Tom Boonen is solo, out ahead, going on to a record-equalling fourth victory at P-R.
They’re just exiting the feed zone in the short transition between the brutal Carrefour de l’Arbre and the (luckily) short Gruson cobblestone sections. Many of these cobblestone (pavé) sectors have been in existence since Roman times.
And many felt like they hadn’t been maintained since then, although that’s not true.
However, they are very, very rough and can make or break a race in seconds, either through a poorly chosen line, a line chosen by the bike and cobbles (because it’s best to just keep a loose hold of the handlebars and let the bike do most of the movement), or a catastrophic equipment failure, as we saw as the pack (no longer a peloton) race through the Arenberg Trench when a rider’s (very expensive) carbon wheel shattered under the stress right in front of us.
There’s a reason that the Dutch call the cobbles kinderkoppen (children’s heads). The stones are large and rounded on the top. Luckily (for the competitors) this year, there had been little rain so the dust had settled in and kept the gaps between the stones to a minimum (in most sections). However, a little bit of rain and the dirt washes out, leaving a muddy mess with large gaps between the stones. Dry or wet, there’s a reason that this race is called “The Hell of the North“.
And I think the look on the racers faces above captures that.
Just 20 minutes after this picture was taken, the rain started. That would have changed the face of the race significantly, especially amongst those that were in the lagging groups, as they dealt with the mud-slick cobbles.
But if you want a longer look at “The Hell of the North”, here’s a documentary from the 1970’s called “A Sunday in Hell”:
Wet or dry, a great race to watch.
Even better in person.
Although, after riding a portion of the course (minus the flat, smooth leading 100km that the pros take), I can now understand why the riders feel like this photo of Greg Lemond: