Word of warning, I will be lightly posting the rest of this month. So I don't want to put off important subjects any further. And it doesn't get any more important than the annual pre-season survey of cobbled classic teams, does it? DOES IT? I didn't think so.
This isn't a poll by any means, just a brief primer on whom to care about for the next two months of your life, with an eye toward causing you to drastically overpay for riders on your FSA DS teams whom you won't see again once the daisies bloom. Much will change before tires meet baby-heads (kinderkopje, not the actual heads of children), and we'll take all that in turn. For now...
Teams That Make You Go "Yeah!"
- Omega Pharma-Quick Step: The rich got poorer, by some estimation, or at least according to those who think the loss of Sylvain Chavanel is not offset by the increase in sheer awesomeness by Zdenek Stybar. Since Stybar has already won Paris-Roubaix this year, and possibly for the next several years, the pressure on Tom Boonen to deliver should noticeably go down. Win! Anyway, between the two great protagonists of our generation, neither Boonen nor Cancellara seem to have more than one year of shit luck at a time, so your move Trek.
- Lotto-Belisol: Nobody will argue with their Flemishness ("Now, even slightly more Flemish!"), and I suspect not many will argue with the presence of Jurgen Roelands, Flemish Warrior. He's moved into "perpetual challenger" class, bouncing back nicely from a disastrous 2012 campaign with a podium spot in de Ronde last year, a/k/a Best Belgian. You can make a nice, tidy career being the Best Belgian in a cobbled classic. Hell, just being among the Ten Best Belgians at de Ronde should keep you in Trappist ale for life. Pro tip: he's only 29, just reaching his peak. Also, who the hell gives up on Tony Gallopin at 25? Fools! That's who.
- Belkin: I am going to say right now that Belkin will win a major classic this year. For no other reason than that if you have four or five of the strongest guys every spring, eventually a race falls in one of their laps. It has to. Right? Right? Whatever -- the Dutch juggernaut, for all they do to drive fans crazy, are still smart enough to have Sep Vanmarkce in tow, a man who once rode toe-to-toe with Zdenek Stybar (!) (until one of them fell off his bike, can't remember who). Belgians are sort of the ground black pepper of the peloton -- no matter how French or Dutch or American your roster may be, if you just season it with enough Belgian, it will taste fantastic. Vanmarcke? Wynants? Dee-lish!
Teams that make you go "Yeah?"
- Sky: Cycling is full of good guys who never quite make it, except occasionally they do. Of those, there are the Johan Vansummeren types, of whom I still can't believe that happened. And then there are the Ian Stannard types, who when one of his patented solo attacks actually works, it will make perfect sense. Meanwhile, a trend across cycling this year is to send your Tour de France guys to Paris-Roubaix, which will serve as a useful preview for the Nord-Pas de Calais stage which ends in Wallers after bouncing over a lot of stones. Bradley Wiggins, tart-tongued student of cycling history, has made Paris-Roubaix a target, and if we can forget any concerns we have had before about his bike handling, it's possible to imagine something magical happening in early April. Finally, something something something Edvald Boasson Hagen. Can I move on now?
- Cannondale: Peter Sagan has entered that realm where it's easy to forget that he has any teammates. But just because he can go it completely alone doesn't mean he needs to, or has. Last year he had Moreno Moser for company, and one fine day in Tuscany it looked like they were the most unbeatable combination in the world (which they were, for a day). The Little Sheriff (Deputy?) is still quite young, and last year got programmed for Ardennes duty -- as he will again. They also signed Marco Marcato from Vacansoleil, making one wonder how awesome a Flanders lineup Cannondale could put together, until you realize that he too is slated for Ardennes work. That leaves riders like Koren, Bodnar, Ted King, and ... Dwars winner Oscar Gatto, who also finished 15th in de Ronde. So no, Sagan will not be alone. Not until he decides to be.
- AG2R: I feel like I'm wasting your time going on about Sebastian Turgot (coming over from Europcar) and Damien Gaudin, two household names pretty much worldwide, having dominated guys like Peter Sagan in the classics the last two years. Oh, sure, they don't pop wheelies as they cross the line, or traumatize podium girls, or ride their bike up the hood of a car. But no matter, they're appreciated universally for the content of their cycling character. And all they do is get big results in Roubaix: second (Turgot) in 2012 and fifth and tenth (Gaudin, Turgot) last year. Turgot found time to finish eighth in de Ronde as well. Both are comfortably in their prime. Don't let the Earth tones blend into the muddy pavement; overlook this duo at your peril.
Teams that make you go "Ok, Yeah"
- Trek: Fabian Cancellara, unlike the other superstars, might very well not be able to expect a ton of comraderie in his next assault on the history books, not that he's ever needed much. Speaking of history books, has anyone at Trek read them? [Answer: of course.] Do they know what sort of a teammate newly-signed Stijn Devolder will make? [Answer: a lovely one, provided he's not the Stijn Devolder who bogarted two Ronde wins at Quick Step, and rode for himself in a few others.] Greg Rast is more of an ideal helper, and honestly Devolder's character shouldn't be challenged in this way. It's just... being Belgian can get complicated in April.
- IAM: The "I love the Classics wink wink!" crowd has already realigned their allegiances fully behind what now appears, to some, as the hottest team in cycling. Yes, this is about Sylvain Chavanel (swoon!), and maybe even the last few Holding Out Hope for Heinrich Haussler (swoon!) fans. Somehow this is not a soap opera yet. Back in Cold, Hard Reality, IAM probably won't pose too much of a threat to the teams listed higher up, though they boast some competency in the support team of Elmiger, Kluge and Goddaert. If something does fall in their laps, all I can say is be not afraid. Stybar won the CX worlds and the Internet didn't break.
- BMC: I wanted to put them in the next grouping until I remembered Greg Van Avermaet. Why is it always so hard to remember Greg Van Avermaet? Should he wear a really ugly suit to his wedding or something? OK, anyway, BMC has dropped its cobbled pedigree by transferring Gilbert to Ardennes duty full-time, but there's no rule that said Thor Hushovd can't have a good day in northern France again, right? Michael Schar is a beast in any role, and Taylor Phinney is too good to be kept down much longer. Apparently the changeover from John Lelangue to Alan Peiper has peeps excited, maybe even aggressive again.
- Katusha: Secretly one of the four teams to win a Cobbled Classic last year, with Luca Paolini doing the honors in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (whose name gnome-translates to Superbike Phillip, which I will be referring to with hilarious effect all spring. Do try to keep up.). Paolini hopes to scare a few DSs on the road, so that they temporarily lose their minds and forget about Alexander Kristoff, the very slightly poorer-man's Peter Sagan, after a run that went 4th-5th-9th in Flanders/Scheldeprijs/Roubaix last year. Kristoff's magical powers include sticktoitiveness and a nice sprint, so the chances of him falling victim to the aggressiveness of a Cancellara remain high. But he's just hitting his prime years, at 26. And yes, I did gamble my entire Editors' League strategy on him, thanks for asking.
- Giant-Shimano: The last of the teams to get a win in Flanders, along with Cannondale and Cancellara (a team unto himself). That was Kittel, in the Scheldeprijs, which counts as a classic though it doesn't portend great things in the other classics like, say, winning Paris-Robuaix does. Far more interesting that Kittel, or his haircut, is the pedigree of Giant-Shimano's youngest riders. John Degenkolb, just 25, was eighth in de Ronde last year and features a ferocious sprint on him. Ramon Sinkeldam is a former Paris-Roubaix Espoirs winner whose debut saw him finish a respectable 25th. Lawson Craddock is the next big American hope on the cobbles, with an 11th in the Beloften event in 2011, topped ever so slightly by Jonas Ahlstrand (7th in 2012). Check back in three years when this team has either started taking over, or has been picked apart by the rich squads.
- Garmin: Just when you think you can officially write them off as a classics team, following their first truly quiet campaign (even Summie was shut out in Roubaix!), but the underlying reality will very quickly get in the way of that storyline. For starters, the veteran lineup of Vansummeren and Nick Nuyens has been bolstered by the even more reliable Sebastian Langeveld, with Father Time not really an issue for any of them yet (Langeveld is actually only 29, despite racing in Flanders for approximately 28 years). Of the three, if one is super sharp, a podium is a good chance. After all, last time Nuyens started de Ronde, he won it. Granted, that was two major route redesigns ago, but still. Oh, and the youthful wave includes guys like Raymond Kreder and (maybe) Ramunas Navardauskas, both of whom shone on the cobbles at the Espoirs level. And if Tyler Farrar shows his old form in time, he could be their guy in Scheldeprijs and Gent-Wevelgem again.
Teams that make you go "Yeah!"... only in a sarcastic way
- Lampre: Only God can judge the hopelessness of Pippo Pozzato's team support. And people wonder why he sucks wheels...
- Tinkoff: Matti F'n Breschel... the cause of, and solution to, all of life's Virtual problems.
- Europcar: If there's a backstory to why they let Turgot walk, I'm all ears.