Cobbled 'hell' puts Tour on 'Super Sunday' map

by Damian MCCALL
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The cobbled sections of the Paris-Roubaix are always treacherous

Overshadowed by the World Cup final and the Wimbledon men's singles final, Sunday's Arras to Roubaix Tour de France run, with its 22km (14 miles) of cobbled mining roads, has been foremost on the cycling world's mind all week.

The Wimbledon final between Kevin Anderson and Novak Djokovic starts an hour before the much-awaited battle over the cobbles ends, but it will be the France v Croatia World Cup final that massively reduces the roadside numbers, as the French get ready to watch the big game with kick-off scheduled for around half an hour after the stage ends.

This ninth stage of the 21-day Tour marks the end of the "flat part", before the Tour climbs into the Alps and the Pyrenees on a race that remains ultra-tight with a rare open field of overall contenders whose chief concern has been safety.

Mechanical problems and falls have been the chief dividers in the struggle for the yellow jersey so far, and Sunday's stage could be marked by a continuation of the safety-first mentality.

"It will be a fascinating stage, and a really dangerous stage," BMC rider Greg Van Avermaet, who held the overall leader's yellow jersey after Saturday's eighth stage, told AFP.

Former Paris-Roubaix winner Van Avermaet could be a victim of the importance of this stage for the general classification.

Protection of the leader is paramount -- in BMC's case that means Richie Porte of Australia.

"Trying to protect Richie and protect the yellow is a good combination I think in the end, because we are always riding at the front.

"We'll take advantage of (respect for) the yellow jersey at Roubaix to create a little space around us and get Richie to the line in good time."

- Peter the Great -

There are two teams who have an obvious chance of winning the Arras-Roubaix stage and do not have a leader to protect. They are Bora-Hansgrohe with Peter Sagan and Quick-Step with Niki Terpstra, Bob Jungels and Philippe Gilbert, none of whom would be a surprise stage winner.

Such is the form of world road race champion Sagan, who flew over the cobbles from 50km out to win the one-day race this spring, few would bet against him adding yet another stage win to his growing haul.

After all, Sagan won the 2018 edition of the classic "Hell of the North".

The stage may also offer a rare glimpse of team dynamics at Sky, because Geraint Thomas is around a minute ahead of nominal captain and defending champion Chris Froome.

Former Sky man Porte said this week: "Sunday's going to be the roof shaker, it's all about Sunday now."

"Although you can never count Chris out, Geraint is looking very strong," added Porte, who is part of a growing group who see the Welshman as the emerging force for Sky.

Another growing in stature is the nephew of the 1987 Tour de France and Giro winner Stephen Roche, the UAE Team Emirates captain Dan Martin, who broke for a thrilling win on the Mur-de-Bretagne on Thursday before a fall on Saturday saw him lose a full minute on his rivals.

"We want to get to the rest day with everybody safe and sound, I'm going to need the guys in the last week," he said.

Martin told AFP this week he was looking forward to Sunday.

"It's brutal. It's going to be one of those days where ahead of it people will be dreading the whole thing. There'll be a hell of a lot of nervous tension.

"But afterwards they'll be thinking 'Wow, what a day'."

From his team bus Saturday, battered and bruised, Martin said he was hurting and in shock: "Obviously it's going to hurt on the cobbles, but I'll try to race."

Monday's headlines will doubtless be led by the World Cup final, but cycling boffins will be rifling through that on Monday to see who survived the cobbles, and who above all suffered the most.

The cobbled sections of the Paris-Roubaix are always treacherous

Greg Van Avermaet held the leader's yellow jersey after stage seven