4 3rd Tier Cobbles Guys

So lonely is Pippo. - Bryn Lennon

The square circled. Four riders looking to do some damage on the cobbles this spring.

Yep, I'm having fun obsessing over the VDS price list. When I change a price on some rider I can practically hear the reactions from you guys: all sorts of reactions depending on who you are. I get out the fainting couch for some of you, prepare for counter arguments from others. Some of you I can just see taking note and moving on with a half smile, thinking al the time of where to pounce.

It's also interesting to see how the riders are shaking out and though I'm not yet sharing the price list with you, just looking at last year's list plus the results you can see tiers of riders. Today I am looking at the riders who look to score on the cobbles in the spring and you can see several tiers of riders.

- 1st tier are the headliners Cancellara and Sagan. Maybe Boonen for some of you... These guys have whole teams working for them and also produce results aka wins.

- 2nd tier includes the likes of Chavannel, Van Avermaet, Gilbert, Kristoff, Stybar, Terpstra, Roelandts, Paolini etc. Team leaders on less deep teams, always dangerous but not quite the load that the 1st tier is. They rely more on team tactics to put them into position to win.

- 3rd tier includes Boom, Hushovd, Pozzato, Stannard, Breschel, Boasson Hagen, etc. More reliant on teamwork still but definitely have the talent to succeed in a variety of Classics, not just on the cobbles. They can rise up for a big win if things are breaking their way.

- 4th tier. Depth guys like Debusschere, Keukeliere, Nuyens, etc. If everything is breaking their way they could yet win, but normally they are one of the bullets their team fires that cause a reaction (stress) for the other teams before the big play is made.

Of course these tiers are artificial and all, your thinking may differ as to who is where. What this does for me is to help me think what a given rider needs and needs to do to have a successful 2014. Success for Cancellara is different than success for Vansummeren. Yeah both want to win but for Vansummeren, winning could mean, probably does mean setting up a teammate for a podium finish if real lucky a win as much as he himself winning. For Cancellara it is about him personally winning.

With all that said I've been dwelling on a few of the 3rd tier guys, riders who's results are not quite what they hope for but who still think seriously of individual glory. I have laid out below four of 'em: Pozzato, Boasson Hagen, Breschel, and Gallopin. All four have cause for real hope because their teams will definitely give them real opportunities for success. And in the past they have had some success, including success on other similar Classics (last year Pippo at Plouay and Gallopin at San Seb, aka the best race in the world as explained to me by one very smart bivalve.) But for each there are also real concerns that will probably stop them from a huge breakthrough. Other teams need to be aware of their presence if they make it to the business end of the race in the lead pack, but can they make it there? These riders also have other races in the year where they hope to score as they are all well-rounded riders. Let's look closer at them.

Specimen #1: Pippo Pozzato. Yes I am asking you to judge him.

Pippo's the oldest (33 next September) with the best palmares of the four. He's also amazingly inconsistent, maddeningly so. You have him switching teams on average every two years so you wonder about his ability to be a teammate. So much drama = not good. It's kept him from becoming a tier 1 rider.

Then you got his inconsistent results. Take last year where he scored 610 VDS points with exactly zero coming out of Belgium in the springtime. Go back a year and he scores 700-all from Belgium. He had a really nice run of form there (including MSR): 6th at MSR, 6th at Dwars, 27th at E3, 9th at G-W, and 2nd at de Ronde before a DNF at P-R. Rest of the year: nada.

The year before, 2011, playing ot his Katusha contract with a 5th at MSR and almost nothing else. Total non-factor on the cobbles or anywhere else outside of Picardy. 2010? Mixed but generally good results including 19th at Omloop, 4th at Strade Bianche, 4th at E3, and 7th at P-R plus a Giro stage win alongside 29th at MSR, and DNS at Flanders.

So he's all over the place as to specific results. Trying to guess if he'll be competitive in any one race before the season starts is crazy thinking. And yet check out his CQ overview. That shows a pretty normal curve to his career, peaking in his late 20's with a gradual decline afterward. Taking a step backwards like this shows a pretty consistent rider, sort of like looking at a pointilist painting. The main quirk to that career curve is the mess he had with Katusha and injuries-which of course are more likely as one is getting on in life. (I'm looking at YOU-ALL OF YOU.) But he had a nice first year at Lampre and if he's happy and healthy it is not unreasonable that he could have a solid year, even approaching his best years. But in what races?

Specimen #2: Edvald Boasson Hagen: The next Eddy Merckx. heh.

No longer a kid-he's 27 folks-and doesn't it seem like he is no longer sure of himself? That Sky isn't sure what to do with him? When he was on Columbia it sure seemed like the sky was the limit but in the last four years with Sky he's stagnated until last year where the stagnation (naturally) turned into decidedly fewer results. Stagnation-cluelessness-always does. This year he's starting the season differently, foregoing altitude work for more spring racing. It looks like he's off the Tour team as well. Might this change in plans finally make him a real factor on the cobbles or anywhere else? Physically he's still the Beast that he's always been but mentally? And by mentally I mean his Sky handlers as well: there must be lots of discussions as to why their cobbles team isn't performing to the standards of their GC Tour team.

Let's quickly look back at his VDS results.

- 2010. zzzz. His first year at Sky and things started off so well at the Omloop with Flecha winning the sucker and EBH vital in the effort and scoring 6th place anyways. It really looked like Sky was gonna be a top cobbles team. But...no. EBH scored zip in the remaining cobbles races, finishing in such great placings like 106th at MSR and 59th at E3. He did have a bunch of podium spots sprinkles with occasional seemingly random wins but the sum total of the season was a step back from his last year at Columbia.

- 2011 sigh. Wins Vattenfall. Wins Eneco. Wins a Tour stage. Various other podium placings. Sum total is marginally better than 2010. Almost nothing on the cobbles: he led out Chris Sutton for the win at KBK, finishing 8th himself adn otherwise finished safely in the peloton at Omloop, Flanders, and MSR.

- 2012 was his best Sky year but really it was just more of the same: a lot of also ran random points with a win at GP Ouest France-Plouay. The cobbles saw him 5th at G-W and 19th at de Ronde and I gotta say he has no business scoring that low at Flanders. It's practically blasphemy.

- 2013 saw a few also-ran points on the cobbles at E3, and de Ronde with more points coming from the Tour (77) and Vuelta (100). Throw in a national championship TT and a couple other random results and you got a thoroughly annonamous season for him.

Sigh. Physically there is no reason on earth why this guy isn't absolutely terrorizing the spring cobbles races. Cancellara should be waking up at night drenched in sweat worrying about EBH. Sagan should be trying to figure out how to outsprint him at the end of a Monument, Boonen should be plotting over and over how his team is gonna use tactics to steal a win from him. At this point in his career, EBH should be sporting a serious pair of brass balls for all to see and envy. I have to imagine that there's DS's on other teams that just wish they could have a talent like this kid. But what's he gonna do this year? Has Sky finally got the right plan? Maybe. Here's his spring race schedule for next year:

Challenge de Mallorca, Tour of Oman, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

That's better. He's never before concentrated on the cobbles like this. He's got a good team with him, especially Thomas and Stannard. The ceiling for this team is very high. Can they and EBH stop underperforming though?

Specimen #3: Matti Breschel. The Pride of the upper left corner of a US map.

Turns 30 this year, which basically means that he spent the prime two years of his career on Rabobank. Ugh.

So okay, Matti came up with Riis and the CSC/Saxos where he showed steady progress as a major Cancellara helper. Yep he took a slip in 2010 but that was due more to mechanicals than anything. 2011 has him transferring to Rabobank and pain. 2011: 90 total VDS points, 0 in the springtime. 2012: Better, but we expect better still. 11th at E3, 3rd at G-W, 9th at Flanders, not much else anywhere.

Last year a return to Riis showed slightly better VDS scoring but fewer cobbles placings: just a 13th at G-W and 15th at P-R. Now he's 30 and it's year two of the Breschel/Riis reunion tour. Can we expect or even hope that he can return to serious cobbles contender status? Can he then win/podium his share of other sprints and classics? can Breschel pull a Nuyens? Given that it really helps to have a viable Plan B on your team can Benna who rode injured last spring, rebound to help Matti?

Specimen #4: Tony Gallopin. Plan B or Plan 1A for Lotto?

The youngest of our four riders at 26 come next May, Gallopin is also the least experienced on the pave, especially when it comes to being a race leader. But that's exactly what we are hearing out of the Lotto camp. The last couple of years he's been Cancellara's understudy in Belgium with more freedom allowed in the Ardennes and later in the season. (Witness his win at San Seb last year.) This year?

GP La Marseillaise (2 February), Star Bessèges (5-9 February), Tour of Oman (18-23 February), Paris-Nice (March 9 to 16), E3 Harelbeke (28 March), Ghent-Wevelgem (March 30), Tour of Flanders (April 6), Paris-Roubaix (April 13), Amstel Gold Race (April 20), Fleche Wallonne (April 23) and Liège (27 April ).

Not only that the word "captain" is being put before his name specifically at E3, G-W, Flanders, P-R, and the Ardennes trio. Not sure what that word Captain means here what with Roelandts on the team but anyways Gallopin is getting a whole lot more opportunity this coming season. Can he handle it? He certainly want to and what he says is music to the ears of the Belgian fans:

- Lotto-Belisol gave me confidence that I can run all these races. I love the culture of the Belgian race. I do not mind about the Flemish spectators take me in as one of their own once said the Frenchman, according bicicilismo.com.

Gallopin start the season with La Marseillaise and the stage race Étoile de Bessèges.

But there are the classics he really cares about.

As a youngster he had Peter Van Petegem as his idol. 43-year-old is currently trail boss for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but Gallopin remember his two triumphs from Flanders around best:

- It's hard to explain, but I know of no more beautiful than Flanders around, he says.

By age 13, he bought the bike actually Leif Hoste. Cough was "the eternal deuce" with three other places in Flanders. One of them also came Lotto team.

- I rode around on the bike for two years, he laughs.

So cute! Think he has a chance at Flanders or anything before...hey! I am surprised that he's doing P-R and not Brabantse Pijl.

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4 riders. What do you think of their chances?

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