AMIENS, France (Reuters) - For some top climbers gunning for Tour de France glory, the race could be over before they even reach their first mountain pass.
Sunday’s ninth stage, which comes just before a much-needed rest day following an opening week of scorching heat, features 21.7 km of cobbled sectors that lighter riders may struggle to adapt to.
With the notable exception of 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali, an “artist” on the bike as his former sports director Philippe Mauduit calls him, the overall favourites may find these difficult sections like a race within a race.
The stage win, however, is more likely to be decided between the Flanders classics specialists - although some of them will be tasked with protecting their team leaders on the 154 km course.
Defending champion Chris Froome, last year’s podium finishers Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet and the rest of the climbers clique will be looking to limit the damage and preserve their chances ahead of the first mountain stage on Tuesday.
The best strategy will probably be to take a deep breath and go for it as soon as the stage starts from the northern town of Arras to reach Roubaix where the “Queen of the Classics” one-day races, Paris-Roubaix, arrives in April.
“The idea is to try and earn some time but when you’re on the cobbles, there’s no specific tactical plan. You’ve got to stay in front, with some teammates if possible, from the first section. Then take stock in between sections of who’s there and who’s not,” said Paolo Slongo, Nibali’s long-time coach at Bahrain-Merida.
“It’s a stage where you go all out. There are no tactics.”
In 2014, Nibali paved his way to the title when he gained time on all his rivals to extend his overall lead in rainy weather. That year, Froome crashed out of the race just before the first cobbled sector.
Tour leader Greg van Avermaet, world champion Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb have all won Paris-Roubaix in the last few years and will all be riding on Sunday – the fourth time in recent Tour history a stage has featured cobbles after 2010, 2014 and 2015.
While Degenkolb and Sagan may have carte blanche to race for the win, Van Avermaet may have to protect his BMC team leader Richie Porte.
“First we need to protect Richie but then I should be able to play my card,” said Van Avermaet.
“It’s going to be like being in a washing machine,” said Bardet, who will be protected by classics specialist Oliver Naesen at AG2R-La Mondiale.
“But the best defence may be to attack. I’m not afraid. I want to be in a good position, and I trust my team.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson