Lance Armstrong and a handful of the other 2010 Tour de France favourites previewed yesterday one of the most challenging stages of this year’s race – the cobbled run to Arenberg, stage three.

The stage ends three days of stressful racing, all before the race even reaches the high mountains. After Saturday’s prologue in Rotterdam, the riders will face a windy run to Brussels, a mid-mountain stage to Spa and a cobbled stage to Arenberg, similar to ‘The Hell of the North’, Paris-Roubaix.

“This is a crucial stage, very critical. There is a chance you could lose important time here. I don’t know how much, it’s hard to say, maybe one minute,” Armstrong told Fremch paper L’Equipe. “There will be carnage. There will be time gaps due to the crashes that are bound to happen.”

Armstrong rode a similar cobble stage in the 2004 Tour de France, when Iban Mayo crashed and lost time. He previewed this year’s stage in April when he was in Belgium for the Tour of Flanders, but felt it was important to return to the stage as it could shape the overall classification.

“We will use the same equipment we used for the Tour of Flanders, the tyres and the tyre pressure,” he continued.

“With my current form the pavé is a little easier to get over than the form that I had in April.

“Two reasons, no, three [it’s different than 2004]… 1. There are more sectors of pavé. 2. The pavé sectors are more difficult. 3. They are closer to the finish.”

There are 13.2 kilometres of pavé, the same ill-fitted stones used in Paris-Roubaix. Six sections come in the last 30 kilometres, with the final one leaving seven kilometres to race.

Sky and Bradley Wiggins joined Armstrong and other favourites on the pavé yesterday: Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo), Andy and Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank). Alberto Contador had previewed the stage in April, after Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) also rode the cobbles today and said that the stage could end in a sprint.

Regardless of the outcome of the stage and the Tour de France, Armstrong will race his last season as a professional. He announced his decision earlier this week on Twitter.

“I fell less pressure. I am happy, I feel ready. I will try to win again, but without any pressure. I have won seven Tours de France. I have the team and the support of the fans here. I want to do my best,” said Armstrong.

“The best thing, the most important in my eyes, is just to be genuine. I have always tried to be that way on the bike, with the fans, etc. No gimmicks, no show.”

The Tour de France starts Saturday with an 8.9-kilometre time trial in Rotterdam.

Related links

Tour teams take to the cobbles: Photo special

Tour de France 2010: Who will win?

Brits at the Tour de France 2010

Tour de France 2010: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index