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Tour de France 2015: stage four – colour feature

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Photographs: BrakeThrough Media

There are no shouts: the riders are focusing too hard for that. In the moments that they come past on the pavé, you cannot even hear them breathe.
A peloton at full pelt on cobbles sounds like a deluge on a corrugated roof, a pitter-patter of shaken-up bicycles and metal. 100 kilometres from the finish of stage 4 of the 2015 Tour de France, they fly over the first sector at Pont-à-Celles grouped together.
It is a mere canapé for the Tour bunch, wolfed down ravenously before the heavier fare. But two and a half hours later, on the seventh and final cobbled stretch at Avesnes-les-Aubert, it is a very different story.
The little village signifies the beginning of the final sector, 2,300 metres of rust-coloured cobbles, coming 13 kilometres before the finish in Cambrai, that could make or break contenders and their Tour-winning dreams.
Raindrops fall as we walk to the top of a slight drag in the sector, close to its exit. A cloudburst: that really would make things treacherous. But the rain stays away.
Two-metre high grassy banks rise intermittently along this section, providing a natural viewing point for spectators; others stand on the soft verge by the cobbles, which have straw-coloured grass wisping between their cracks.

A corn field stretches behind the final part as electricity pylons, seemingly ubiquitous in the North, stand across fields on the horizon. We are on the French border, but there are young men wrapped in Belgian flags drinking Jupiler, sharing the sector with excited locals.
First, there is the anticipation. A few fans are watching live video streaming of the nearby action on phones, but more still have the trusty old favourite: radios.
Within earshot, I only catch snippets of the action: “Acceleration d’Astana,” “Valgren et Perichon distancé.” Something else floats out: “Crevaison pour Pinot!” To me, part of the attraction is not knowing the race situation till the leading riders come charging past, as if from a vacuum.
A balding man in a red-and-black striped shirt stands next to me, his partner sitting on an upturned brown beer crate. He is holding her hand: it’s either in simple affection or pre-emptive comfort for the distressing action that is about to unfold.
Then the shout goes up: “Ils arrivent!” Blaring horns, gendarmes on motorbikes, then there they are.
Zdenek Stybar leads Greg Van Avermaet and John Degenkolb, slightly off the front on this rise. For a second, it could easily be April and Paris-Roubaix. Surely every spectator would love the day’s decisive move to evolve right in front of their eyes. Is this the moment?
I try to look at their faces. All three are gritting their teeth. From the most veteran Classics rider to a weightless waif chasing the yellow jersey, the effort of racing full bore over cobbles shows.

Chris Froome is the best-placed contender, fifth man past me, albeit in the process of losing a bike length to Geraint Thomas. He rides like a mannequin whose arms and head are stuck in the same position. Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde are just behind.
Having stars of the cobbled Classics chivvy and chase for their leaders provides a fascinating dynamic, mixing the necessity of protection with their own ambitions of a stage win. Among these multi-taskers, it was fitting that an opportunist – Tony Martin – took the win.
Till now, the leaders have taken the crown of the road; Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) is the first haring down the soft left gutter towards me. He passes centimetres away. Contador and his Tinkoff protectors follow. It takes skill and nerve to hold this line.
The man next to me pulls his wife back. The roars of the crowd are deafening and the ground seems to shake with the speed of the following cars, which send dust flying.
Movistar leader Nairo Quintana passes. He is without a team-mate, clinging onto the back of the group with a fierce grimace. No big contender will ultimately lose any time, but there are small points to be gleaned from the day: mind games won for the likes of Froome and Van Garderen, a suggestion that Valverde should have been there for Quintana.
The lead group comes and goes in 14 seconds. I take stock: there is dust in my hair, on my hands and between my teeth. It has been rattled from the cobbles and into the air like an old rug being beaten. If it’s like this for me, the riders will be coughing it up all the way to Paris.
More groups come by; I miss Pinot, gone in a white blur. After ten minutes, the crowds spread across the cobbles, thinking it’s all over. A few minutes later, a sizeable gruppetto comes whistling through, accompanied by furiously-whistling policemen. Then finally, everyone seems to breathe again.

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