Tour de France Column by Toby Miles - A Sunday in Hell
PUBLISHED: 14:20 18 July 2018 | UPDATED: 14:20 18 July 2018
Read Toby Miles' Malliot Blanc Column as the 18-year-old aspiring professional cyclist celebrates the gripping cobbled Stage Nine of the Tour de France and explains its value to the race.
A frantic fight for space as you approach the dreaded cobbles. A diving last-gasp plunge down the inside, a clenching of the brakes, an explosive kick away from a dusty corner, a necessary faith in the riders ahead which is often betrayed.
The banner marks the entrance to the hellish cobbles.
The constant drone of the bunch is replaced by a clatter and a rumble. In a blaze of fury – head down – you cling to the wheel in front, hoping it stays upright, hoping it doesn’t slow.
Thrash over the final stones and earn the relief of asphalt.
Revel in the brief lull, take a sip, and do it again.
The thought of such a fearsome battle had powerhouse Thomas De Gendt tweeting: “I don’t want to do this stage.”
That’s what nine-stone Nairo Quintana earned on Sunday’s cobbles.
The Columbian is known for tapping out his relentless rhythm on skyward slopes, yet he was constantly present at the front on a day utterly unsuited to him.
While the powerhouses of the Spring Classics plotted for victory on a rare stage suited to them, the objective for Quintana – and his Yellow Jersey rivals – was to cling to their coattails.
With the help of cobble specialist teammates like Imanol Erviti – employed to nurse Nairo through the chaos – he kept pace with his rivals.
Cobbles have featured sporadically through the Tour’s history, but Sunday boasted the most sections for three decades.
Each time the Tour has ventured off the asphalt, a favourite’s challenge has ended.
Richie Porte crashed out, breaking his collarbone in the nervous early exchanges on Sunday.
Many questioned such a brutal test. Nobody wants a rider’s challenge curtailed by misfortune on the cobbles even if past tours have favoured climbers too much.
Asking more of winners is positive.
Surviving cobbles as a climber requires intelligence and race-craft to avoid problems – or mental strength to come back from them.
Amid the drama of Stage Nine, Quintana’s class was barely a footnote on a gripping day, won by a resurgent John Degenkolb.
I’m sure cobbles will return to the event soon.
Maybe next time the Tour, rather than hosting a mini Paris-Roubaix, should visit the cobbled climbs of Flanders?
Follow Toby on Twitter @toby_cometsport