Bring on the bumpy roads

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Stage 5 of the Tour de France will see riders tackle the same cobbles as Paris-Roubaix.

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I have a confession to make. I don’t like riding over bumpy roads.

Yes, I know I am breaching The Rules, in particular rule five which states in no uncertain terms that one should harden up, but to me, rough roads are for contraptions which sport fat tyres and suspension forks.

Instead I like to hear my 700×23 road bike tyres humming contentedly over billiard table-smooth hot mix (a nice tail wind adds to my enjoyment as well). Bumping and rattling over gravelly corrugations, deteriorating asphalt or heaven forbid, frame cracking cobblestones, is not my idea of fun.

However, while going on bone shaking rides might not be my cup of tea, watching others endure the conditions I hate is a totally different story. Which is why this next week of pro-racing is one of my favourite times of the year.

Two races loom large, two Monuments in fact. And both are as rough as guts!

Not once, but twice, we get to see the world’s best classics riders flog themselves senseless on roads and laneways that even the most careless of motorists would avoid.

First up is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, more commonly known in the English speaking world as the Tour of Flanders. Its steep and cobbled climbs are the stuff of legend. A week later is Paris-Roubaix, a race that needs no introduction.

What a feast!

While the Ronde has been criticised in recent times for messing with its parcours (the removal of the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen two seasons ago sent bike fans into hysterics), last year’s event still provided us with one of the sports most memorable moments.

With just 14 kilometres to go, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Jungen Roelandts hit the Paterberg, the race’s final climb, just a handful of seconds ahead of the chasing pack.

For a moment Cancellara and Sagan rode side by side, sending fans on either side of the road into a frenzy, while Roelandts battled to hang onto the shadows of his highly-fancied opponents.

The Belgian was the first to feel the pinch though and he soon lost contact, leaving Sagan to fight alone. The Slovakian stubbornly tried to stay with a confident looking Cancellara, but the Swiss maestro had good legs and wasn’t about to yield to his younger adversary.

While Sagan was out of the saddle on the steepest part of the climb, grinding his pedals in desperation, Cancellara remained seated, spinning his way smoothly over the cobbles with an air of grace and ease.

Even before they reached the top of the 380 metre climb, media motorbikes were overtaking Sagan in pursuit of Cancellara.

It was a masterful display.

Sagan never recovered and Cancellara comfortably time trialled his way to a well earned victory.

The rematch this coming Sunday should be something to see.

The 259 kilometre course will twist its convoluted way from Brugge to Oudenaarde, taking in 17 short but punchy climbs along the way, many of which are cobbled.

In a way it is a race of two halves, with nothing really to get excited about until after the first 100 kilometres. It is from this moment on that the course profile, which has flat lined for most of the early part of the race, really comes to life, jagging viciously up and down as if drawn by the needle of a seismograph during a notable tremor.

The Paterberg climb will remain key, coming just 14 kilometres before the finish. However the steep and treacherous Koppenberg, which is infamous for splitting the peloton, has been moved to a more prominent position in the race in a bid to eliminate ‘dead’ spots on the course.

Appearing now with just 45 kilometres to go, it may provide an ambitious rider with the opportunity to launch a long range attack, although the likelihood is that the stronger teams will still play it defensively.

Sagan will once again go head to head with Cancellara, but this time both will also have to contend with three time winner and renown cobble eater, Tom Boonen.

Boonen may be slightly off the boil due to a crash at last week’s E3 Heralbeke, where he injured his thumb (not good when you have jarring cobbles to face). He is also understandably still recovering from the personal tragedy that caused his withdrawal from last month’s Milan-San Remo, but he can never be written off.

The winner should come from one of the three, but as we all know, anything can happen – especially when there are cobbles involved.

Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb is a threat and a popular pick among many punters. His Ghent-Wevelgem victory last weekend relegated Sagan to the minor placings and will have him riding a wave of confidence this week.

Former Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins will also be racing, having taken injured teammateIan Stannard’s place on the Team Sky roster. Wiggins has talked about targeting Roubaix, so it will be interesting to see how he performs here. He heads a strong line-up that also includes Edvald Boasson-Hagen and Geraint Thomas.

From an Australian perspective Orica-GreenEDGE have entered a strong team, but not one that is likely to feature on the podium.

Mitch Docker, Luke Durbridge, strong man Matthew Hayman and Michael Hepburn make up the home grown talent, while imports Daryl Impey, Jens Keukeleire, Jens Mouris and Svein Tuft round out the roster.

Other Australians include Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and Zak Dempster (Netapp-Endura).

For what it is worth, my predictions are – Cancellara, Sagan and Degenkolb (with Boonen a gallant fourth).

The Roar will be providing live coverage of the race Sunday evening, eastern Australian time.

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