• Riders hit the deck in the 2016 edition of Paris-Roubaix (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It's the perfect entrée for the World Cup Final, as the cobbles of Roubaix shape up as one of the most anticipated stages of this year's Tour de France.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

15 Jul 2018 - 9:39 AM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2018 - 3:33 PM

Nine stages in and the peloton finally reaches what we've been looking forward to the entire journey around northern France.

It's the cobbles. And not your city cobbles like on the Champs-Élysées, worn down by decades of traffic, kept clean by streetsweepers and not requiring much more attention than your standard paved road.

No these are rural cobbles. Roughly hewn cubes of stone, stuck into the ground at the whim of post-war road builders and assaulted by the occasional tractor rumbling its way down the lonely thoroughfares.

These are the infamous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, coated with mud that isn't a mixture of dirt and water, but grime, blood and sweat.

It may seem strange to an outsider to the sport to almost ascribe character to what are inanimate hunks of stone. To understand, there has to be some appreciation of the history of cycling.

The sport is a long way removed from the early days of the Tour de France, where its pioneers battled over dirt, gravel, cycle paths, occasional paved sections and the cobbles. With the advent of better ways to achieve smooth road surfaces, cycling races have become less about surviving over the surface of the road and more about achieving peak efficiency.

Jacques Goddet, the famous French journalist and former director of the Tour de France called it the 'last great madness of cycling', back when there was a push to use better-kept roads for the race rather than the disreputable cobbles.

So it has remained.

Other races operate on a system rewarding hard work and the good form of riders. On the cobbles, all notion of cosmic karma gets thrown out the window.

You crash, others crash into you or you get held up behind a crash. Punctures are commonplace over the jagged stones, if you avoid one throughout the race you can consider yourself lucky.

Because this looks like it will be a dry run over over the cobbles, it won't be slippery like an ice-rink, instead filthy dust will clog the air and throats as it gets kicked up by the riders and vehicles ahead. The dust plume heralds the arrival for fans stationed on the side of the road, waiting to see these warriors fight a battle of yesteryear, reclaiming the history of the sport.

It's into this backdrop the peloton will race stage 9 of the Tour de France, one that will shape the race for many of the yellow jersey hopefuls. This aspect will colour much of the racing action throughout the stage.

A Sunday in hell, or heaven?
As Sunday's 156 kilometre stage 9 looms, so do the cobbles. Here's what a few of the team directors are saying ahead of the momentous day.
Team Sky's tech for the Tour cobbles
One cobbled stage at the Tour de France adds plenty of excitement for spectators, it also creates a large dose of work for the mechanics. We spoke with a mechanic for Team Sky, to find out what special requirements there are for stage 9.

Normally cobbled races are contested by the hard men of the sport, the 70-85 kilogram riders who can power their way over the bumpy sections of pavé. This time, the 55-70 kilogram climbers face the unenviable task of keeping up with them and avoid getting bounced off into fields as they hit the edge of a stray cobble. 

So who will excel in this hotly anticipated stage?

Stage contenders

From a stage-winner's perspective, it's hard to go far past the pair wearing the yellow and green jerseys. Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) are both winners of Paris-Roubaix and come into the stage with good form.

The normal advantage Sagan has over his opposition is his sprint finish, which he put to good use as he dispatched Silvan Dillier (AG2R La Mondiale) to win this year's Paris-Roubaix. That might not be the case here. 

Headbutts see relegations as sprinters melt down
It was a heated stage of the Tour de France with two riders disqualified and a third feuding with his team after the sprint finish in Amiens.

Many of the sprinters who've fought it out - in some cases literally - over the last few stages relish the cobbles, so expect them to do battle here. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), John Degenkolb (Team Sunweb) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) can all handle the pavé and stand a chance of making it to the finish with a lead group.

The Quick-Step Floors team is keen to make an impression after its outstanding start to the race. Niki Terpstra, Phillippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert will lead the team to push for stage honours and will be the big favourites to add to their two victories so far.

A number of other cobbled specialists will hope to spoil the party with Michael Valgren (Astana), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) all in with a good chance of victory. 

If their teams let them. 

All these riders - except Boasson Hagen - have general classification contenders in their team that need nursing through the cobbled sectors. Past history has shown minutes can be made or lost on these stages, or worse, a GC leader can crash out, leaving the team with noone to work for the rest of the Tour.

And the skinny GC guys? 

Out of the GC leaders there are a few bands of rider ability who will perform differently over the cobbles.

First, the excellent range. These are riders who could potentially even win the stage on a good day and include Geraint Thomas (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). Fuglsang and Nibali in particular will have good memories of the equivalent stage in 2014 where they finished second and third respectively when they both rode for Astana.

Second, the good to average. The riders in this category will hold their own unless bad luck befalls them along the way. Richie Porte (BMC), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Chris Froome (Team Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) should all be ok.

Mollema and Bardet have both conducted reconnaissance on the key sectors and performed well in the 2014 and 2015 stages. Porte was good in 2014, got left behind in 2015, but has been thorough in his preparation this time around. Dumoulin hasn't raced over the Roubaix cobbles, but his showings over the Belgian 'hellingen' in the BinckBank Tour were impressive. 

Froome will hope it isn't a repeat of his exit from the 2014 Tour, where he crashed out before even reaching the cobbled sectors. Rather, he'll want a repeat of 2015, where he covered the attack of Nibali and looked fairly assured.

Finally there are those that get thrown in the bad/unknown basket. Primoz Roglic, Steven Kruisjwijk (both LottoNL-Jumbo), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Rafal Majka (BORA-hansgrohe), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa (both Movistar) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) all have question marks over them heading into the stage. 

Quintana finished with the GC leaders in 2015's Tour cobbled stage and survived Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier this year but perhaps faces question marks in terms of the number of sectors compared to 2015 and his team's competing priorities.  

Martin loses time in stage 8 crash
Dan Martin slipped further down on the 2018 Tour de France general classification, losing time after a nasty crash in the dying moments of stage 8.

Martin will be fighting off the effects of the crash he suffered last stage where he conceded over a minute to his rivals for yellow. 

This stage, expect several races going on all at once with the action sure to be strewn across the length and breadth of the course.

Catch all the action of this thrilling stage LIVE tonight on SBS from 8.30pm AEST changing to SBS Viceland from 11pm AEST (check your local guides everywhere else). You won't miss the World Cup Final on SBS -actual kick off starts at 1am. Or stream it via the Tour Tracker from 8.25pm AEST.