Romain Bardet got a taste of 'The Hell of the North' on Friday as he clattered across the notorious cobblestones of northern France in preparation for the Paris-Roubaix-inspired stage of the 2018 Tour de France.
The Frenchman will fight for the yellow jersey in his preferred terrain of the mountains in the second half of this year's Tour, but in order to get there he must survive 15 sectors of pavé, totalling 21.7km, on stage 9 of the race.
Bardet, well aware of the importance of that day, has already committed to riding Strade Bianche and Dwars Door Vlaanderen this spring in order to familiarise himself with the terrain, and on Friday he tested himself on all 15 sectors that lie between Arras and Roubaix.
He was joined by the bulk of AG2R La Mondiale's Classics contingent, with Belgian champion Oliver Naesen, Julien Duval, and new signings Tony Gallopin and Silvan Dillier all in attendance.
"These aren't just sanitised cobbles. It will be a real, real mess at the Tour - without doubt the hardest stage, the one that will create the biggest gaps between the favourites," said Bardet, according to L'Equipe.
"With the succession of sectors, you'll pay dearly for any mishap or pause. I enjoyed it. Even if I'll feel vulnerable at the Tour, it will give some definition to the race."
Bardet was able to see the pavé at its hellish worst, as days of rainfall had left many of the sectors sloppy and muddy, and the crowns of the cobblestones glistening and treacherously slippery.
"Two or three sectors were on the verge of being unrideable," AG2R-La Mondiale directeur sportif, Julien Jurdie told L'Equipe.
"Without doubt we won't have the same weather in July, even if in 2015 [the last time pavé featured in the Tour -ed] the conditions were terrible. We're finishing our winter training so it's not the time to be hitting the deck. There was a bit of stress. We'll definitely come back here with Romain on dry pavé to reacquaint him with the succession of sectors for D-Day. The last 12 are really difficult on a fairly short parcours [154km]. This stage is half a Paris-Roubaix: 15 sectors instead of 29 at the real thing, one hour of racing before the first sector instead of two..."
Bardet kicks off his 2018 campaign this weekend at the GP La Marseillaise on Sunday.