Stage 5 of the Tour de France takes the peloton over eight sectors of cobblestones and is eagerly awaited as one of the first major rendezvous for the general classification contenders at this year's race. On the evidence of the Tour's past forays into the reaches of Hell, at least one favourite's hopes will be severely dented come Wednesday evening. But who are the men most likely to take stage victory in Arenberg? Cyclingnews runs the rule over some of those who should be to the fore.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing)
For the first time since his Fassa Bortolo days, Cancellara is at the Tour de France as a free man, and that could make all the difference over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix on Wednesday. The Swiss rider has, of course, won eight Tour stages and spent more days in the yellow jersey (28) than any other non-Tour winner, but over the past decade at CSC, Saxo Bank and Leopard, he has always had obligations to an overall contender in July.
On the Tour's last jaunt over the cobbles in 2010, for instance, Cancellara was – as one would anticipate from a three-time Paris-Roubaix winner – the stand-out performer, shredding the field with a show of forcing on the sector at Sars-et-Rosières and driving the leading group thereafter. Yet when the dust settled at the gates of Hell that afternoon, Cancellara crossed the line in sixth place and last in the leading group without even contesting the sprint for stage honours. The reason? He had spent the finale hammering on the front to help team leader Andy Schleck to an early gain over his principal general classification rivals, with no thought to his own ambitions.
With Fränk Schleck no longer in upper tier of overall contenders, Cancellara has total freedom to chase victories of his own at this Tour, and stage 5 is the day that he will have highlighted in his road book. His brief cameo in the finale at Harrogate seemed almost a training exercise for Wednesday's stage. "The stage is quite short and so it'll be full gas and so first sector is going to be a big chaos," Cancellara said last week. The subtext being, of course, that he will be the man unleashing that big chaos.
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)
After winning Paris-Roubaix itself in April, Niki Terpstra now has the chance to dream it up all over again over some of the same sectors of cobbles. Omega Pharma-QuickStep's Tour team, of course, is nowhere near as strong on the cobbles as its crack Classics unit, which is both a positive and a negative for Terpstra.
It's a negative because, as his victory in Roubaix showed, there is no better foil over the cobbles than Tom Boonen, even when he is not at his very best. But on the plus side, the absence of Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar means that Terpstra is the team's outright leader on Wednesday: he can follow all of the moves with a clear conscience and without having to feign ignorance of the instructions fizzling over his radio earpiece.
Terpstra did have to use up more energy than he would have liked on the road to Lille on the eve of battle, as he had to help his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski chase back on after a split and then had to chase on himself when he crashed in the finale. With its Belgian start, however, stage 5 is in itself so important to Omega Pharma-QuickStep that, regardless of how Kwiatkowski fares, Terpstra will surely have carte blanche to ride his own race over the pavé. "Gaining time with Kwiatkowski would be ideal," Terpstra said tactfully on Tuesday evening.
Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr)
When Marc Madiot opted for Arnaud Démare ahead of Nacer Bouhanni for this year's Tour – and, in the longer term, for FDJ's future in the bunch sprints – his decision was informed largely by the Beauvais native's ability on the pavé. Though still only 22 years of age, Démare is already the man most likely to become the first French winner of Paris-Roubaix since his directeur sportif Frédéric Guesdon in 1997, and FDJ would love if he demarcated his territory by winning in Arenberg on Wednesday.
Indeed, Démare can take heart from a hugely impressive spring classics campaign, which began with a gritty display in a sodden edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. He followed that up with second place at Gent-Wevelgem and then bounced back from a disappointing Tour of Flanders to lead the second group home and take 12th place at Paris-Roubaix.
Démare seems a natural on the cobblestones and the shorter distance of the Tour stage (155.5km) will be to the liking of a man who confessed to "lacking strength in the finale" at Roubaix. His fine third place finish at Lille on stage 4 was further confirmation of his form, and of the men with a proven pedigree on the pavé, only John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan have comparable speed in the sprint.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano)
Degenkolb has been forced to hide his light under a bushel thus far at the Tour and ride as part of Marcel Kittel’s lead-out train, but the German will surely be handed his chance to shine on the rocky road to Arenberg. Like Démare, he has the ability to absorb the impact of the cobbles, track the moves and then dispose of his rivals in the sprint, and both men will look to Thor Hushovd's 2010 win in the equivalent stage as something of a template.
When Degenkolb took five sprint wins at the 2012 Vuelta a España, one wondered how he could continue to co-exist on the same team as Kittel, but Giant-Shimano have managed the pair sagely. Over the past two years, Degenkolb's focus has shifted ever more towards the classics and he has the results to show for it. Along with Sagan and Vanmarcke, he is at the forefront of the a generation ready to assume the mantle held by Boonen and Cancellara on the cobbles, and this Tour stage is potentially a showcase of what they can do.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale)
That Sagan's 2014 spring campaign was widely deemed to be a disappointment was simply a reflection of how high a bar he has set for himself. His victory at E3 Harelbeke was, after all, arguably the smartest of a career where he has usually been able to rely on brute strength, but it was overshadowed by low-key showings at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.
Similarly, in just four stages of this Tour, Sagan has already placed a major down payment on a third successive green jersey in Paris, yet the 24-year-old's almost matter-of-fact domination of the classification is already taken for granted by most. Wednesday’s foray into Paris-Roubaix, then, is the ideal chance for the Slovak to bound back into the limelight on the grandest stage of all.
Sagan is arguably the best bike handler in the bunch and certainly one of the fastest finishers. No other rider can win Wednesday's stage in as many different ways, and Sagan has perhaps suffered from this surfeit of options in the classics in the past. He finished a defiant 6th at Paris-Roubaix this year, and he might well lay down another marker for next year's race on the short course to Arenberg.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
One of the outstanding riders of 2014 to date, Kristoff still managed to arrive at this Tour somewhat under the radar but he has been quietly impressive since the start in Leeds. His narrow defeat to Kittel in Lille on Tuesday underlined his condition and was an augury, perhaps, of what he might achieve on the road to Arenberg.
Kristoff is the only Norwegian in the Tour and having superseded Thor Hushovd in recent seasons, it would be only fitting if he were to follow in his fellow countryman's wheel tracks by winning at Arenberg. Indeed, if he is to do so, it is likely to be in similar circumstances – by matching the strongmen on the cobbles and then unleashing his ferocious sprint.
He might also be able to rely on the support of Luca Paolini, whose expert lead-out was such a factor in his Milan-San Remo win in March. 9th at Paris-Roubaix last year and 5th at the Tour of Flanders this season, the 27-year-old continues to improve on the cobbles.
Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
The trio of Vanmarcke, Thomas and Van Avermaet are grouped together because they each approach the Arenberg stage with a similar impediment. All three riders are blessed with a proven aptitude for the cobbles and an eye for invention, but also burdened with a team leader who will expect their support on the pavé.
Along with Cancellara, Vanmarcke was perhaps the strongest man on the cobbles this past April, but for the second successive year, he didn't come away with the big win his efforts deserved. He would like to prove a point of sorts over the pavé at the Tour, but instead Vanmarcke seems destined to play Virgil to Bauke Mollema's Dante, guiding him through the cobbled hell but destined never to reach Paradise for himself.
That said, the Belkin team is still searching for a sponsor for next season and could undoubtedly do with some early publicity at this Tour. They may yet be tempted to allow Vanmarcke and teammate Lars Boom some leeway, but much will depend on how Mollema comes through the early sectors. Certainly, the Dutchman has made optimistic noises about his chances.
Thomas' second place finish on the race's last visit to Arenberg in 2010 was the high point of Team Sky’s otherwise disappointing debut Tour de France. On that occasion, Thomas was able to let Wiggins fend for himself in the second group as he chased stage honours, but if a similar situation materialises this time around, one imagines that Thomas would be called back to ride in support of his leader Chris Froome – such is the prerogative of a team chasing its third successive overall victory.
It's a decidedly similar scenario for Van Avermaet, although the word from the BMC camp on Tuesday was that he would be afforded a degree of freedom to chase stage honours and a stint in the yellow jersey. If leader Tejay van Garderen runs into difficutly, however, Van Avermaet might yet be called to his side. Like Thomas and Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet was a gallant performer in the spring, but didn't land a big win. A maiden stage victory at the Tour would be some compensation.