Some will argue that it's too early for such a poll. Me, I think I deserve a little credit for waiting this long...
I don't want to get bogged down in defending every entry right now; this is mostly an exercise for setting the baseline while we wait for the real cobbles season to start. But what you see is a mix of opening impressions and future expectations, with a slight preference for the former. On the flip, let's look a little closer at a few of those teams.
What does it mean to be champions of winter again? Remember, last year by this time the Silverbacks had racked up six wins and come close to the Omloop-KBK double with Stannard on the latter podium. Edvald Boasson Hagen had announced his presence with authority; Flecha looked reborn; and there were too many fit sprinters for the other teams to keep track of. Now, again, they've got four wins and a moral victory to their credit, with Flecha defending his Omloop title to within an inch of brilliance. Remember how this ended last year?
Ah, but the criticism of Team Sky has mostly to do with unrealistic expectations at the Tour and has little to do with the idea that they squandered their classics team on early season wins. If anything, they're doing just what they should. The only knock is having Boasson Hagen on form early last year, which may or may not have led to his minor injuries around Flanders. That's cycling. But unlike Garmin (in particular, and others), Sky are well structured to throw themselves at the opening weekend. Their sprinters like Hayman, Henderson and Sutton will usually be winter warriors, in part because they're active at home in Australia and in part because they are a cut below the level of top sprinters who need to pace themselves for the European summer.
Flecha is also well suited to the Omloop weekend: he has little left to do in his season once he's done showering at the Roubaix velodrome, and he's historically been able to hold his form from Omloop weekend through de Hel. Boasson Hagen is a threat at 80% fitness, or an awesome decoy. So yeah, Sky as much as anyone should be winning right now. It doesn't hurt that the British public, I'm told, are far more interested in what comes in summer. No pressure right now.
There is no metric you can apply to the 2011 season which doesn't rank them #1 in the world. Even the idiotic UCI system can't miss it. Hm, OK, so the VDS puts Sky first, thanks to our late start-date, but even there tedvdw's team leads the competition, thanks to a slew of Dutch and Rabo riders. So it's in the numbers, if you concentrate.
Unlike Sky, Rabo are on the verge of putting together something much bigger. As the races grow in magnitude, only Flecha and Boasson Hagen should remain major players, while the Hayman-Sutton-Henderson group tend to pick off non-podium top-tens in the sprintier classics at best. Rabo, on the other hand, are just getting warmed up.
Langeveld's win must be a great relief to the directors, as he finally looks ready to take over the "Flecha" role two seasons after letting (forcing?) the Spanish Flandrian out of the team. That long-range attack is a massive weapon which few teams possess (more on that in a moment too). Next is Matti Breschel, the exploding climber/sprinter who plays essentially the Boonen role for Rabo -- if and when his knee is fit. Tug him to the line, or to the last few climbs, and you can expect to pay dearly.
Freire is the primary sprinter who we're certain can finish off a classic -- any classic. Less certain but not to be forgotten are Bos and Graeme Brown, both to be reckoned with in places like the Scheldeprijs where the selection is minimal. And finally, I am not entirely sure where Lars Boom fits, except that he might be able to do a little bit of everything, at least once he gets through the 200km barrier, which he may be already.
Bottom line: this is a loaded team. If they grow up right and nail their tactics, they could be better than Garmin, Quick Step and the rest.
No-shows in Belgium, but that won't last. What strikes me is how utterly dominant they are in Italy right now. Like, we should probably save some time and give Peter Sagan the MSR trophy now. How that translates up north is a crapshoot.
Of the teams I feel like talking about today, only Garmin struck me as worthy of a little down-talking. Not because they did anything wrong over the weekend. They either willed KBK to set up for a final sprint, or at least recognized that Sky had no intention of letting any breaks go and went along with it. They had Martijn Maaskant in the main chase group at the Omloop, and if he didn't follow Flecha's gallop, well, neither did anyone else. I suspect (without knowing) that Gar-velo have invested less in opening weekend, with more pressure on them coming in April, than Sky did.
But! I do wonder if the makeup will sort itself out -- not because Thor and Tyler will step on each other's toes, but because they can't take on too passive an approach. Someone needs to give them an aggressive, even arrogant edge, but look at their main guys:
- Hushovd, the world champion, who can be aggressive in the Tour but has made a nice living (including in Geelong and Roubaix last year) by following wheels. Ask Boonen or Flecha about that.
- Farrar, who pretty much told me his strength lies in following wheels. Now, that could change; it's worth remembering that last year was his first turn as a classics leader, and his confidence should be growing with his experience. But he's never going to explode on the climbs. At most I can see him taking shots from a little distance -- he's got a strong prologue-length time trial in him. But not like Cancellara, and as long as he knows he can sprint, the choice to try something will always contain some risk.
- Haussler -- the key to it all. Haussler did show some aggressiveness in 2009, and although he can sprint, he's also on a team where they have more than enough guys to do that job. Perhaps the key is for Vaughters to really make it clear to him that he can go whenever he wants. I don't know if he's got that natural flair like Cancellara or Boonen, but if his team makes it clear he has nothing to lose, then maybe...
Garmin's salvation may lie in their depth -- the ability to unleash Hammond or Maaskant or Klier or Van Summeren or David Millar, if they're up for it. Hammond, certainly has done this before. But can he slug it out from long range with the frisky, confident Rabos he'll see at that phase of the race? This will not get boring anytime soon.