10 July, 2014
Stage 5 : Ypres - Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, 155.5 km
Lars Boom (Belkin) takes stage win on day of grime and crashes which saw Chris Froome abandon, Alberto Contador distanced and Vicenzo Nibali extend his lead in yellow.
When Christian Prudhomme and his team chose the pave of Belgium to test the courage and skills of the peloton he probably envisaged a day played out under baking sun, plumes of dust drifitng across the countryside like the amoke from the WWI guns that fired salvo after salvo here a hundred years ago. He might not have foreseen that the carnage that would inevitably have occurred would instead taken place under heavy grey skies rain hammering down, riders slipping sliding and crashing through puddles. He might not have dared hope that the top of the General Classification would be decimated (literally) with the loss of Chris Froome (Sky) after crashing twice on roads that had become as slick as linoleoum. All before the first block of pave had been crossed.
Pavé Pummels Peloton
The pave certainly took its toll, but its first impact was in the minds of the peloton. The rain had been falling for days and the spectre of the pave was looming large. The organisers were equally wary and as a precaution withdrew two sections in the morning that had become inundated. These were sector 7, a 1,000-metres stretch of cobbles at Mons-en-Pévèle, and sector 5, a 1,400-metres long portion from Orchies to Beuvry-la-Forêt.It still left 13km of cobbles. The notion of thes 13km menat added urgency in the peloton to get into the best position to protect team leaders.
The rain played intot the hands of a small group that went away just after the start held in the prescence of King Phillipe of Belgium. Samuel Dumoulin (AG2R) accelerated but it was an attack by Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis) that generated the first breakaway. The pair were joined by Lieuwe Westra (Astana), Tony Martin (OPQS), Janier Acevedo (Garmin), Tony Gallopin (Lotto), Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Simon Clarke and Matt Hayman (Orica) to make it a nine-man front group. They eventually lost Acevedo due to a crash and Burghardt who was called back by his team to race as a helper for Tejay van Garderen and Greg van Avermaet.
The nervousness was palable, and riders who were not unconfidnet in normal rainy conditions were at teh limit and beyond of their ability. In Froome's case both his crashes were solo affairs and took place long before the pavé. The first was after 29km and saw the Brit land on his right side. While it knocked the wind out of him he was able to be paced back through the cars. His second crash was after 83km with the cobles still ahead. This time the damage was obvious as he held his right arm and abandoning was inevitable, climbing into the team-car with a look that suggested was as much apologetic as pain.
The break worked to create a maximum advantage of 3.05 at km 60, but the peloton was being stretched and broken by a chase dominated by Peter Sagan’s Cannondale as the race approached the pavé. The gaps in the peloton became chasms with the entrie Movistar team having to lead one group to keep Alejandro Valverde in contention. The second cobbled section at Ennevelin saw Alberto Contador losing contact to the yellow jersey group, and then struggle to keep up wiht his own men.
Nibali and Sagan together with a dozen of riders steamed on becoming unrecongisable under a growing layer of mud eventaully catching the remaining breakaway riders with 26km to go. The emergence of Nibali as an afficiando of the cobbles would have caught his rival sby surprise, even more so when it came to the closing kilometres and cobblestone specialist Lars Boom went away with only Nibali and lieutenant Fuglsang in close pursuit. Of course the out and out risk taking that riders like Fabian Cancellara could indulge in a one-day Classic had to be tempered by the long game in favour of team leaders but nonetheless the achievements of Nibali and the suffering of his rivals was significant.
At the final reckoning Nibali gained nearly three minutes on Contador while Andrew Talansky (Garmin), Rui Costa (Lampre), Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) were lucky to keep the gap to around two minutes. Contador might have thought it was a price worth paying to finish injury free. It is a long way to Paris but if Nibali has a weakness it is becoming hard to find.