09/06 - Stage 5 - Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut - 155.5 km

This is without a doubt the most feared flat stage of this year’s Tour de France. You won’t win the race today, but you can most certainly lose it.

The route
Starting out in Ypres, in theory, the first 55 km in Belgium shouldn’t trouble the riders much. However, severe crosswinds may blow the race a part before the peloton even gets to the first section of cobblestones. 10 km after entering France, the peloton reaches Roubaix. 30 km later, the riders start on the first of nine pave sections. On the contrary to Paris-Roubaix, the first section today is the notorious Carrefour de l'Arbre. The riders will only do 1.1 km on these cobblestones compared to the 2.1 km in Paris-Roubaix. Still, it will be enough to make a huge selection already. The fight for positions before reaching this point will be furious and the speed extremely fast. All the GC riders will want to be near the front. The weather forecast shows rain, meaning it would be close to a miracle if everybody stayed upright on this difficult section.

The next very difficult pave section is Mons-en-Pévèle. In Paris-Roubaix, this section is 3 km long. Again, today, the riders will only have to suffer for 1 km. For the pure climbers, however, this one kilometer will probably feel like 10. Just a few minutes later, it’s time for the Bersée section. The peloton will most likely already be in pieces at this point. After this, there are only 40 km to go but the riders still have to overcome four difficult pave sections.

The most demanding one is Hornaing, starting with 15.5 km to go. In Paris-Roubaix, this section has the maximum five stars and the riders will have to do all 3.7 km. This is a key moment. The classic specialists without a GC rider to look after will most likely try to put in a strong attack here. However, don’t forget that this is a very short stage, only 155.5 km, meaning the riders will be much fresher than in Paris-Roubaix where they have another 100 km in the legs. Therefore, it will be much harder to drop your rivals.

Update: Due to bad weather, pave section 5 and 7 are cancelled!

The finish
With 6.5 km to go, the riders reach the final pave section of the day. The following 1.6 km aren’t as difficult as the previous ones, but at this point in the race, many won’t be able to feel the difference. The run-in is the same as in 2010, when Thor Hushovd won the stage in front of Geraint Thomas. It has a couple of tricky corners, with the last one, a left-hand bend, just 900 meters from the line. The final 650 meters are straight-out towards the finishing line.

The favorites
In my preview of Paris-Roubaix this year, I named Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarck and Peter Sagan as the three top candidates. To me, these are some of the biggest favorites again today. However, as already mentioned, it’s very important to remember that the distance today is much shorter than in Paris-Roubaix. Riders who wouldn’t be able to fight with the top candidates after 250 km, might have a chance today. Therefore, don’t be surprised if this ends in a sprint.

Today we will see two races within the race. One for the general classification and one for the stage win. In 2010, Fabian Cancellara’s sole purpose was to make sure Andy Schleck was in the front group. He wasn’t given a chance to win the stage. This year, Cancellara has been given a free role for today. He wasn’t able to win Paris-Roubaix this year, but (of course) he managed to finish on the podium. I expect Cancellara to go hard on the long and difficult Hornaing pave section. If he gets just a 10 seconds gap, the rest won’t see him again before they cross the line.

Belkin has Lars Boom and especially Sep Vanmarcke to support their GC captain Bauke Mollema. Vanmarcke is one of the few rides able to follow an attack from Cancellara on the cobblestones. If Bauke Mollema can manage to keep the wheel of his strong teammate, he might be the big winner today amongst the GC riders. That is, of course, if Mollema is feeling okay after his crash on stage 4. Sep Vanmarcke is in great condition right now and should it come to a sprint, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win the stage. However, if Peter Sagan is still at the front at this point, not even a great Vanmarcke will be able to keep up in the final sprint. Despite not finishing worse than forth so far in this Tour de France, Sagan is still without a win. Today may be the day he finally changes this. Many of his rivals for the green jersey won’t be nowhere near the front. Without any incidents, Sagan will be able to gain a lot of points and secure his lead in the sprint competition.

Other sprinters with a good chance today are guys like John Degenkolb (2nd in Paris-Roubaix this year), Alexander Kristoff, Arnaud Démare, Heinrich Haussler and Greg Van Avermaet. My personal outsider amongst the fast riders is Jens Keukeleire. I mentioned him numerous times in my previews for the Spring Classics. Keukeleire didn’t manage to make a top result but he did prove to be very strong. Thanks to the strong performances by Michael Albasini, the GreenEdge team car will be number three in the convoy, giving a huge advantage in case of mechanical problems. Jens Keukeleire has this stage circled in his road book. It will be interesting to see if he can bring some success to the Australian team after a start to the race bearing nothing but bad luck.

Omega Pharma Quickstep is probably the best team in the peloton in this terrain. Niki Terpstra won Paris-Roubaix this year and naturally, he will be eager to repeat that performance in the Tour. However, in order for Terpstra to win this stage, he has to solo away as he did in April. Something that will be extremely difficult today.

The GC fight
Looking at the top favorites for the general classification, it’s hard to say who has the better team for this kind of stage. Chris Froome crashed on stage 4. Despite having strong guys like Bernie Eisel and Geraint Thomas to support him, Froome will definitely not have a good day on the bike. He hurt his wrist in the crash and every single cobblestone will be constant reminder of that.

In 2010, Alberto Contador lost over a minute on the pave sections. Bjarne Riis is very eager not to let this happen again. In Michael Mørkøv, Daniele Bennati and Matteo Tosatto, Contador has three very strong riders to keep him near the front. Riis is known for his strong tactical skills and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tinkoff-Saxo try to blow the race into pieces at some point today.

The only one of the top candidates for this Tour de France, who has proven to be strong on the cobblestones this year is Alejandro Valverde. In Dwars door Vlaanderen, Valverde attacked on the final 20 km, showing he had no problems coping with the bumpy pave sections. Teammate José Joaquin Rojas knows how to tackle the cobblestones as well. He will most likely be the one guiding Valverde through this stage.

Many point to Astana as the strongest team for the cobblestones. Personally, I don’t see them any fitter than Tinkoff-Saxo or Team Sky to take on the pave sections. Having the yellow jersey on the shoulders of Vincenzo Nibali, Astana will hope to the first team onto the first pave section. I doubt they will succeed, though.

The two American candidates for the general classification, Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen are probably those with the best teams for this stage. Garmin brings Sebastian Langeveld and the former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren to take care of Talansky, while BMC has Daniel Oss, Marcus Burghardt, Michael Schär and Greg Van Avermaet to look after Van Garderen. The way I see it, BMC has the strongest team for this stage. There is also a very good chance for Greg Van Avermaet to take the yellow jersey with a strong performance today. Maybe this will be the day Van Avermaet finally takes a big win this season after finishing 2nd in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Ronde van Vlaanderen

Who is your favorite for the stage? Let me know on Twitter at @mrconde.

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