N.b., this post is vastly different than Ursula's, which looks at how teams are going. This is about who's got what it takes on the cobbles. It's also a preseason marker, to measure my humility against later.
First, a definition: the Cobbles Season started for sure Saturday, and depending on your definition it ends on or about April 15, when the bunch sprints out the finale of the Scheldeprijs. Counting all three days of the bread, that's twelve days of racing over about six and a half weeks, with interruptions for Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milano-San Remo.
Some teams would settle for a single victory, or a podium at the two big prizes of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Others are honing in on an epic win in Ninove or Roubaix. Only the best teams are looking at the next 6.5 weeks as a season unto itself.
Let's explore what that takes, and who's got it, on the flip.
The three most important elements of a great northern classics team are:
- a top-flight finisher
- at least two more threatening riders
- the usual team support
1. Quick Step
There simply isn't another finisher like Tom Boonen, who gives DS Patrick Lefevre an ace to play almost every day. His combined sprinting and general power are unmatched in Cycling, and creates ripples across the Flemish cycling landscape. The clearest example of the Boonen Effect is Stijn Devolder's win at Flanders last year: Boonen was quite strong, which made it pretty hard for anyone to focus on tracking down Devolder, as long as it entailed delivering an unshakeable Boonen to the finish. Devolder soloed home, and a week later when he didn't have it at P-R, Boonen simply stuck to Cancellara and Ballan, and dusted them in the Velodrome. Tommeke isn't always Superhuman, but at his undroppable best he makes it very, very hard to beat Quick Step.
Quick Step have excellent fallback plans in Devolder and Sylvain Chavanel, whose skills are further enhanced by Boonen's willingness to be a good teammate -- when they go on the attack, it's not a bluff. Then there's DeJongh, Weylandt, Barredo, and a long list of able lieutenants. Quick Step do little outside Belgium, but at home they're a veritable fortress.
2. Saxo Bank
The greatness of Boonen is further evident when you look at Saxo, a team equal in riches but without the closer. Twice they have taken Paris-Roubaix (a very unique race) from Quick Step by galloping away from Boonen, but to achieve this they had to weaken and/or isolate him. When Boonen was back to his best in 2008, battling Fabian Cancellara mano-a-mano, he simply took Cance (and Ballan) on the line. The recently-improved supporting cast makes Boonen less vulnerable.
But Riis has plenty of weapons: a dynamic, powerful and crafty captain in Tony Spartacus, elite fallback plans in O'Grady, Arvesen, and Kroon, and more than enough supporters. In particular, Cancellara is a natural for Paris-Roubaix, where you can power away from the group -- even from Boonen -- on the cobbles. The winds were easier on the pack last year; in a sidewind year, Cancellara probably wins that race. Anyway, if Matti Breschel could carry his sprint to the line, he could give them a top-line duo that would really pressure Quick Step, but til then it's an uphill battle.
A slightly poorer-man's Saxo Bank. Actually, that gap may be closing in terms of points, but their makeup is rather dissimilar. Where Saxo have a regular core of youngish veterans who have been racing together for a while, Rabo are a strange brew of slightly old and really young, in constant flux. The biggest factor in this is the Rabobank Cycling Plan, where the sponsor's investments in young teenagers a decade ago is starting to bear a lot of fruit. All well and good, but their long-time cobbles leader Juan Antonio Flecha isn't ready to step aside for the kids. The Spanish Flandrian is a cobbles icon, but he hasn't ever actually won there, peaking with a second in the 2007 Paris-Roubaix. In fact, the only finisher on Rabo is Oscar Freire, and only in certain races, and even then only when he's healthy, which unfortunately he isn't right now.
So Rabo are left with a bunch of guys looking to spring the trap: Flecha, Langeveld, Nuyens, Posthuma... quite a stable actually, with Mollema and Lars Boom waiting in the wings. What you get from them then is what we saw Saturday, a wave of talent and aggression washing over the race, but trouble working it out in the end. One more year, perhaps...
I am starting them off a little low for one reason: their closer of the future is Greg Van Avermaet, and I suspect he could use a little more seasoning before we start rating him for de Ronde. So, like Rabo and Saxo, Lotto are a tad light on the finishing end of things. Beyond that, however, they line up very nicely, perhaps even a bit easier to plan with. Their guys looking to gallop away are Philippe Gilbert and Leif Hoste, with a fair amount of support riders to help out. If things hang together, you could do worse than hope for Van Avermaet to negotiate the finish. The pressure is on Gilbert, though, to wipe away the sting of Leif Hoste's near-misses, and Gilbert is proven only in the earlier races, not in the monuments. He can be a star if he stops attacking with 75km to go. [
Update: Phil points out that Gilbert isn't slated to race the cobbles, so it's more Van Avermaet and Hoste. NEW update: PG is back ON for de Ronde!] Once he takes on that role, Hoste can suddenly look for his own opportunities with fewer people watching, knowing also that except for Quick Step other teams will be wary of towing Van Av to the line. They have had a couple fallow years on home soil, this weekend included, so I'll take a wait-and-see approach.
5. Team Columbia-High Road
Very, very intriguing team this year. Marcus Burghardt's fifth at the Omloop suggests that he may be ready to return to the mix of potential young classics stars. If so, you have more of what Saxo brings: waves of talent with no obvious finisher. Burghardt, Hincapie, Eisel, Boasson Hagen, maybe Cavendish or Renshaw in the sprinters' events. Obviously Cavendish is the fastest man in the world, so you can mark him down for the Scheldeprijs again. Otherwise, they need to plan carefully to spring Hincapie or Burghardt. Eisel can be counted on to make things interesting; maybe one of these days he will unleash a sprint. Columbia also appear outwardly to have a more cooperative approach, a la Saxo, which is a true asset.
Tough to pick between them and Columbia for fifth, but Lampre have traditionally been a bit thin. Their finale guy is current world champion Alessandro Ballan, though as a sprinter we know he can beat Hoste, but that's about it. The signing of the year, however, may be Enrico Gasparotto, a veteran cobbles stud who can win out of the right group. He and Ballan are well-matched, and Gaspa can count on the rainbow jersey drawing off the attention. Simon Spilak appears to have a future in this sub-discipline too, it seems, though that may call for some patience. Lampre don't have the gravitas to control the peloton in Belgium, but as long as they can follow the teams that do, they are very, very dangerous.7. Cervélo Test Team
Boy, I really didn't expect to be saying this, but the newly formed Knights of é announced their presence with authority this weekend. In terms of my three elements, they are a complete anomaly: two true finishers in Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler, then very little else. Yes, Andreas Klier is one of those guys who you can count on seeing late in the race, and Roger Hammond's cobbles pedigree is beyond question. But the potential winners are Hushovd and Haussler, two guys who don't make the finale all that often, but are capable of outsprinting everyone when they do. Keep an eye on Dominique Rollin too.
8. Team Katyusha
Apart from, oh, the top three, Katyusha could land anywhere on this list. I'll park them behind the Knights of é for now, after their hot start and Katyusha's ill fate -- Filippo Pozzato crashed in the Omloop finale (when Langeveld knocked him off a potential winning sprint). Still, they have as many as three finishers: Steegmans, McEwen (in certain races), and Pozzato. I'm not crazy about the first two, but Pozzato is an underrated dangerman, IMHO. Italian fans seem a little impatient with him, and he sounds stressed in recent interviews, but the guy can hammer, climb and sprint (hello Tour of Flanders!) and even without catching many breaks he still boasts a fair track record. One of these days he'll make it through a monument without losing focus or multiple punctures, and win his second (along with MSR 2006). Anyway, Katyusha are a fairly new collection, so expecting big things right away might be a bit much. Watch out for Kenny DeHaes, BTW, when Steegmans or McEwen don't make the sprint.
Well the Milk Boys aren't a waste of space anymore now, are they? OK, Peter Velits crashed hard Saturday, but having two talented kids in the finale bodes well. Gerald Ciolek may have a future on the cobbles, and Peter Wrolich can stay within sight of the front. This is a work in progress, but if Ciolek can develop quickly enough, his dangerous sprinting talent would really pay dividends for the team, allowing Terpstra and Velits to try a few moves. All very early, so don't expect much, but at least, for once, Milram are interesting.
Pozzato's defection leaves them thin for Belgium, and they may only be keeping the last Top Ten spot warm for a continental team (Landbouwkrediet?) or Bweeg-Box. Manuel Quinziato and Daniele Bennati are both very fast finishers, if you can get them to the final KM, which Quinziato more than Bennati is likely to do. After that, they will struggle to show themselves in the Cobbles.
It's true that the conversation starts and ends with Boonen for these races. If he is motivated and fit for the win, then the entire race becomes a test to see whether his rivals can isolate him and leave him unable to control the race. Lefevre has done his best to take that work off Boonen's hands, spending a lot of money on Devolder and now Chavanel, so acing out the ace is harder than ever. But it is hardly impossible, and the amount of talent injecting itself into the Northern Classics is through the roof these days. These are initial ratings, which I'll update each week until it's time to preview Amstel Gold.