Stage Report: Germany’s star sprinter John Degenkolb brought two years of misery to a close with a riveting victory in Roubaix on Stage 9 of the Tour de France, bettering race leader Greg Van Avermaet and Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert in a high-stakes three-man sprint after a bruising stage over the “pavés du nord” to put his terrible crash of 2016 firmly behind him. Among the favorites, Richie Porte fared worst, crashing out before the first cobblestones even came into view, while last year’s runner-up Rigoberto Uran also payed a hefty price.
A thorough pummeling on the road to Beuvry for Mathew Hayman, reduced to the role of helpless pensioner, a shattered collarbone on the hard cobbles of Templeuve for Terpstra, a galling puncture for Sagan inside the final 4 kilometers, a race-ruining slip under the red kite for Gilbert, and a triumphant run-in for an Olympic champion hailing from Belgium, decked out in le rouge et le noir of BMC… There was never any doubt as to how Stage 9 of the 2018 Tour de France would unfold in the dream of Greg Van Avermaet the night before the race, though whether such events might actually come to pass on the Paris-Roubaix inspired ninth chapter of this year’s “Grande Boucle” remained to be seen.
The day’s racing, which would see the peloton of the Tour de France experience “l’Enfer du Nord” on the cobbled roads of the Hexagone’s notoriously bleak north-eastern region, promised to take place in a unique atmosphere, which those who have witnessed the high drama of Paris-Roubaix first hand know only too well. The Queen of Classics attracts spectators in their hundreds of thousands, as camper vans invade the vicinity, vying for the ideal parking spot, large tents sprout like mushrooms at roadside, from which arise explosions of laughter and fervent chants, flares are lit, letting out plumes of colorful smoke that drift incongruously through the grey and monotonous landscape, and amateur cyclists speed loudly down the paths, trying their luck over the petrifying “parcours”. On the grass beside the cobbled passages can be found the odd pile of “paves”, presumably to be positioned on the roadway by some sadistic hidden official in the event that one of the cobblestones paving the path should crumble and need replacing. The proximity of the Belgian border means that hordes of fanatical supporters from Flanders and Wallonia descend on the Roubaix area, bringing with them the wild excitement of “de Ronde van Vlaanderen” and enough barrels of beer to flood the entire region. The atmosphere of Paris-Roubaix is part outdoor party, part battlefield. Festive yet ominous, it is infused with a haunting sense that something terrible must happen and that the great race would somehow be incomplete without it.
Exactly how and to whom this might happen was the question on everyone’s lips in the “village” at the start of today’s stage of the Tour de France, as the world’s greatest race prepared to taste, for one day only, the inebriating liquor of the world’s most dangerous race.
Arras, the capital of France’s Pas-de-Calais province, may be the native city of Robespierre but the Terror awaiting the riders today, as they departed in the shadow of the white-bricked commune’s monumental belfry, lay further north, on the road to Roubaix. The stage would make its way eastwards to Cambrai before zigzagging northwards towards the austere capital of brutal bicycling, taking in fifteen of the infamous “secteurs pavés” along the way. Of the course’s 156.5 kilometers, 21.7 were to be ridden over the trademark cobblestones, described by The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew as “the most hazardous playing surface in sport”.
Ensconced in the race leader’s jersey, Van Avermaet rode at the front of the peloton in the early kilometers, a yellow sovereign heading for his kingdom, flanked by his great rival Peter ‘the Evergreen’ Sagan and Latvia’s Toms Skujins, the King of the Molehills. A Classics specialist, winner of the 2017 edition of Paris-Roubaix, ‘GVA’ would have felt tempted to risk everything for a magnificent victory “en jaune” but also knew that the necessity of protecting his leader and GC contender, the Tasmanian Richie Porte, could limit him in his ambitions. Meanwhile, the pointy-nosed Welshman Geraint Thomas, recent winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné, who once placed seventh of Paris-Roubaix, bided his time in the gap-toothed Belgian’s slipstream, well aware that an authoritative performance over the cobbles might put him in pole position within the Sky formation and allow him to wrest the team leadership from Froome should the quadruple Tour de France winner be nursing a Giro hangover.
At the drop of race director Christian Prudhomme’s flag, proceedings began, as rider after rider leapt from his saddle and attempted to escape into the distance. Under a baking sun, a group of ten rapidly formed at the front, featuring Belgian baroudeur Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), surreally juvenile Dutchman Antwan Tolhoek (LottoNL-Jumbo), Basque bruiser Omar Fraile (Astana Pro Team), American Chad Haga (Team Sunweb), South Africa’s Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg (Team Dimension Data), and the Frenchmen Olivier Le Gac (Groupama-FDJ), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis, Solutions Crédit), Lilian Calmejane, Damien Gaudin, Jérôme Cousin (all three Direct Énergie).
The important action, however, was taking place farther behind. With 148 kilometers still to go, even before the first cobblestones had come into sight, a collision involving a spectator threw bodies and bikes to the ground, claiming a high-profile victim in the person of Porte. The unlucky Australian, who had already crashed out of last year’s edition of the race following a horrible crash on the road to Chambéry, pointed sinisterly at his collarbone, before climbing into an ambulance and pulling the curtains on his bid for the Maillot Jaune. Spain’s veteran sprinter José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar), another faller, soon followed him, while the young French hopeful, playwright and yellow jersey candidate Guillaume Martin, as well as André Greipel, ‘the Gorilla of Rostock’, found themselves delayed. Denmark’s Michael Valgren, the platinum blond winner of the Amstel Gold Race, had no alternative but to continue with his jersey in tatters and torn shorts.
Riding past Cambrai, a city renowned for a sweet called “la Bêtise” (French for a “stupid mistake”), many were those in the peloton contemplating the profile of Stage 9 and suddenly questioning the wisdom of their choice to participate in this year’s race.
By the time the break-away group hit the first cobblestones, sector 15 from Escaudœuvres to Thun (1.6 kilometers long, situated 109 kilometers from the finish), its lead over the peloton stood at an insufficient 3 minutes. In a cloud of dust rendering the contestants all but invisible, the frail grimpeur Antwan Tolhoek fell behind and endured a puncture, losing all hope of conserving his place among the escapees. In the pack, Romain Bardet―the man tipped by the whole of France to succeed Bernard Hinault and become the first Gallic victor of “le Tour” since 1985―ground to a heart-stopping halt but a brisk wheel change enabled him to make his way back into the fold before anyone could utter the word Waterloo.
At the hot spot sprint of Wasnes-au-Bac, 59 kilometers into the stage, Sagan surged ahead of the bunch to consolidate his lead in the points classification. Meanwhile, the nine leaders gradually extended their lead to nearly four minutes, profiting from a lull in hostilities at the back.
Double stage winner Dylan Groenewegen of the Netherlands fell prey to a pothole in Auberchicourt, on secteur 13 but painfully climbed back onto his bike, and Colombian prodigy Egan Bernal bit the dust on a curve at the approach of Warlaing, soon imitated by Belgium’s Tour of Flanders champion Niki Terpstra a few kilometers farther. Then, a big pile-up on the cobbles leading to Brillon, 70 kilometers from Roubaix, cost important favorites such as Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran and Dane Jakob Fuglsang their place in the peloton, prompting Team Sky to accelerate in an effort to eliminate them from contention. Yet, the British outfit could not prevent a “regroupement général” shortly thereafter and only BMC’s GC joker Tejay Van Garderen featured among the scalps claimed by Froome’s infantrymen.
With his leaders out for the count, maillot jaune Van Avermaet decided to accelerate in the long cobbled sector from Auchy-les-Orchies to Bersée, just over 50 kilometers from the good, the Fleming’s burst of speed pulling the break-away’s lead down to under a minute. At the entrance of the Mons-en-Pévèle sector, Froome himself hit the deck but the timid efforts of the Movistar formation to relegate the holder of all three Grand Tour crowns to the depths of the General Classification proved fruitless.
On the pavés of Pont-Thibault, only Janse Van Rensburg and Gaudin remained in “la tête de la course”, as the kings of the cobblestones began to breathe down their necks. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Énergie) all attacked but neither the Walloon wonder, “His Greenness” or the eternal housewives’ favorite could make headway.
Mikel Landa and Rigoberto Uran proved to be the next casualties of the Stage from Hell, the first collapsing unexpectedly and hurting his shoulder on one of the rare portions of smooth tarmac, the second vanishing into a cloud of dust and emerging from it covered in bruises. Both men looked destined to lose time at the finish.
Classics master Jasper Stuyvens exited the peloton and bridged over to the two survivors of the échappée matinale but all three were swallowed with 19 kilometers remaining, as featherweight climbers such as Nairo Quintana and Adam Yates cockily rubbed shoulders with Paris-Roubaix royalty. In the much-feared sector number two, at Camphin-en-Pévèle, the champion of Belgium Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors), Van Avermaet and former pavé pontiff John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) escaped into the lead to form a thrilling trio, building a promising advantage of half a minute. They reached the entrance of the final serving of cobbles, 8 kilometers from the line, with 49 seconds in hand and could feel confident that one of them would lift the day’s bouquet.
Bardet’s third puncture of the day, just below the gantry indicating the end of the day’s last sector in Hem, seemed like it might cost him dearly but the Gallic great, assisted by his loyal Belgian lieutenant Oliver Naesen, succeeded in clawing his way back.
In the final kilometer, Degenkolb found himself stuck in front of his two companions and had to look over his shoulder to avoid being caught out by a sudden surge. Losing patience, the German launched his sprint early and then resisted heroically as Van Avermaet crept up behind him in an effort to pick his pockets and realize his dream from the previous night. Demonstrating that those cartloads of Vuelta stage victories were no flukes and that his dreadful crash while training in 2016 is now history, the Giant from Gera cut the line with a comfortable lead in the end and could relive the euphoria of his triumph in this same city three years earlier.
Tour de France Stage 9 Result:
1. John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo in 3:24:26
2. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
3. Yves Lampaert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
4. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors at 0:19
5. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
6. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
7. Bob Jungels (Lux) Quick-Step Floors
8. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal at 0:27
9. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Dimension Data
10. Timothy Dupont (Bel) Wanty-Groupe Gobert
11. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) UAE Team Emirates
12. Nils Politt (Ger) Katusha-Alpecin
13. Fernando Gaviria (Col) Quick-Step Floors
14. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Direct Energie
15. Warren Barguil (Fra) Fortuneo-Samsic
16. Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky
17. Lilian Calmejane (Fra) Direct Energie
18. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar
19. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Sunweb
20. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo
21. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo
22. Chris Froome (GB) Sky
23. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
24. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar
25. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Bahrain-Merida.
Tour de France Overall After Stage 9:
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC in 36:07:17
2. Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky at 0:43
3. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors at 0:44
4. Bob Jungels (Lux) Quick-Step Floors at 0:50
5. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 1:31
6. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe at 1:32
7. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana at 1:33
8. Chris Froome (GB) Sky at 1:42
9. Adam Yates (GB) Mitchelton-Scott
10. Mikel Landa (Spa) Movistar
11. Søren Kragh Andersen (Den) Sunweb at 1:43
12. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida at 1:48
13. Primoz Roglic (Slo) LottoNL-Jumbo at 1:57
14. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo at 1:58
15. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Sunweb at 2:03
16. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo at 2:06
17. Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale at 2:32
18. Warren Barguil (Fra) Fortuneo-Samsic at 2:37
19. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin at 2:42
20. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Bahrain-Merida at 2:48
21. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar at 2:50
22. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale at 2:53
23. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe at 3:08
24. Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates at 3:22
25. Pierre Rolland (Fra) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale at 4:21.