Let's see... favorites? Check. Course? Covered. Genuflecting at the cobbles? Done and done. History? Leave for others. Poll people on beer choices? In a moment. That leaves... the teams.
While it's fun and easy to focus on individuals, and hot-spot climbs, the fact is that the Ronde is a test to see who can win collectively, over all 260km. In my view, based on my years and years in the European peloton (ahem!), there are a handful of teams poised to make the race, another handful ready to react, and a pretty big quorum of others hoping that this Sunday is the proverbial "any given" one.
- How they can win: The usual way, by flooding the field with strong riders. Fabian Cancellara may be the captain, but the key difference between CSC and other teams is that when they send strong guys up the road like O'Grady, Kroon or Arvesen, they're not bluffing.
- How to beat them: You have two choices -- chase down their attacks if you have enough capable help, or take your chances that in a race like Flanders, only Cancellara has the strength to pull it off. So park your guy on him. I might assign someone to watch O'Grady, were I a rival DS, but where CSC's flooding the field strategy works well in less demanding environments, I think it's got marginal chances here.
- How they can win: Drop Boonen off on the Valkenberg in excellent shape. Leave Steegmans, Tossatto and Barredo with Boonen and let Devolder and DeJongh cover attacks. If either, particularly Devolder, looks like they can win, at least consider letting him. Bluffing doesn't work if everyone knows that's what you're doing.
- How to beat them: Isolate Boonen from his helpers as early as possible, either with attacks that shed his sheilds and/or drawing out Devolder in an early break. CSC have the depth to put two guys up the road with/outnumbering Devolder, power up the field to shed Boonen's other guys, and still have two guys shadowing Boonen... so he has to work.
- How they can win: Send Eisel to cover a serious attack... say, a CSC-Devolder group that goes around the Koppenberg. Keep Hammond with Hincapie, and Hincapie shadowing Boonen/Cancellara/Ballan. Eisel is in terrific shape right now, and he can sprint. So if he's in an escape, he'll cause the other teams a lot of problems. Hincapie will not want to go before the Valkenberg, and possibly not til the Muur, so Hammond could help him get there in decent shape. Klier should be quietly lurking and ready to go after anything within 10-15km of the Valkenberg (Berendries? Eikenmolen?).
- How to beat them: If Eisel isn't up to the task of a breakaway, then start attacking Hincapie at or before the Valkenberg. High Road won't be able to control the main group, so they'll be reacting to whatever happens.
- How they can win: Just park Pozzato in the Boonen/Ballan group. Are they really not bringing Bennati? Quinziato and Willems have been going well lately, but Benna was spectacular here last year. Anyway, most likely Pippo will have it all to do himself. But that isn't as miserable as it sounds; the focus won't really be on him.
- How to beat them: Drop Pozzato on or before the Muur. He's a pretty fast finisher, so nobody, even Quick Step, will be happy to see him in the finale.
- How they can win: Same as Liquigas, really. Except Ballan will draw a lot of attention. Honestly, Ballan will have to overpower the entire field to win. His team doesn't look likely to offer much help.
- How to beat them: The CSC method. Attacks!
Francaise des Jeux
- How they can win: The High Road method. Drop Gilbert off on the Valkenberg in solid shape with the Boonen group, and let him do his thing. They don't really have an Eisel dangerman to send up the road unless Meersman is ready. But Guesdon should give Gilbert a nice escort for the first 160km or thereabouts. They'll have to take their chances and not mark too many moves.
- How to beat them: Get someone up the road. I suspect Gilbert will be glued to Boonen for at least 220km.
- How they can win: The old one-two! Sylvain Chavanel might be the best decoy in the race. Everyone will be aware of him, even though I for one don't think he can pull off a race of this length and severity. But if Nuyens can join him off the front, or have teams respond to Chavanel while Nuyens marks the response... they have a chance.
- How to beat them: Ignore them. I don't think they'll have the firepower to win.
- How they can win: Well, they could let Hoste do what he always does, responding to a late, high-power attack. He's chosen the winning move to mark the last two years. And gotten second as a result both times. Or they could be more aggressive, put Van Avermaet up the road in a later move, try to actually pressure other teams.
- How to beat them: Outnumber them in the finale. Or sucker Hoste out with the wrong move.
- How they can win: The High Road strategy as well. Drop Flecha off with the heads of state on the Valkenberg and hope he's the strongest this time. Also, between Horrillo, Tankink, Posthuma and Langeveld, you'd think they could place someone in a respectable break. You'd think. Posthuma, coming off Dreidaagse, could draw some attention away... or switch roles with Flecha if he's really going great.
- How to beat them: Give them enough rope. [Oh snap! I'll take them much more seriously next weekend.]
- How they can win: Er, they can't. Look, JV has been very up-front about playing to win but being sanguine when it doesn't happen -- i.e., don't show up ready to lose but be realistic about it. Slipstream are a great bunch, but have very little experience in Flanders, and this is the mother of all Flanders events. Supposedly Backstedt is their captain (h/t Nikki!), but how do you move that much beef over the Koppenberg with the leaders? Farrar or Frischkorn could do well to look for early breaks, and everyone will get some experience and confidence for next weekend.
- How to beat them: See next entry.
- How they can win: Have one guy that is allowed in a dangerous break, or succeeds in shadowing the winning move.
- How to beat them: Just be on the alert for guys from Barloworld or Saunier Duval or whomever who look really strong. Hopefully CSC will chase them down.