and has set himself a goal of “finishing with the favourites … It’s more of a danger for crashing and crashing out of the race than actual time loss.”
O’Connor’s compatriot Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) comes from a mountain-biking background, having won the national U23 cross country title. Since evolving to a Grand Tour contender, however, he’s become more of a pure climber and has a long, willowy physique, much like his co-leader Damiano Caruso. Haig told SBS Sport that he was hoping to navigate the stage damage-free, and that after reconning the pavé he “was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting.”
Alexander Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) is also a dark horse for the podium, and has little relevant experience on the cobbles to draw upon. That said, his teammate Nils Politt (second at Paris-Roubaix in 2019) says that Vlasov “looked super good on the cobbles” in the recon. Chalk this one up as a bit of an unknown.
Enric Mas (Movistar) would be dreaming for something as simple as an ‘unknown’ – his aptitude on the cobbles is very much known, and not in a good way. The Movistar team leader will be hoping to limit damage and not much more.
Despite his small stature, Nairo Quintana (Arkea Samsic) is unlikely to be too bothered by the cobbles – and in previous editions of the Tour, has proven surprisingly adept at navigating the dangers of flat stage echelons. His teammate, Connor Swift will be working to guide him through the chaos, but told Cyclingnews that Quintana is “more than capable of doing it all himself.”
Rounding out the favourites is Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu – the petite climber that the French squad is backing as team leader (even if, secretly, half of cycling fandom is dreaming of a romantic victory for Thibaut Pinot). On paper, Gaudu seems quite vulnerable on stage 5, and Stefan Küng (third at Paris-Roubaix in 2022) will be tasked with looking after him. “I will play his card and give it all to try and get him up and through unscathed,” Küng said. The Swiss powerhouse says that Gaudu is “quite good” tactically and “has no fear, so already he has a lot of good ingredients to be able to succeed on the cobbles.”
A bonus weather check
The cobbled roads of Roubaix are mythologised for their mud and mayhem, so perhaps you’re wondering if there’ll be the complication of bad conditions on stage 5.
Alas, no – the weather forecast is dry, mostly sunny, and in the mid 20s Celsius, so it’ll be a dusty affair rather than a dank one. Still, it’s one to make an effort to watch, and should be an absolute corker.