07/07 - Stage 4 - Seraing to Cambrai - 223.5 km

The route
After yesterday’s highly dramatic mini Flèche Wallonne, it’s now time for a mini Paris-Roubaix. It’s the longest stage of the Tour - over 220 km - and it will probably have a big impact on general classification. However, compared to last year’s stage on the cobblestones, it’s important to note that the weather forecast is much better this time. There is slight chance of rain at the very end of the stage but most likely, it will stay dry and sunny all the time from Seraing to Cambrai.

Given that the riders will be battling a headwind most of the day, it will be extremely difficult for a morning breakaway to make it all the way. It may seem doomed to join the action up front but it can easily turn out to be a very smart move after all. If the peloton splits up and you lose some teammates, a strong rider up front can prove to be very important when the break gets caught.

In total, there are seven pave sections on the menu today. Three of them (Quiévy, Saint-Python and Verchain-Maugré) were also used in Paris-Roubaix earlier this year. Many riders went down yesterday. There will be a lot of sore bodies rumbling on the horrible cobblestones. The first section comes after 103.5 on the bike. Pont-à-Celles à Gouy-lez-Piéton is 1800 meters long and it will make for the first selection in the peloton. However, distanced riders will have a good chance to rejoin the pack as there are over 70 km until the next pave section begins. In between, the riders reach the intermediate sprint in Havay after 137 km. Soon after, the race enters France. The pace will be very high with all the GC riders trying to stay near the front in order to enter the next pave section in a good position.

The 1200 meters long d'Artres à Famars starts with about 45 km to go. The riders will have to tackle all the remaining five pave sections within the following 35 km. This means there are just over 10 km left after the last rendezvous with the cobblestones.

The run-in towards Cambrai is fairly easy. However, as the peloton enters the town, a handful of tricky corners awaits them on the final 2 km. With about 500 meters to go, the riders turn left in a 90° corner. From here, it’s uphill with 3-5 %, partly on city-cobblestones, all the way towards the finishing line. The feared pave sections will most likely have the biggest say in the final outcome but it’s important to remember that you need to pack a good uphill sprint if you want to win this stage.

The favorites
Due to his good skills on the cobblestones and very fast finish, also uphill, John Degenkolb has to be the main favorite. He won Paris-Roubaix earlier this year and, naturally, he’s extremely eager to repeat that performance today. Degenkolb was unlucky to miss the split on stage 2. Mur de Huy was too steep for him to get in the mix but now, he finally has a chance to win his first ever Tour de France stage. Giant-Alpecin has a strong team for the pave sections. Their GC hope, Warren Barguil, won’t have an easy day in the saddle. He will have a few teammates at his service but the main goal today is to win the stage with Degenkolb. In Paris-Roubaix, the versatile German was the strongest rider in the race and had no problems winning the sprint on the velodrome. Today’s uphill sprint suits him even better. If Degenkolb is in the front group when they reach Cambrai, he will be extremely difficult to beat. It will also be of huge importance in terms of the points classification, where he still has big ambitions.

Alexander Kristoff is probably the only rider able to match Degenkolb’s strength and speed in this terrain. Kristoff was extraordinary in the spring season this year. However, for the second year in a row, he didn’t manage to live up to the big expectations in Paris-Roubaix. Today is a good chance for him to take revenge but it requires a top performance. He’ll have great support in Luca Paolini but Katusha also has to focus on protecting Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. The Spaniard proved to be in great shape when he stormed to win on Mur de Huy. He’s still two minutes behind Chris Froome in the general classification, though. If he wants to have a shot at the overall podium, he can’t lose much more time before reaching the high mountains.

Last year, Sep Vanmarcke was one of the strongest riders on the pave sections in the Tour de France. Unfortunately, the Belgian punctured just after having caused a major split in the peloton. Vanmarcke missed out on a golden opportunity to win and he’s now very motivated to make up for it today. He has been training on the course numerous times this year already and claims that nobody in the peloton knows these roads better than he does. Rainy conditions would increase Vanmarcke’s chances of success, as few riders know how to handle their bike on the slippery cobblestones like the Lotto-Jumbo rider. However, even on dry roads he will be difficult to handle. He may not be as fast as Degenkolb and Kristoff but Vanmarcke is definitely not slow either. Especially not after a long and grueling race like today.

The outsiders
On Mur de Huy, Etixx Quickstep and Tony Martin missed out on the yellow jersey for the third day in a row. Martin is only one second behind Froome and naturally, he will be eager to finally take the jersey. Earlier this year, the strong German went to check out these pave sections. At the time, he said that this would be a very important stage for him either to keep the yellow jersey or to take it. He was right. Still, compared to his teammates, Martin doesn’t exactly excel on the cobblestones. Zdenek Stybar, on the other hand, seems to be in great shape at the moment. He’s a true specialist in this terrain and probably the only rider as crafty on the cobblestones as Vanmarcke. Stybar is only 1:04 min behind Froome overall and does have a chance to grab the yellow jersey with a stellar performance. The Czech is also fast on the line, especially uphill, and he should have this stage circled in his road book. Mark Cavendish isn’t bad in this terrain either. If it ends in a bunch sprint, it would be a mistake to underestimate him.

For other very good candidates to win this stage, look to in-shape Edvald Boasson Hagen - who saved energy on the last part of stage 3 in order to be ready for the cobblestones - Tony Gallopin, Sylvain Chavanel, Arnaud Démare and maybe even Alejandro Valverde. We may also see Andre Greipel getting in the mix. He did very well in Paris-Roubaix this year and he knows that another strong performance today will increase his chances of winning the green jersey.

Amongst the GC riders, Vincenzo Nibali will hope to repeat his incredible performance from last year where he distanced his rivals with over two minutes. In dry conditions, it will be very difficult for him to do it again, though. Lars Boom won the stage on the cobblestones in 2014. He’s now at Nibali’s service, meaning he probably won’t get a chance to go for glory this time. Still, if Nibali is in the front group together with Boom, it won’t be a surprise to see the Dutchman try a late attack. Neither Alberto Contador nor Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana will enjoy this stage. While both Contador and Froome have a strong team to support them, Quintana could easily find himself alone rather quickly unless Alejandro Valverde has better day than on stage 3. The Colombian climber is nearly two minutes behind Froome in the GC already. Like Purito, he can’t afford to lose much more time.

In case Contador and Froome are both safe and sound up front, loyal teammates like Peter Sagan, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard may get carte blanche to chase the stage win. The same goes for Greg Van Avermaet of BMC with Tejay Van Garderen. The Belgian has been extremely strong this year.However, the main focus for these super domestiques is protecting their team leaders.

Compared to Paris-Roubaix, it’s also important to remember that many of the riders in the Tour de France are not used to ride on the cobblestones. Therefore, gaps will occur much easier than we see in the spring classics where the peloton usually is made of big power riders. Don’t stay on the wheel of a climber if you want to win this stage.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.

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