The cobbled stage of the 2014 Tour de France

The 2014 Tour de France route was announced yesterday, but it’s too much information to tackle in one go. I’d therefore like to start with just one of the more eye-catching stages because it also fits with my other aim for the close season of getting people a bit more enthused about the Spring Classics.

After a Yorkshire start and three days in Britain, the Tour moves to the Franco-Belgian land of the Cobbled Classics. Stage five will feature 15.5km of pavé and a few of the Grand Tour riders are bricking it.

Why do cobbles matter?

You can lose the Tour de France and the will to live on cobbles. It’s a bone-shaking test of endurance which can split the peloton and lead to time gaps. Andy Schleck won the 2010 Tour largely off the back of finishing in the front group on a stage featuring 13km of cobbles.

It all stems from the timeless truth that it’s easier to cycle behind someone else. The slower you go, the less this applies and the riders are forced to go very slowly (by their standards) on cobbles. With the benefits of drafting minimised, it’s that much easier to create gaps.

What can happen on cobbles?

The peloton can split for the reasons given above, but perhaps more importantly, the mere knowledge that the peloton might split turns everyone mental. It’s not always a stretch of cobbles which does the damage, it’s often the approach to it.

If there’s a chance the bunch might split, you want to be at the front, so general classification contenders and stage hopefuls alike all want to be at the front going into each section of pavé. One team rides faster to try and gain position and then another team rides faster still to get past them. Before you know it, everyone’s flat out. Crashes frequently ensue.

It’s tough on the bikes too. Mechanical issues are far more common when you’re pummelling your barse over rough surfaces than when you’re gliding along smooth tarmac.

Who will lose time?

In a sense, riding over cobbles is like going up a steep hill. The difference is that the quality that separates one rider from another is no longer their strength-to-weight ratio – it’s just their strength, because they’re not fighting gravity. As such, bigger riders tend to thrive.

None of the general classification guys are big, but some are bigger than others. Although Chris Froome has expressed nervousness about the cobbles, physiologically he’s better off than most of his rivals.

For example, Nairo Quintana is 50-odd kilos. Froome is closer to 70 kilos. When they’re cycling uphill at the same speed, Froome is by necessity producing more power because he is lifting more weight. However, transpose these efforts to the flat, to the cobbles, and suddenly he’ll move away from Quintana.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the almost unimaginably small Domenico Pozzovivo has already said he isn’t going to ride the Tour in 2014. He doesn’t like cobbles.

Who will win the stage?

Probably Fabian Cancellara. Tom Boonen’s in with a shout if he rides and isn’t suffering some sort of injury and then there are a bunch of other hefty, muscular riders who pride themselves on being adept at this particular sub-genre of brutality.