The cobbles have returned. Those mighty old stones that nobbled the hobbled Frank Schleck in the 2012 edition of the race are back.
The stones are back, literally, with the exact same two kilometres section to be included along with another 13.4 kilometres to be included in the 2014 Tour de France.
The name Sars-et-Rosières à Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes may mean little to anyone but hardened Tour fans and the even harder, wizened farmers of the region, but you can be sure that the name is etched deep in the psyche of the aforementioned Schleck the elder.
When the 2012 route was announced it drew grimaces from many a rider not physically designed to withstand the bumps and grooves of the infamous pave, but there were a select few who would have given a little grin when they heard of the selection of the ancient roads.
Men like Thor Hushovd for one, who won the stage that sent Schleck to the emergency ward and left him cut and bruised and nursing a shattered collarbone that put paid to his hopes of helping his brother Andy win the greatest stage race in the sport.
Tom Boonen announced not too long ago that he’d most likely never ride the Tour de France again, but then he took one look at this year’s early race route and the desire to win on his favourite roads suddenly surged deep in his belly.
“To our own surprise,” said Boonen’s boss, Partick Lefevre, “in the past few days Tom has expressed interest in the Tour. He thinks of riding.”
Anyone with an IQ above five knows why, too.
We all know what Paris-Roubaix means: pain, suffering and a once-a-year possibility to step into the temple of the cycling Gods, to have your name scratched out on a metal plaque and put up in the famous shower room, alongside names like Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and the others giants that have pummelled their bikes into submission over the old stones, taking charge of their destinies to emerge victorious in the Roubaix Velodrome.
Here, by design and a gleam of no-little mischief, is one more chance to shine on the stones.
The 2012 route drew criticism from many and derision from some, but there is no doubt that the majority of cycling fans – and just about all Classics fans – lauded the decision.
Should the cobbles be included in a race like the Tour? A race that is by its very nature is already incredibly hard to even complete, let alone win, an event that tests the riders’ nerves and determination to succeed above and beyond any other race on the planet?
The argument against says that having these stones in the race means that the riders are even further pitted against Lady Luck than they already are.
That the chances of a crash or a flat are incredibly high, both events that could see a genuine contender lose time, or, even worse, as in the case of Frank Schleck, sustain serious injury.
The nervous tension in every stage of the Tour is ridiculously high, the riders being tensed like a tightrope walker’s wire.
Sprawling riders have littered the early stages of recent Tours like so many of the bidons cast aside during every stage, and that’s been on perfectly rideable roads.
Riding the cobbles so early on in the race, when every rider is worried of losing time and where positioning is absolutely paramount every second of the day, will increase the stress on those already strung out nerves.
Alberto Contador, speaking at the route launch earlier this week, highlighted Stage 5, which will feature the pave sections, as perhaps the most important of the entire race.
And that shows just how critical this stage is. One false move and there is no possibility of rescuing yourself from a fall, a fact compounded by the irregular nature of the stones – if you fall there the chances of a sharp edge cracking a bone only increases.
This is the reality of the stones. There is simply nowhere to hide.
Riders like Contador and defending champion Chris Froome, slight men who are far more naturally built for the high peaks, get bounced around even more than most.
Froome had this to say about the perils of Stage 5:
“It makes it a bit more of a lottery but I’m sure, as a team, we will look into anything we can do to reduce the risks and limit any losses if there are any.
“It is something that will literally shake things up. For me the cobbles just represent more of a risk in terms of a mechanical failure or something going wrong and crashes but in terms of the race it will make it interesting and it is something else that we are going to have to prepare for and hopefully it could be somewhere we look at taking advantages.”
To their credit, neither Froome nor Contador have complained about the inclusion of the cobbles, and both seem intent to just get on with their job, a large part of which entails dealing with whatever road the organisers thrust under them.
Ultimately, this is how it should be. Some roads, such as certain climbs that have featured in recent Vueltas a Espana, are just plain silly.
They crush the race in terms of excitement, being too hard to allow riders to express themselves.
But the cobbles do just that. They are dangerous, for sure, and a little crazy, but then so it this entire sport. These are men, these riders, they are superstars, the best our sport has.
Let them ride. Let them suffer. Let them become heroes.
Some will fall, that is for certain, and one, two or even more may see their race over before it’s even begun. No one wants to see a rider injured, but this is the bare bones of cycling – it happens.
This is why they do it, and this is why they are here.
Bring on the cobbles, I say!