Sure, it's only been six days since our last edition, but things are shifting rapidly as we draw closer to the big races. And remember: this poll has nothing to do with Ursula's full-season power poll published yesterday. This is Cobbles only.
1. (1) Quick Step ↔
Still hanging on to the top position, but the big news is that their hold seems a bit tenuous. OK, as full outfits go, there is nobody quite like them, but so what? If less powerful teams are nonetheless finagling victories, nobody will remember that they failed to fill out the rest of the top 25 among all the Quick Steppers. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: Sylvain Chavanel has been a bit under the weather, yet he and Stijn Devolder were just behind the three-man break (including Tom Boonen) that decided the E3 Prijs. Boonen lost a fluky (maybe?) sprint, but if he gets into the correct gear, we would be talking about Quick Step mastery. Since then they didn't try too terribly hard at Brabantse Pijl, and got second when their domestique Pineau latched on to the winning move and winning sprint. Less impressive was today's performance when they got left in the dust. Also, Boonen losing a sprint, then missing the key attacks... are their fortunes going the wrong way? Or are they just killing time waiting for Sunday? Strongest team til proven otherwise, but it is getting very interesting.
2. (4) Team Columbia-High Road ↑
George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt are both back to where they were a couple years ago, which makes them a very dangerous team. Bernhard Eisel, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Marcel Sieberg have all done some solid support work. And this doesn't even account for Tony Martin's stage win or Frantisek Rabon's podium spot in Criterium International. One thing we have not seen is Columbia in a forceful, aggressive role in Flanders. Hincapie's achilles has been his sense of when to attack -- remember Hoste leaving his captain behind in 2006, only to have Boonen hand him his head in the finale? Columbia have had a year-long run of good tactics, so don't be shocked if things work out well again, but Flanders isn't a bunch sprint race where you focus on keeping things together. Here the goal is to blow the race apart.
3. (3) Cervélo Test Team ↔
Quiet weekend for the Knights of é. I castigated Haussler in the last poll for doing such huge turns in little ol' Dwars door Vlaanderen, and sure enough he was nowhere to be seen at the end of the E3 Prijs, falling off the pace by three minutes. Thor Hushovd won the consolation sprint that day, and Gerrans and Florencio demonstrated the team's tactical sense with a nice bridge effort in Brabantse Pijl, so their depth remains impressive. But I'd say their decision to skip (or not get invited to) Driedaagse de Panne was probably what they needed.
4. (5) Silence-Lotto ↑
It's open season on the Red and Blacks, as former DS Jose de Cauwer practically guaranteed they won't win anything this spring, and Philippe Gilbert himself said that he has no chance to win in Flanders. The latter is of no concern, since he's supposedly gunning for the Ardennes anyway. And the former is just talk... all of which plays into their hands a bit. I want to watch video of today: they missed the finale, but it sounds like they were all over the second-to-last break, both captains and lieutenants. Van Avermaet took third out of the bunch and insists he feels good. It's easy to deride their record this season, but I wouldn't sleep on these guys just yet.
5. (6) Saxo Bank ↑
A complete unknown factor. As Gavia describes in her tactics post (bookmark material, yo), they rode the race they intended to ride in Brabantse Pijl, though they weren't factors in the E3 and have skipped Driedaagse. Kroon looks solid, Breschel and Goss are fine riders, and Cancellara returns to at least try something. I dunno, maybe I am overrating them, but nobody has gotten rich betting against Riis.
6. (7) Team Katusha ↑
Well now... the bad news is that Gert Steegmans' back has kept him off his bike lately, and I wouldn't expect that to change. So their lineup is not on the level of the teams further up this post. But Pippo Pozzato is the talk of Belgium, and it's not a mirage: he is simply the strongest guy around right now. The easiest strategy guess in Classics history may be predicting that Quick Step will do everything they can to isolate him Sunday and launch a variety of attacks, in hopes of making him waste that magnificent form chasing Chavanel and Devolder. Whether it works is a matter of high-stakes chess, and even then he's so strong that it may not matter who tries what. The danger, IMHO, is launching a non-Boonen late attack from the Valkenberg on in -- say, Chavanel on the Muur. If Pippo goes with it, and Boonen does not, then in all likelihood you're sending him away to victory. If Pippo follows the attack and Boonen follows Pippo, then pretty much the entire peloton (or whatever is left of it) reacts, and the move does nothing. Good god, is there any way for it to be Sunday already?
7. (2) Rabobank ↓
The fun I am having in this poll is bumping five teams up in the rankings, all at Rabobank's expense. I am sorry, but this is getting ridiculous. Nuyens and Langeveld were sitting in the final selection, just whiling away the hours, when Tom Fricking Boonen and Pippo Pozzato escaped (with Max Iglinsky) for the E3 Prijs podium. The next day, they completely missed the rather massive selection that set up the finale. Worse, they and Cervelo found themselves in the same position, chasing the missed opportunity, but Rabo simply burnt themselves out, while Cervelo cleverly slung Florencio away on a bridge effort, successfully. They have no earthly objectives as a team this week, other than helping Posthuma defend his overall win in last year's Driedaagse. Which means they go into Sunday having gotten exactly nothing together as team tactics are concerned. Nuyens and Langeveld both look very strong, but neither one of them is going to win Flanders on his own.
8. (NR) Francaise des Jeux ↑
Yoann Offredo is riding well, as is Benoit Vaugrenard. But the real story was Anthony Geslin's very clever win in Brabantse Pijl. We've left the echelon of potentially powerful teams for the upcoming races, but FdJ are having a nice spring. Let's see what else they can do.
9. (NR) Liquigas ↑
Willems was terrific today, and he had Manuel Quinziato and Daniele Bennati just behind in the second group. Probable goal is a top ten on Sunday, but you never know. They are doubly intriguing if they have made a secret pact to help their old friend and teammate Pozzato.
10. (NR) Garmin ↑
Martyn Maaskant looked quite frisky today. I've been agitating to have him race more this spring, but JV knows what he's doing. Svein Tuft might like what he sees on the cobbles as well.
Dropped: Milram, Lampre, Skil-Shimano