Such a fun time of the year to be a cycling fan! But enough dithering! On with the rankings. Oh-the number in parenthesis is where Chris ranked the teams after LBL last year. And that LYCS? Last Year Chris Said.
1. Katusha (2)
LYCS: It was Ivanov who delivered the haymakers: a winner at AGR, 13th at La Fleche, and fifth at Liege... all done with aggressive riding.
2. Saxo Bank (1)
LYCS: If you weren't convinced by their tactics in Amstel or La Flèche, surely by Liège you got the point? Riis' troops were chomping at the bit all week, after a fitful spring, and tuning up Kolobnev gave them four legitimate threats: two Schlecks, the Russian, and Karsten Kroon. The haul included a podium at each race, two seconds and a win, plus a sixth, ninth and tenth. And that's before we subtract Rebellin's results. Anyway, they were aggressive and merciless Sunday. Sexy Back is just that: back.
Whoa. Katusha over Saxo? But everybody loves Saxo! Let's look at the teams.
- Serguei Ivanov, defending AGR champ who always is a top 10 favorite for that race. Last year he followed that win with 13th at La Fleche and 5th at LBL, plus 8th later in the year at San Seb so it wasn't like a special one-time peak for the guy. He has had no results this year but that's par for the course for him.
- Joaquim Rodriguez. Valverde's former right hand man has normally had decent results in the Ardennes while riding support. This year: 7th at Paris-Nice, 1st at Catalunya, 1st at Big Mig, 4th at Pais Vasco. Those who saw the last road stage at Pais Vasco know his climbing abilities are still first rate.
- Alexandr Kolobnev. Former Saxo, was a close 4th at Big Mig. While I don't see him winning one of these races, top 10 finishes are likely and that makes him a threat that other teams need to mark.
Unfortunately Kim Kirchen has done nothing this year and isn't even starting the 1st two of these races.
- Andy Schleck, defending LBL champion. No results to speak of this year but the same was true last year.
- Frank Schleck. Former AGR champ. Normally has a louder spring than his brother; came in 16th at Paris-Nice, 22nd at Pais vasco after crashing, 22nd at Catalunya, and 3rd at Klasika Primavera. That last result was interesting as it looked like Saxo had a specific game plan for Frank to win. Andy went in the early break to try to mess with the other teams. Didn't work. Frank was part of the small final selection where Samu made a successful last km charge to win by 5 seconds.
- Jakob Fuglsang. Here's where I think Saxo starts to fall off in quality. Fuglsang has done not much at all this year. True, that's the same as last year but when it came to the Ardennes he was strictly a worker. This year he needs to carry more of the burden. Is he up for it? Dunno. That is the big question in these rankings. Definitely I think he'll do okay but I'm not convinced that he will make the difference.
- Jens! Saxo takes another hit here. Jens! will give it his all but with CA Sorensen injured and Cancellara taking a break, not to mention losing Kolobnev and Kroon, the workers for Saxo are much less than last year. Other teams will just focus on the Schlecks and I haven't seen them produce so many results when that happens. The brothers are top 10 gimmies but after that they will have to win on their own. Put both of them at the bottom of the Cauberg with say Valverde, Cunego, and J-Rod and they finish 4th and 5th. And what about Gilbert, Gesink, Contador, and others? This is one tough neighborhood, That's why Katusha is #1. We'll see what we say next week.
3. Caisse d'Epargne (6)
LYCS: After two lackluster days, this (J-Rod attacking at LBL) is pretty much what Unzue unleashed in Liege. By then, however, Valverde was no longer the main weapon, just another guy sitting in the wheels, and Rodriguez' second place in La Doyenne was just a team face-saver.
This year looks entirely different for Al. The hanging doping suspension is making him take all races very, very seriously and a focused Valverde in these races is money. He's out sprinting Freire, he's climbing well: really if you have to pick one guy who has the best chance at winning one of these races, you have to pick Al.
Besides AV, there's Lulu who never has had a good result in these races but who also didn't race here last year, which is when he started to truly develop into a top rider. That screams Dark Horse to me. We all know by now how he can power away for a win on his own. With other teams looking at Valverde, he should get his chance again. LBL? There are no other favorites in the rest of the team but as we saw at Paris-Nice, this team is as strong as any. Their workers will keep their favorites close. This team could easily claim the top spot in a week's time. What I don't understand is why Uran isn't listed as starting a race.
4. Rabobank (4).
Hope you saw this. To which Bobo can point to his win last fall at Emilia, a very similar type of race. Does Oscarito have a point? No, he doesn't. For his career Friere can best be described as a solid 10th-20th place finisher in all of these races. Occasionally he sneaks into the top 10. He hasn't won. Why? No one in their right mind will drag Oscar to the finish due to his printing abilities as he's the 2nd best sprinter of the best riders here. (Yeah, 2nd best. See Valverde, Al.) He will get dropped on the late climbs just enough for him not to be involved in the final selection. But then again, Oscarito has been showing strong all year...
Gesink meanwhile scored 3rd last year at AGR where unfortunately he tweaked his knee. Clearly the non-Spanish contingent of Rabobank is looking at Bobo to return them to home race glory. He should be on everyone's short list for all three races.
The other guys? Nuyens was 8th at AGR last year so you can't let him slip away. Large Bomb? He'll be interesting to watch. I still have bad memories of Boom trying to climb at Paris-Nice. Ouch. Other than that they haven't shown much in the other two races. Clearly Bobo is The Man.
Note: Caisse and Rabo are placed higher than the teams below because they have more depth.
5. Omega Pharma Lotto (5)
LYCS: Silence raced pretty well as a team all week, even if you couldn't tell from the results or the post-race recriminations. They hauled back some breaks before the Mur, and didn't exactly miss out on anything important save for the winning Amstel effort. Gilbert singlehandedly animated the team with his aggression.
Lotto gets placed high because of That One Guy, Phil-Gil. We saw him win Lombardia last year. In the Ardennes he placed 4th at AGR and 4th at LBL. Serious short list fave here. The rest of the team? Who cares? Seriously though the team took a big couple of hist with Evans transferring and Dekker testing positive. Okay one big hit. Van Den Broeck might be of use.
6. Lampre. (3)
LYCS: Apart from AGR, Cunego didn't miss the moves... he just couldn't go with Schleck Sunday, and couldn't get past Rebellin on the Mur. Gasparotto did his pulls, and Mori and Gavazzi were around to help. I can't really fault them, even if one measly podium is a light haul.
Cunego! Another short list Ardennes fave. Last year he had a poor year: 5th, 3rd, and 7th. It'll be interesting to see what Pietropolli might do in support.
LYCS: Well nothing about the team since they weren't here but of Evans and Kroon, But Cadel's decision making on the Mur doesn't seem to have improved much over the last year. Ah well... (Saxo)...four legitimate threats: two Schlecks, the Russian, and Karsten Kroon.
Got Karsten Kroon and Cadel Evans. Nice 1-2 there though Kroon is only really good for AGR. Seems like the World Champ should win an Ardennes race once in his lifetime, doesn't it? I mean I'm not talking GT here. Brent Bookwalter is racing!
8. Liquigas (8)
LYCS: Kreuziger and Nibali both tried getting away as the races heated up, though to little avail. Basso was predictably invisible Sunday. I suppose that's all you can hope for in an elite field and on courses where you ain't got the horses. Kreuziger may have a future in these hard one-day events, but it's too soon to say.
We are dropping away from the A-list teams now. Perhaps I should have ranked these guys lower until they get a good result. Kreuziger and Nibali are quite a 1-2 punch. But they haven't had a top placing yet though they were near the front at the races last year. Let's chalk that up to growing pains and predict that they will be solid top 10 contenders this year. Their supporting cast isn't the best though look for Santaromita to be useful. The winner of this year's Coppi and Bartali can climb.
9. HTC-Columbia (9)
LYCS: They were pretty inconspicuous both Sundays, though they earned some thing more than an F with decent work at La Fleche. THR helped Silence pull it together, and got both Lovkvist and Albasini launched on the Mur, for two top-10 spots. Still makes me concerned they are a one-trick pony, pulling back breaks so they can try their luck in a bunch finish. But it could be worse.
No hot favorite in the bunch but seriously, are you gonna doubt their chances after all we've seen? Who they got? Albasini was 14th at AGR and 8th at La Fleche last year. Monfort 24th at AGR, P. Velits was 25th at AGR with the Mooers. I have no idea who here is gonna take a serious run at these races but with this team you can count on something happening.
LYCS: Nothing at all. Zip.
Has Matteo Carrera, 12th at LBL, 21st at AGR, and 26th at La Fleche. Leukemans could be a help here. And wither Hoogerland? No priors to speak of in the Ardennes but this is Johnny Hoogerland we are talking about.
Maybe these guys should be higher. They got Simon Gerrans, 7th, 8th, and 6th in the three races last year. They got Tom Lofkvist, 6th at La Fleche. I'm not sure if Wiggins will be much of a help and the rest of the team...hmm.. Froome?
Maxim Iglinsky's been on form all year but maybe he's getting tired from the workload? He scored 27th at La Fleche and 22nd at LBL last year and that was with subpar Classics management. If he's not exhausted he could sneak into the top 10.
Then there's The Accountant, who is definitely sandbagging (besides missing AGR). Bert does know these races as he's done them a couple of times before so don't buy the inexperienced angle; he just hasn't raced them since he started winning Grand Tours. Do I expect big things out of him? No-that's why the team is ranked 12th. But put him in good position at the bottom of
the Cauberg or the Mur...
Gasparotto will be a good helper. Then there's Vino. Could be interesting at LBL.
Below are teams with one real good rider but little depth. Hard to rank them until we see more:
- Radio Shack has Horner who just won Pais Vasco. Chris should make some noise. Surprisingly they don't have Jani "I got 2nd!" Brajkovic starting. (Yeah, it's a picture from last year. I like it.)
- Androni Giocattoli (Inc.) It just feels like they could make some noise. Leo "One Of The Other Berts" Bertagnolli was 11th at Lombardia and 15th at Emilia last year. He did score a 33rd place at AGR two years ago riding for Liquigas. Ginanni might make noise and he's got a good sprint. We'll see...
- Cervelo has Tondo who is a neophyte at these races. But being a neophyte hasn't slowed him much this year...
- Garmin has Ryder Hesjedal, 11th at LBL last year. Looks like he's in decent form and should be thought of as a dark horse. Other than that they got rookies and guys practicing for other races.
- Euskaltel (7): WTF? Where is Samu in your startlists? A team led by Egoi and Igor doesn't stand a chance! With Sam San this team is top 10.
Photos copyright Getty Images Sport.