By Chris Carmichael
Everyone knew Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France had the potential to be dangerous, but when the riders awoke this morning to a steady rain their worst nightmares were confirmed. It’s one thing to race over cobblestones when they are dry, it’s still extremely difficult, but today was brutal. The wet roads of Northern France were littered with wounded riders and broken bikes today, as the peloton raced over seven sections of cobblestones. Yet most of the crashes seemed to happen before or between the sections of cobblestones, rather than on the stones themselves. The peloton was nervous, the speeds were very high, and the pack wasn’t the same as you would have seen in a cobbled classic like Paris-Roubaix. The result was a splintered peloton, with significant time gaps between overall favorites for the yellow jersey, and the unfortunate abandon of defending champion Chris Froome.
Vincenzo Nibali rode a very impressive stage today, defending his yellow jersey and putting rivals like Alberto Contador, Andrew Talansky, and Alejandro Valverde two minutes or more behind him in the general classification. Perhaps winning the 2013 Giro d’Italia, where it rained almost every day, was excellent preparation for today’s stage! He and his Astana team stayed at the front and let the conditions and terrain take their toll. They didn’t really have to attack; the cobbles, weather, and crashes created gaps and it was difficult for anyone to mount an effective chase.
Do stages like this one belong in a Grand Tour? Was this stage just a spectacle for the fans that disregarded the safety of the riders? Those are difficult questions. Without the rain today’s stage would have been hard and had a few crashes, but it was the rain that made the big difference – and you can’t predict that months in advance. It’s also important to remember that the riders make the race, not the course. We’ve seen examples in the past of the Tour de France and Tour of Italy when the peloton deciding to neutralize a stage they felt was too dangerous. Unfortunately, there’s no formal procedure for that; it requires leadership from within the peloton and consensus among the riders and teams. With so much at stake today, and so many contradictory agendas among teams and individual riders, that consensus would have been difficult – if not impossible – to reach.
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One issue race organizers may want to consider, though, is the composition of the Grand Tour peloton compared to the Classics peloton. When you line up for Paris-Roubaix, it’s a one-day race and you know exactly what you’re in for. If you don’t want to take the risk or it’s not a race that suits you, then you don’t toe the line. But in a Grand Tour there’s no option to sit out a stage, and you have a peloton that includes slightly-built climbers, Classics specialists who have won races like Paris-Roubaix, and riders who have little to no experience with cobblestones. There are advantages for some but heightened risk for all. Saying “they ride cobbles in April, so they can ride them in July” is misleading, because it’s not the same peloton and it’s not just one day of racing.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about riding over cobblestones, and even though most cyclists will never have the chance to race over the pave of Northern France, the techniques riders use to fly over the cobbles are the same as you can use to go faster over rough terrain wherever you are:
- Roll a big gear: Momentum is key over rough terrain, and rolling a big gear evens out your power output to keep you plowing forward. The lower cadence also means slower leg turnover, which helps to keep you from bouncing around in the saddle as badly. Mountain bikers have long used this technique to power through rock gardens, and cyclocross riders often attack sandpits and loose terrain in a big gear for the same reason.
- Sit back in the saddle: Getting back in the saddle not only helps with turning over a big gear over rough terrain, but it also shifts your weight back so your front tire can skip over the stones more easily. Weight over the rear wheel also helps to keep it in contact with the surface so you don’t waste your energy spinning the back tire against thin air. You have to be careful, however, to keep enough weight over the front end that you don’t bounce into the weeds, and you have to weight the front end again to get through the corners.
- Stay loose: The tighter you grip the bars, the worse you’re going to bounce around. It may seem counterintuitive, but the smoothest and safest way through cobblestones, sand, gravel, or mud is to keep a loose grip on the bars and ride with bent elbows and relaxed shoulders. The bars are going to move a lot, but rather than trying to keep them still, you just want to keep them from moving too far.
- Keep your eyes far forward: Look at where you want to go and keep your head up. When you drop your head and focus on the small obstacles in front of your wheel, you start making innumerable small corrections and lose sight of the best path out of the whole mess.
The cruel truth about riding cobblestones is that the faster you go, the easier it gets. It’s not that it’s easy to generate the power to go faster, but that the higher speed helps to smooth out the ride. There is no benefit to taking it slow – you’re still have a good chance of getting a flat tire, you get bounced around more, and you’re on the cobblestones for a longer period of time. Rough terrain is not a place to conserve energy; it’s the place where brute power, literally, saves your butt.