BOULOGNE SUR MER: Heinrich Haussler smiles as he says stage five of the Tour de France from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut on Wednesday will be "something special".
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'Le Tour' heads to France
Sports reporter Rupert Guinness previews stage four of the Tour de France from a ferry bound for Calais, France.
It is a day fraught with the danger of crashes and mechanical mishaps – all of which can lead to time losses or even worse, to withdrawal – due to the nine cobblestone sectors that usually feature in the Paris-Roubaix classic.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Haussler (IAM) of Wednesday’s 155.5-kilometre stage, which also commemorates the centenary of World War I by passing a number of its battlefields in Belgium and northern France.
Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEDGE) concurs, knowing the stage is probably the one chance he will have to race for himself.
Hayman says he will take heed of the advice of his team head sports director Matt White for such chances: "To grab hold of them with two hands and get as much out of them as we can. They don't come around very often."
Haussler and Hayman, like a number of riders in the Tour, are masters at racing on the cobblestones. For them, the annual Paris-Roubaix one day classic in April is almost their raison d'etre when it comes to their pursuit of individual glory.
So, when Tour organisers include a stage featuring cobblestones, as they have done for this year, their faces light up, unlike those less equipped for the cobbles, such as the climbers or overall contenders who also avoid Paris-Roubaix.
British Tour champion Chris Froome (Sky) recognised that after Monday’s 155km third stage from Cambridge to London that was won by German Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano).
Kittel beat Slovakian Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Australian Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), while the overall lead was retained by Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) – third in the 2012 Tour and last year’s Giro d’Italia winner.
As Froome quipped on Monday: “Stage five is going to be quite a shake up, literally.”
There is no guarantee any particular rider will fare better on the day – such is the uncertainty that comes with racing on cobblestones.
But Haussler said it was not just the physical impact that could lead to a disaster like a crash or a time costing mechanical, but also the anxiety and tension in the build-up to positioning in the bunch before reaching the cobblestones.
Haussler, in 2009 a Tour stage winner after placing seventh in Paris-Roubaix, said: "Some teams are GC [general classification]-orientated.
"Riders get pressured to keep their guys out of trouble. That makes more stress, more tension and more crashes.
"The sectors aren’t really that hard, but you are trying to get 198 riders into them.
"It just doesn't work. It is more dangerous because guys who do ride Roubaix know how to ride the cobblestones.
"They know how to position themselves. There is more pressure.
"For sure, a lot of the GC guys are going to lose the Tour on this stage."
Hayman, who finished 10th and eighth in Paris-Roubaix in 2011 and 2012 respectively, says the melange of cobblestone experts and grand tour contenders will make for an interesting mix.
"It will be interesting tactically, with different riders and their responsibilities for the team as opposed going for the stage win," he said.
But he won't underestimate the ability of the Tour contenders, saying: "There are a lot of handy riders who do know how to stay at the front, even if they are GC riders.
"These guys are used to riding in all kinds of conditions, from rain to … anything.
"You can’t underestimate Nibali on the cobblestones.
"Just because he doesn't do Paris-Roubaix with me every year doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to ride a bike."
One of Froome's protectors for Wednesday’s stage is the Austrian rider Bernhard Eisel (Sky) who was fifth in the 2006 Paris-Roubaix and seventh in 2011.
Eisel agrees with Hayman, saying Froome "is a classy bike rider. He can do it."
But Eisel and British teammate Geraint Thomas, another cobblestone specialist, still have a huge responsibility to protect Froome so he survives the stage unscathed.
"The last thing we need is him crashing and hurting himself," Eisel said.