Re-posted... and yes, I wrote this this Thursday night, which is why it now seems about 80% wrong.
Can you believe I held off until 36 hours before the Omloop to write this post? The guidelines: this is a preseason poll meant to set the baseline rankings for the cobbled classics teams, with a little more detail than the in-season power polls will be. Because I have a life outside of posting at the Cafe (for example, I have several administrative PdC matters to tend to, the Editor's League draft, etc.), I will limit the first poll to ten spots.
1. Quick Step
Ace: Tom Boonen, for every race you can name. Boonen no longer rates as the world's best sprinter, but at the end of a hellish 250km, he's close enough. Since 2006 these races have consisted of watching and reacting to his every move. Despite all of which, he's won more than anyone else. Rating: 5 (of 5)
Depth: It's no secret that the looming presences of Stijn Devolder and Sylvain Chavanel -- guys everyone knows can win -- are the difference between strength and checkmate. They get solid work out of their domestiques too. Rating: 4.5
Experience: Other than the Omloop, they've won everything in sight. It's almost pointless to belabor. Rating: 4.5
Anything else? I don't know if you can even call this a weakness, but they have no secrets, and other teams have taken to imitating them. Assuming the challengers show up on form, the depth advantage could disappear. But until that happens, it hasn't happened.
Cuddles the Cobble has something of a hardshell exterior...
Ace: Alessandro Ballan. Won de Ronde and Driedaagse de Panne. Second at E3 Prijs. Third in Paris-Roubaix on two occasions. You can't even count him out of a sprint, his supposed achilles heel. Some question about his recovery from illness last year, and a new team always raises questions. Nitpicky stuff. Rating: 4 (of 5)
Depth: Depending on how you rate Karsten Kroon, they run four deep. Side by side with Quick Step, George Hincapie is on Devolder's level, hardware or no, while Marcus Burghardt may outclass Chavanel starting this year. Plus Kroon. CrAzY good. Rating: 5
Experience: There are two ways to answer this. On the one hand, Hincapie and Ballan know all the bumps in the road. Kroon too. But only Hincapie and Burghardt have a history of collaboration, and not a very fruitful one. We might brush off this concern after a race or two, but it's worth reserving judgment here. Rating: 3
Anything else? Pecking order? Hincapie has suffered for lacking this, most notably when Leif Hoste rocketed away in the 2006 Ronde with Boonen in tow (who later crushed him, of course). Guys always say how cool it is to have multiple weapons on the team, but without an internal understanding those natural ambitions can turn the dream scenario -- all three in the finale -- into a nightmare.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "They all seem like very nice guys. Can't wait for the knives to come out on the Muur."
3. Cervelo Test Team
Ace: Heinrich Haussler busted out of Expectations Jail (and Gerolsteiner) last year with a brilliant show of aggression, fitness, and closing speed. The "Mr. Second Place" stuff is good copy, but could well turn out to be more of a starting point before he's done. To quote Abraham Lincoln (a huge fan of velocipede sport), I like him. He fights. Rating: 4 (of 5)
Depth: Most riders would kill to have the God of Thunder as their wingman. In truth, Thor Hushovd is a co-leader in certain races (Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix), though Haussler knocked on the door in northern France last year too. Possibly the best-conceived lineup when you add in Roger Hammond and Andreas Klier, the mirror-image veteran workhorses of Roubaix and Flanders, respectively. Rating: 3.5
Experience: They've got a year of Cervelo testing under their belts. Looked to me like the bikes worked. Except when cornering hard on really bad cobbles. Rating: 4
Anything else? If this isn't the look of a cobbles man, I don't know what is. Someone at CTT screwed this team's heads on straight.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "This is the team Rock Racing wanted to be if they ever grew up."
4. Omega Pharma-Lotto
Ace: Philippe Gilbert, last seen putting the wood to the entire sport in two or three countries at a time. He's the total classics package: climbing, sprinting, rolling over rough roads. Gilbert started honing in on the cobbles last spring with a third in de Ronde, though he saved enough in reserve to pull fourth at LBL. And to top it off, Gavia took him with the second overall pick in the Ed's League. Rating: 5 (of 5)
Depth: For a team that inspires so little confidence, Gilbert's rise forces us to perhaps rethink things. Assuming Leif Hoste is OK with playing second fiddle to basically the most decorated cyclist in Belgium at the moment, that puts a legitimate B-lister with a couple razor-thin misses as their backup guy, and all-round/fast finishing kid Greg Van Avermaet as icing on the cake. Plus Staf Schierlinckx in support or taking a flier, and Jurgen Roelandts learning the ropes. For the first time in a while, their roster makes a lot of sense. Rating: 3.5
Experience: At the risk of sounding arbitrary, I am docking them slightly on this score for the lack of results in the past. Yes, Gilbert showed up last year, but *-Lotto have been making hash of April for most of the decade, memorable only for Hoste's anguish. But there's time to turn it around. Hoste has been moving up the ranks in Paris-Roubaix, so if he can hand over captaincy at de Ronde to his vastly better-equipped teammate, things might click. Of course, we've been predicting a clicking, wrongly, since 2006. Rating: 2.5
Anything else? Insert annual rant about how Belgium needs another Belgian team to balance out the nonsense. Might get it this time, though there is a fresh round of new foreign applicants in the inbox.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "Philippe Gilbert is a bad, bad man."
Ace: What day is it? They have a fast finisher (Tyler Farrar), a cobbles maniac (Martijn Maaskant), and a warhorse (Johan Van Summeren), but nobody who fits more than one of those descriptions... yet. Is this setup, where you can kinda pick their guy on a given day, better than BMC's all-in approach? Actually, maybe. Rating: 3 (of 5)
Depth: Same as the above. Whoever isn't the ace goes into threatening-looking-plan-B mode. If Tyler Farrar makes the finale of Paris-Roubaix, do you take your eye off him? For a second? In reality I think the climbs in Flanders may limit their options more, but for P-R and Gent-Wevelgem they should have numbers. Good group of capable domestiques too. Rating: 4
Experience: This is a work in progress. Maaskant has done a couple circuits and is presumably ready for whatever the race will throw at him. Van Summeren even more so. Farrar missed last year's classics though, giving the Wenatchee Wonder only a single trip over the Cobbles as a Gar-Man. Rating: 2.5
Anything else? Garmin developed a knack for breakaways last year, though breakaways in a grand tour stage are something different from breaks in a classic. The latter don't really offer much hope of success, but they DO say a lot about who's expected to get on the front and chase. This natural, care-free aggression on the part of the down-roster guys should make the early part of the races go OK. Late stage aggression isn't really a mentality in races like de Ronde so much as just being one of the few guys who's not shredded yet.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "Two American teams suddenly going all-in for the cobbles? The Podium Cafe is brewing some strong Kool-Aid these days."
Ace: Nick Nuyens gets the nod here, for now. He's nothing special, just another Belgian dude showing a foreign team how it gets done on the Cobbles, and consistently showing up in the high end of a lot of races he didn't quite win. Which is perfect for Rabobank: he gives them a safe card to play, and probably won't scream to the media when one of the h omegrown kids is ready to take the helm. Rating: 2 (of 5)
Depth: Where it starts to get interesting. Seb Langeveld is the heir apparent, and has looked threatening on occasion. Lars Boom and Tom Leezer are a double-barreled 24-y.o. gun pointed at the cobbled peloton, waiting to go off on a moment's notice. And if there's a bunch sprint or even a reduced field, Oscar Freire can clean up the mess. Rating: 4
Experience: Bah! We don't need no stinking experience! Of course, Freire and Nuyens have it in spades, but to the extent the kids are in charge, it's an issue. Rating: 2
Anything else? Nah, I've said enough about Rabo to last a life... uh, well, til March.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "Why hasn't Lars Boom won the Tour yet?"
7. Saxo Bank
Ace: Fabian Cancellara, a/k/a Tony Spartacus, a/k/a the Swiss Bear. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the guy, but for all the talk his last impressive result in Flanders was 2006. If anything, Saxo are moving toward a shared captaincy with him and Matti Breschel (6th last year, can sprint). The Swiss Bear is the ultimate Paris-Roubaix machine, but after that... meh. Rating: 2 (of 5)
Depth: So here's where I add in the points for Breschel. And Stuart O'Grady. And a handful of workmanlike supporters. Breschel has one sixth (RVV) to his name, and O'Grady's win in Paris-Roubaix was more of a warning not to sit on Cancellara all day than a sign of things to come. So expectations should remain in control for now. Rating: 3.5
Experience: Plenty, though the World's Best Team (non-Columbian) was awfully quiet last year, and desperately need Cancellara and Breschel in top form to make noise. Hasn't happened yet. Rating: 2.5
Anything else? This is a team in major transition. Not that the sponsor stuff drives their race strategies, at least not in April. But they've been picked over a bit by other teams, have lost out on guys you'd think they would desperately want (Guldhammer), and I honestly have no idea what Riis Cycling will look like in, say, 2012. As they retool, the cobbles will likely not be a priority.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "HTFU... isn't that supposed to be my line?"
Ace: Filippo Pozzato was the second-strongest rider in Europe last April. Ignore the merciless taunts emanating from the Boonen camp: they couldn't shake Pozzato any time after MSR, and Pozzato, more or less riding alone, wasn't about to take the front. I don't know this, but after Pippo beat Boonen in the sprint at E3, I think they were pretty worried about him in a finale. Boonen eventually outkicked him at Paris-Roubaix, but just, and not without some chaos in Pozzato's way. Rating: 4.5 (of 5)
Depth: Zip. Well, there are useful guys like Stijn Vandenbergh, but Mikhail Ignatiev has struggled in Belgium, for whatever reason, and Pippo has no lieutenants who strike fear in the opposition. Rating: 1
Experience: Pozzato is a seasoned veteran. That's worth a point, right? Rating: 1.5
Anything else? Does Pozzato benefit from the rising tide of cobbledy goodness? If he weren't Quick Step's only rival last year, one might expect him to have a chance to escape. On the other hand, he's very calculating, and in past years when guys like Ballan and Cancellara were on hand to liven up the front, he didn't factor in the final of the monuments. Nowadays Pozzato is what he is, and I doubt you'll suddenly see him launching from the Muur. He is a survivor who wins in the last few km, if there's an opening.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "I think they should focus on peaking for the Tour of Sochi."
9. Team Sky
Ace: Juan Antonio... fooled ya. Probably fooled him too. But it's all about Edvald now, like it or not. Not to rehash, but Boasson Hagen has all the skills you want here. Just a matter of time. Rating: 3 (of 5)
Depth: I am probably underselling them here. Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Flecha would make a pretty solid 1-2, let alone supporting cast for the hottest kid in cycling. Though I don't think Arvesen (should he be healthy) will actually be a factor in a ridiculously crowded field, and Flecha has spent a couple years in the lone wolf role. Rating: 3
Experience: Totally new outfit. Flecha is an old vet, but if they're really focused on Boasson Hagen, he will be learning on the fly. Or teaching. Rating: 1
Anything else? Running out of steam here. But as a general comment, as far as I can tell, the level of quality in the cobbles field is unprecedented in my lifetime.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "I can't tell you how great it is to be here at the Podium Cafe. Sure, it might not be my best and final destination, but as a placeholder it's... hang on a sec, Brailsford's calling.... Gotta run!"
Ace: Niki Terpstra. OK, maybe this poll is dropping off, but who makes a Top Nine? Rating: 1.5 (of 5)
Depth: The real hope is that Gerald Ciolek, still young enough to qualify for discounted movie tickets, will emerge not just as a sprinter but over varied terrain. Columbia and Milram have thrown him into just about everything the last two years, but that second in the Vattenfalls is probably a good indicator of his strenght: lowland, varied terrain with a sprint. Sound familiar? MRM have some other pretty professional classicians in the ranks as well, like Forster, Wegmann, Knees, etc. Not hopeless, in theory. Rating: 3
Experience: Bah! Rating: 1
Anything else? Like all good things, this poll must end.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: ...
Cuddles texted from London, saying he has some news he'd like to share later.