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The Cobbled Contenders

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January is time for off-season dreaming, and Tom Boonen's sudden bout of malaise, or whatever the related Flemish term is, has me thinking about who the contenders for the Cobbles are this year. Boonen is assumed to be a meta-champion, but the fact is that the field has never been more competitive, making April the greatest month of the year once again. Below the fold is one person's ranking of the top, er, 17 riders for the Flemish and French cobbled classics.

1. Tom Boonen

I know, this sounds like a cop-out. I don't expect him to dominate the scene for six weeks like last year, and I think the distance from 1 to 2 is shrinking rapidly. But is there anyone else out there as sure of winning at least one race as Boonen? I can't think of a rider better suited to a race than Boonen is for De Ronde. And if he wins the E3 Prijs again, as is customary, take that as his signal to the field that the battle at De Ronde is for second place.

2. Leif Hoste

At least as debatable as #1, but Hoste gets my vote with two seconds at Flanders and being one screwy French train crossing from the double-second. Add to that the fact that he's got the full support of Belgium's other Classics powerhouse (You're Preg-Lotto), and you can expect Hoste to make the final selection at E3 Prijs, Dreidaags, De Ronde, Gent, Roubaix... wherever he puts in the effort.

3. Fabien Cancellara

His ceiling here is #1, but let's hold off on that just yet. His P-R win was last season's single best April ride (IMHO), but repeating at Roubaix is more a matter for the Cycling Gods to sort out than the mortals involved, however strong. Moreover, Cance has said he's got a cobble and would rather win De Ronde. Can his pure power translate into a climber's race like De Ronde? Absolutely, he was 5th last year, but winning? I'll believe it when it happens.

4. Alessandro Ballan

You'll notice a slight age bias in my selections if you haven't already. Fair enough... and I know, Paris-Roubaix has been won by a LOT of canny old veterans. I haven't forgotten them. But Ballan scored 3rd* and 5th at Roubaix and De Ronde, and second to Boonen at E3 Prijs. He was a protagonist the whole time, excellent experience for a guy about to hit his prime.

5. Philippe Gilbert

More age bias, and really you can move these rankings all over with little serious resistance. But Gilbert is a huge talent, and clearly arrived last year. He should go into this spring much more confident and ambitious than the man who crushed the field at Het Volk before ... what? Didn't he get sick or hurt last year? Memory fails. Anyway, I can't think of any reason he won't be front and center this time. OK, enough about my brain.

6. George Hincapie

Being generous here, but George was one steerer tube away from making the final selection at Roubaix, a week after his little nap cost him a legit chance to join the (futile) sprint against Boonen for De Ronde. Those are amazing credentials, along with his win a few years back at Gent-Wevelgem. No reason to expect him to fade just yet, give him one or two more shots at that elusive Monument win.

7. Thor Hushovd

Another generous ranking? He won't hold this slot for long with all the up-and-comers, but Thor won G-W last year, and is an all-around stud, the kind of guy you don't want to overlook anywhere short of the climbers' races. Total professional, expect him to fight to the death at G-W at least, and maybe score a lesser win elsewhere (Brabantse Pijl?) in Flanders.

8. Filippo Pozzato

Ayayay, more U27 types. Pippo was the ace footsoldier for Boonen right up through De Ronde, following his own win at Milan-San Remo. Now he's free to go for the line with Liquigas... again, up through De Ronde (see next entry). Immensely talented, fabulous resume, and a decent squad behind him. Something's gotta give.

9. Magnus Backstedt

Speaking of riders built for races, does any rider more resemble a cobblestone than Big Maggie? Could be why he has one in his closet. He disappeared last year to injury, so he returns as a total wildcard, but as long as he's healthy and the hills aren't too steep, find him at the front of the line.

10. Nick Nuyens

Another main protagonist in the service of Boonen last year, he didn't get away for any lesser wins, but is a threat to do so this year. And despite jumping to Cofidis, he can't be ruled out of a high placing at De Ronde either.

11. Gert Steegmans

Probably superior to Nuyens, but will be a support rider first in the complicated trio (rectangle?) of Boonen, Van Petegem, Bettini and himself. When QSI wants to win a Nokere-Koerse, look for Steegmans in front. But on days when one of the bigger guys wants to win, Steegmans will be stricly a helper.

12. Juan Antonio Flecha

The Spanish Flandrian should probably be ranked higher, and certainly would if this were a column about guys I root for. But although he's a certainty to be on the attack at De Ronde and Roubaix, his usual result is somewhere from 4th to 12th. The competition is getting stiffer as years go on, but if he's in a final selection, I'll be screaming at the screen for him in Flemish, Spanish, or whatever else I can get my hands on.

13. Bernhard Eisel

Another flatlander (fron Austria??), sort of the next Hushovd. Very talented, but it remains to be seen whether T-Mobile makes him a leader at P-R and actually sticks with the plan.

14. Peter Van Petegem

We're getting to the old guys now. Mr. Van P has one of those resumes that says "surprise late-career win at P-R," but he had that last year too, before he signed up to work for Tom Boonen. Can't be overlooked, shouldn't be favored.

15. Alessandro Petacchi

Maybe I shouldn't believe everything I read, but I smell "revenge year" here. He can only contend at G-W, but if he makes the finale there, he's the favorite.

16. Philippe Guesdon

Bears mentioning, given his past win at P-R and regular appearances around the Cobbled Country in the top 10 or so. His win at Paris-Tours says he ain't done yet. Most likely just a protagonist, but don't forget him.

17. Steffen Wesemann

Not going quietly into that good-night, is he? A lousy offseason has him riding with Wiesenhof and stuck in 17th here, but the former Ronde winner made a lot of noise last April. Might have one last great day in him.