Recall, we began with a preseason ranking for baseline purposes, but things are finally heating up, so it's time to check back in. Since last month the cobbles teams have scattered and reassembled a number of times, with varying levels of commitment, up until about a week ago. Dwars door Vlaanderen is a kind of opening bell, and while everyone will make this coming weekend and the next the only true goals, the fact is that guys are in shape and out to win. So let's see how things are shaping up. () is former ranking.
1. (7) Saxo Bank ↑
Then: "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."
Now: They would have won every race of the last week had Breschel not blown a tire on the run-in to Wevelgem. Simply put, Breschel has been incredible, and Cancellara is back to his old self, after some bad luck the last couple years. They always got high marks for depth, and the Saxo boys dished out plenty of pain over the weekend, so with the top pair in ace mode, well, the results don't lie.
2. (1) Quick Step ↓
Then: "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."
Now: The big story around here concerns the fraying nerves of one Patrick Lefevre, who is throwing something of a George Steinbrenner, calling out riders to whom he pays a lot of money for not holding up their end. Most significant of all is the invective hurled at Stijn Devolder, whose lack of results is getting ugly. Het Laatste Nieuws posted a chart today showing how Devolder's two Ronde wins were subtly foreshadowed in the week prior, as his results got better and better. This year, nothing of the sort. With time and options running out, Lefevre seems to be going for the negative reinforcement, kind of a hail mary at this point.
On the plus side, Tom Boonen is looking rather champion-esque, not sauntering away at will a la 2005 but forcing the action and never getting dropped, save for Saturday's little hiccup when he allowed Cancellara a couple meters in the last km and never saw him again. Bad move, but it's not for lack of fitness. He still looks like a solid bet for Flanders, for reasons I have previously discussed (god's gift to power climbs; sprinting ability; tailwind after the Muur prevents Cancellara from stomping him on run-in), and maybe Devolder's demotion will work in his favor, simplifying things a bit, and leaving Tommeke to make his own race.
More, on the flippo...
3. (8) Katusha ↑
Then: "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...."
Now: Pippo remains a beautiful rider to watch. His chasing at the E3 was impressive, even if you have to ask why he got left behind in the first place. Eventually he will read the race right and win. I am also becoming a big Serguei Ivanov fan (better late than never), and he's been pretty active of late. Also kudos to the team for throwing everyone into de Ronde: McEwen, Kirchen, Ivanov, etc. Oh, and a good omen, Katusha drew the #3 car slot, well ahead of Quick Step, Saxo and Omega, for Sunday.
4. (9) Sky ↑
Then: "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."
Now: Over on Podium Cafe Premium I totally predicted the resurgence of Flecha. I'll provide a link later (subscription required). Boasson Hagen, meanwhile, has gotten a bit quiet: stomach issues, inflamed tendon, or maybe just getting a bit run down. We tend to think there's nothing young Eddy can't do, but at 22 it''s possible he hasn't held back enough for Sunday's marathon, a distance that is hard on young riders to begin with. Which puts Flecha back in the driver's seat, where he likes to be, criticizing everyone who got in his way during the last race. He's not a great ace; everything he does Cancellara does better. But winning the Omloop and making the E3 finale shows that he hasn't lost his basic abilities.
5. (2) BMC ↓
Then: "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."
Now: Less nitpicky is his total lack of results. In his two best seasons, 2007 and '08, he had some strong showings in the weeks leading up to the monuments. Ballan has undergone a lot of changes -- the world title, illness, new team, etc. -- so it's really hard to know if his anonymous spring indicates a real struggle or just a different approach. George Hincapie, on the other hand, looks as ready as possible. I could easily see him on a podium in the next ten days.
6. (4) Omega Pharma ↓
Then: 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.... For the first time in a while, their roster makes a lot of sense."
Now: Gilbert finally seems to be coming on. Watching him bridge to the front group in Gent-Wevelgem was a good indicator of how strong he is. It's always fun to talk about how Omega don't win, but Gilbert is bound to make good pretty soon. Roelandts was also plenty strong Sunday, and Van Avermaet looked briefly threatening in E3. I can't think of a race where they should have been embarassed to lose.
Then: "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."
Now: Another team itching for some results, they may actually get a solid one in a couple days, with all eyes on David Millar as the favorite to win Driedaagse de Panne. Millar, of course, isn't really a classics guy and is only now slated to ride Paris-Roubaix. Will the Scot become a secret weapon in Hell, a race he has never ridden? His results have been stellar of late. Farrar, meanwhile, looked good in his first Gent-Wevelgem and is sure to benefit from the experience. Martijn Maaskant has been quiet, finishing well back in Wevelgem over the weekend after joining the attack for a while. It's hard not to wonder where his form is, but unless he's been sick, one would have to assume he'll suddenly turn it on again over the weekend. Overall, they haven't caught fire in 2010 yet, but maybe it's Millar's turn to light the match.
8. (6) Rabobank ↓
Then: "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."
Now: Freire once again has saved the spring with his MSR victory, and although they weren't without regrets at the E3, putting both Boom and Langeveld in the top six is a positive sign. At this stage it seems a bit unrealistic to ask more of Boom, and Langeveld has mostly hung around with the big boys, not often putting them into difficulty. Nuyens was the only guy with some top wins in Belgium, and after three crashes Saturday he's not sure if he'll start. Rabo still seem like a team on the rise, but exactly when the big wins will come from someone besides Freire is a mystery.
9. (NR) Liquigas ↑
Now: Daniel Oss has been smoking lately, and almost every race this week has featured a glut of lime green jerseys on the front. Sure, the Belgian press is happy to talk about how those gullible Italians keep getting outsmarted for the win, but Liquigas have been aggressive and strong, which is more than you can say about a lot of team. Oh, and not a single Belgian rider or team has won a big race. So far their biggest success was Jens Keukeleire in Driedaagse West Vlaanderen. So HLN can kinda suck it.
10. HTC-Columbia ↑
Now: I can't believe I fell for my own line about how Columbia wasn't the same team. They are. The names are just different. The wins just keep coming in...
Dropping out: Cervelo Test Team, Milram. The former has an excuse, illness and injury. The latter... they're Milram!