... and yes, I am weeping softly as I write that header. Thank god for the Ardennes. And the Giro. And the Tour... OK, I'm fine now.
Up to now, I have been producing polls that combine conjecture with known results, but with the cobbles season behind us (weeping again now), conjecture is out the window. What you will read below is a mixture of hard data and some expectations, with emphasis on the former. You win or lose, and that's mostly all that matters.
Wins: 4 (Dwars, E3...)
Monument wins: 2 (... the Double!)
Other Podiums: 0
Anything else?: Breschel 8th in Gent-Wevelgem
Analysis: Well, Cancellara's three victories defy interesting or original analysis; the dude was simply too strong. And he seems to have learned to get away from Boonen when, inevitably, just for a second, Tommeke's concentration lapses. Actually, even this was somewhat cat-and-mouse: in E3 Boonen messed up. In de Ronde, Boonen was fairly attentive but cramped on the Muur as Cancellara accelerated. By Paris-Roubaix Boonen undoubtedly felt determined to stay with Cancellara, so it was up to Spartacus to take advantage of a lapse even further from the line, when nobody, even Boonen, would think he was serious about attacking. Clever lad, but that sort of strategy doesn't have much further to go.
So, when did Matti Breschel spit in the eyes of the Cycling Gods? The tempestuous Dane looked every bit as strong as Spartacus but wound up enduring one of the more vicious karmic beatings in recent memory. First, Gent-Wevelgem was his to lose until he punctured and endured a slow wheel change. Then the Cycling Gods had even more fun in de Ronde, loosening parts of his bike until he flew into a blind rage. Finally, the Gods decided to pound the message home, knocking Breschel into the cobblestones of Northern France until he broke down, physically and emotionally. It was almost sad to watch. Those Gods don't mess around.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: The venerable Beer Huis in Gent, across the water from Patershol, where you can walk in, sit down, and just know you're going to have a great, great beer.
Teams 2-10, on the flip!
2. (4) Garmin-Transitions ↑
Wins: 4 (Scheldeprijs, two stgs & GC 3Daagse)
Podiums: 2 (3rd in Omloop, 3rd in 3Daagse stg)
Best Monument: 5th in de Ronde (Farrar)
Anything else?: 9th in Gent-Wevelgem (Farrar)
Analysis: Homerism? Scroll down and tell me who had a better spring. If there were a podium for the entire season, Farrar could have a spot on it, or at least would be no worse than fourth out of Boonen, Cancellara, Flecha and himself. Sure, Paris-Roubaix was a disaster, but they're in good company there. Otherwise, Millar's win in Driedaagse de Panne and courageous effort to lead out Farrar in the sprint for 5th in Flanders were pretty memorable moments. And Farrar's first real shot at the cobbles was an eye-opener.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: The first time I climbed the Muur was in the cyclosportive, and as we turned up from the town square onto the guts of the climb, I seriously got chills. By the time I reached the Kappelmuur section I was nearly giddy. In between some rather tall guy splayed himself and his bike across the cobbles, pretty much right where we were standing the next day, so I was denied the triumph I would have preferred, but I remounted and kept going, satisfied that I was strong enough to do it. And damn happy about it all.
3. (NR) Vacansoleil ↑
Wins: 1 (Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Traksel)
Podiums: 4 (incl 2nd at Dwars and 3Daagse stg)
Best Monument: 4th in RVV (Leukemans); 6th in Paris-Roubaix (Leukemans)
Anything else?: Westra 5th on GC at 3Daagse; Marcato 9th in E3
Analysis: Mostly this was the Bjorn Leukemans show, but Traksel scored a few points in West Flanders and Nokere-Koerse along with Marcato and Westra showing well. Hoogerland rode a solid Ronde (11th) and Brabantse Pijl too (18th). I give them the nod over Sky for the breadth of strong performances, and the fact that money isn't raining down on them from NewsCorp or anywhere else. Their Tour de France exclusion is a bitter blow, but at least they didn't go down without a struggle.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: Tourist guides don't typically point out things like soup shops, but they're one of my favorite culinary experiences in Belgium. They're inexpensive. The soup is excellent. And it's all rather healthy, a nice break from Stoverij. Not the culinary headliner, but a hidden, indispensible gem.
4. (NR) Team Sky ↑
Wins: 1 (Omloop, Flecha)
Podiums: 3 (KBK, E3, P-R)
Best Monument: 3rd, Paris-Roubaix (Flecha)
Anything else?: 4th, Scheldeprijs (Henderson); 5th Dwars (Hayman)
Analysis: I suppose you could argue them up a spot, and had Edvald Boasson Hagen been healthy, the Silverbacks would have placed no lower than third on this list, undoubtedly. To be totally fair, I should point out that they had three riders in the big chase group at de Ronde from which Farrar sprinted for 5th, so even when they didn't stand up to be counted, they were still riding very well. We'll see what answers they have for the Ardennes, but to date Sky have handled the first two phases of the season (winter, cobbles) with great strength and aggression.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: Frietes are everywhere you look. They're not just at the finish line of a race, being sold out of a van. There are frituurs in seemingly every neighborhood, and frietes are served at fine restaurants on the side. After a while you need a break, and if they're your main course (happened once) something is wrong, but you never go very long without a serving.
5. (3) Quick Step ↓
Podiums: 3 (Ronde, E3, Brabantse Pijl)
Best Monument: 2nd, Ronde (Boonen)
Anything else?: 5th, Paris-Roubaix (Boonen)
Analysis: Classics are fickle, and given that it was only a matter of time before Quick Step failed to keep drawing aces every time. This spring was nothing but payback, in the form of numerous crashes, untimely leg cramps, and an opponent on a hot streak. Despite all that, Quick Step served up some performances that other teams would be proud of. The problem, of course, is the compostion of the team: the way the construct their season is like the rouleur-puncheur type who wins the occasional mountain stage by escaping early, building up a ten minute lead, and hanging on for dear life over the final climbs... only this time the guy is in the back of the pack as the climbs begin and he's got nowhere to go but the abyss. Last year they finished 5th overall at CQ, thanks to the monument double. This year they lie 18th after the classics, with only a green jersey on the horizon... maybe.
I will say that the Devolder spectacle is a bit overblown. First, if he's been lazy that's one thing, but Lefevre is on thin ice for criticizing one of his riders for focusing too much on the Tour of Flanders. Since when is this a sin? Moreover, what could you expect? Devolder had a chance to be the first Belgian to match Fiorenzo Magni's record of three straight Ronde wins. If there's an alternative to going all-in on that goal, I don't see it. Finally, even Lefevre had to see that this doom was inescapable. Devolder was locked in on a race where his two previous wins, while earned, had much to do with his stronger teammate. Stijn Devolder is not in the class of Boonen or Cancellara, yet he was forced to play this role for as long as possible, until the truth caught up to him, as we all knew it would. I am nowhere near the inside story here, but unless Devolder shirked his training, it's Lefevre who needs to get real, not Stijn.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: Belgian beer is completely awesome in every way, but that doesn't mean you can never go wrong. One night Pete ordered something different, which turned out to be a beer from the sour, almost citrus-like, subcategory of Belgian brews (name escapes), and it more or less sucked. This experience did nothing to dissuade Pete or me that Belgian beer is to French wine or Italian coffee. Just a reminder that even in heaven, nobody is perfect.
6. (NR) HTC-Columbia ↔
Wins: 1, Gent-Wevelgem (Eisel)
Best Monument: 10th, Paris-Roubaix (Rouslton)
Anything else?: 4th, KBK (Rouslton), 5th, Omloop (Sieberg)
Analysis: Considering the losses they suffered this offseason, HTC came roaring back to respectability on the cobbles thanks largely to Bernhard Eisel being ready to answer the call as well as their trademark depth. Matt Goss was terrific in Gent-Wevelgem til he flopped into a ditch, only to get up and score 16th. Young Alexeis Saramotins rode well in Dreidaagse (and passed me in training on the Koppenberg in my moment of triumph). But mostly it was Eisel, continuing to quietly pad his resume as a Flandrien.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: If you're up for it, you can get everywhere by public transit and a bike. It's not glamorous or obvious, but if you add all the trains, trams, buses and fietsroutes together, it really does work.
7. (NR) BBox Bouygues Telecom ↔
Wins: 2 (Driedaagse stgs 1 & 2)
Best Monument: 10th, de Ronde (Bonnet)
Anything else?: 4th, Dwars (Chainel)
Analysis: Not all wins are alike, but Bweeg deserve real props for winning two stages of Driedaagse de Panne, particularly those two stages. Stage 1 into Oudenaarde was a Ronde dress rehearsal and Stage 2 heading west hooked up with the Kemmelberg for 214km. Moreover, Seb Turgot outkicked Gilbert and Grivko in stage 2 for the win, while their star Steve Chainel beat an august group of Paolini, Gasparotto, Oss, Amorison and Westra for stage 1. Solid stuff, along with Bonnet's surprising 10th at de Ronde, Mathieu Claude's appearance in the first Paris-Roubaix chase group (20th) and Chainel's occasional shows of strength.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: I really only had a couple bites of chocolate. Sounds sacrilegious, but as much as I enjoyed them, that was really enough for me.
8. (NR) Omega Pharma ↔
Podiums: 3 (Ronde, Gent, Driedaagse stg. 2)
Best Monument: 3rd, de Ronde (Gilbert)
Anything else?: 5th, Brabantse Pijl (Gil), 6th, Gent (Roelandts), 8th, Paris-Roubaix (Hoste)
Analysis: Anything you (Quick Step) can miss out on, we can miss out better. Gilbert will be remembered over the last month as the guy who was just behind the guy who was just behind the winner. Probably the most aggressive guy of the campaign, and a pretty fair finisher, it's remarkable that Gilbert never scored a win. I mean, this is the guy who blew away the competition for a month last fall, so it's not like he doesn't know how to win. Hoste recovered from a stomach problem to ride well at Paris-Roubaix, and young Roelandts looks like a real keeper with a nice ride in Gent-Wevelgem, but Lotto once again didn't have much to show for what seemed like an awful lot of effort.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: You have to love the fietsroutes in Flanders -- bike routes headed in every direction, often restricted to just bikes or at least undisturbed by motorized traffic most of the time. But the fietsroute maps are almost enough to destroy the entire system. While you may be looking at a signpost showing routes in one or more directions, when you go to link that up to the map you're using to chart your overall course, suddenly it makes no sense. For one reason: the maps put the route numbers at the intersection. Instead of putting the number in the middle of a line showing a route, where there would be no doubt which number corresponded to which route, it's at the intersection, leaving you to guess if "26" goes to Brakel or Michelbeke. The fietsroute system should be great, but ultimately it's borderline insane.
9. (NR) Cervelo Test Team ↔
Podiums: 2 (Paris-Roubaix, Omloop)
Best Monument: 2nd, Paris-Roubaix (Hushovd)
Anything else?: Hammond: 4th in P-R, 7th in de Ronde; 5th KBK (Rollin)
Analysis: Heinrich Haussler's bad luck scuttled what could have been an excellent spring. Barbie Barbie was coming off second at the Omloop, just as things were getting started, before crashing out of Paris-
Roubaix Nice and the spring with a bum knee. Hushovd salvaged the team's spring with an outstanding Paris-Roubaix, making amends for last year's missteps, and Roger Hammond was reborn, getting back into the Monuments top ten for the first time in three years. Add back in their top threat and you'd have had a juggernaut. But that's cycling.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: Our biggest crisis of the trip involved Easter. We had all our logistics arranged: places to stay with cooking facilities and fridges to cut down on costs, etc. But the one thing we didn't count on was Easter. Belgium more or less shuts down Saturday night and doesn't reopen til Tuesday. Saturday before was the cyclosportive, and the shops closed before we could get off our bikes, and Friday was the day we hurriedly arrived in Oudenaarde. So four nearly four days all we had at the apartment was my collection of beers from Gent, some bread we bought on the street at the Ronde and plain pasta, until finally we found a foreigner-owned shop with some coffee, canned fruit and nasty cereal. Once commerce resumed, so did the sumptuous feasting, but Easter blew a small, painful hole in our schedule for a few days.
10. (NR) Topsport Vlaanderen ↔
Wins: 1 (Boeckmans, 3daagse West Vlaanderen stg 3)
Podiums: 4 (2nd at Gent, Brabantse Pijl, Nokere-Koerse, West Vlaanderen GC)
Best Monument: don't ask
Anything else?: not really
Analysis: Sep Vanmarcke's second place in Gent-Wevelgem was a Flemish boy's dream. All of 21 years old, Vanmarcke spent last year on the juniors circuit and led into this year's classics with some of the B-list events (including a telling third at the Ronde van het Groene Hart). So for him to not only survive into the finale but then outkick Philippe Gilbert for second was either a sign of the future or an outright miracle. Reality quickly returned and Topsport didn't do anything in the monuments, but Thomas De Gendt's nice second in Brabantse Pijl capped off a good spring for the best non-Pro Tour Belgian squad.
Semi-Metaphorical Belgian Tourist Snapshot: On my first night in Gent I had a bowl of waterzooi van fis, the region's famous fish stew. It was the best meal of the trip, and I spent some time searching for it again, only to be frustrated even though it's hardly rare. A lasting, if all too fleeting, memory.
Rabobank: For 200km they are as strong as anyone. Unfortunately too many of these races are in the 230-250km range. But at least in the case of Lars Boom, change is on the horizon.
Cofidis: Jens Keukeleire was the other wunderkind star of the spring. He won three times in a week, at Nokere-Koerse and twice in West Vlaanderen. Not as big a stage as Vanmarcke's coup, but the 21-year-old blew away the competition in those three wins with a powerful sprint. Take note.
Katusha (5): Probably my favorite team that didn't accomplish much. Robbie McEwen, who gets cooler with age, missed out in Schoten, while Pippo Pozzato was felled by an untimely virus, though still managing an impressive (what might have been) 4th in E3 and 7th in Paris-Roubaix. Stijn Vandeberghe rode strongly in Dwars and de Ronde, while Serguei Ivanov did some excellent teamwork in the star domestique/potential threat role.
Radio Shack: Seb Rosseler was easily the strongest survivor of the break in Brabantse Pijl, and his win was well earned. Lance's 27th in de Ronde was pretty interesting. After that, they were anonymous.
Astana: Lotta guys on the road, and Iglinsky's 7th in Gent and 8th in de Ronde were quality performances.
BMC (2): I mention them here because they were expected to be big players, particularly after Vlaamse Wielerweek when Hincapie showed his excellent form, culminating in 4th in Wevelgem and 6th in Ninove. But it all blew up spectacularly from then on, with Ballan under a cloud and nothing much to show for a lot of work in Paris-Roubaix. Karsten Kroon may yet be heard from this weekend, but so far he, Burghardt and Ballan haven't paid off.
Well, that was a memorable Cobbles season in many, many ways. But the cycling calendar turns the pages too quickly for people like me to sit around getting wistful. Onward!