I feel like every post I write this week should start with holding down five keys with the caps lock on, to capture my mood. But no, I am blessed with preternatural self control, enough to note in a most offhand manner that in fact the cycling scene has migrated north for the START OF THE COBBLED CLASSICS AAAAAAAALKJSLKJDLKJASDFLSKDHGF!
Anyway, this week is all about getting off to a clean start, not burning too much energy, so in that spirit it's time to kick off the inaugural 2011 Individual Cobbled Classics Power Poll. As with a couple other such polls from the last month, this is intended as a baseline, to be furiously updated as new data comes in. Actually, it's a Power Poll! And a race guide! And a strategy session! All for one low low price... But mostly it's a power poll. Hence the numbers.
1. Fabian Cancellara, Leopard Trek
+/-: Pure power, sustained power, max power.
Team Factor: I'll believe it when I see it. O'Grady is a proven workhorse par excellence, and I still think Bennati gets a big chunk of credit for setting up Ballan's Ronde win in 2007. But if this is to be the no-Bjarnes Saxo team, would it have killed them to sign up Baden Cooke? Was it about money? Couldn't the team owners have sold off another missing Picasso or something?
Date with Destiny: Paris-Roubaix. See next paragraph.
Possible Waterloo: Tour of Flanders. After Cancellara took second in MSR, we know he's fit. And he did the double last season. Which means all eyes are on Fabu. In Flanders, the scrum to get on his wheel will be epic. However, in the right group they'll be so glued to him that he can't accelerate away. And in the end, he'll get Devoldered.* Not by Devolder, necessarily, and certainly not by a teammate, but someone will do it. But they won't be able to stop him in France, where you can throw everything at him and he'll still ride you off his wheel on some five-star secteur of "stones."
Numbers 2-20, and the rest, on the flip
* To get Devoldered: (v) to lock on the wheel of the big favorite while a guy you probably should pay attention to rides off with the race. Specific meaning is where the Devolderer is a teammate of the favorite, but this is not a strict rule.
2. Tom Boonen, Quick Step
+/-: Accelerations, power, sprint, experience. Though I wonder about his confidence, vis-a-vis Cancellara at least.
Team Factor: Terpstra is looking like a great signing, as is Steegmans. Chavanel is a luxurious complimentary piece. Very solid here.
Date with Destiny: A bit murky,
but I'll say E3 for now. Boonen, I have often said, is sculpted by the Gods of Flemish Cycling for racing in the Vlaamse Ardennen, and as E3 is the perfect warmup race for Flanders, it should still be his. Update! Now it looks like he's off the startlist there, so Gent-Wevelgem is his warmup. As good a race for him to open his account as any. Frankly, he has so many spring palmares it's hard to say "oh, watch for Boonen to surprise them here!"
Possible Waterloo: As for Flanders, if he gets to the line with Cancellara, Tommeke can still win. But if they're together coming into Ninove, Boonen will get Tafi'd till he's powerless to stop it. What can I say? These days it seems like some of the Gods of Flemish Cycling have moved their accounts to Zurich for tax reasons.
3. Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma
+/-: Climbing, sprinting, attacking. He might need to be a bit more aggressive though, or at least less hesitant when a move is made.
Team Factor: Not bad. Roelands, Hansen, Sieberg and Lang are usually reliable. Roelands has often stayed with Phil into the late stages, IIRC, which is when his value really skyrockets. Adam Blythe will be his security blanket at Gent-Wevelgem. Speaking of which...
Date with Destiny: Gent-Wevelgem. There is no Earthly reason he shouldn't win this race, possibly multiple times. It's selective enough through the Kemmelberg for small groups to go, and with the distance back down to 200km victory for Gilbert would depend only on whether they tow another sprinter like Eisel or Farrar, in which case he'd need a teammate to execute something.
Possible Waterloo: There can only be one, since he doesn't ride Paris-Roubaix (typically) and the other non-monuments don't define a rider like Gilbert. He has all the tools in the toolbox to win in Flanders, but this will be a crowded, immensely-strong field, and Gilbert will have to do more than just react to the other favorites. This may be unrealistic fanspeak, but he could Devolder the field, say on the Tenbosse, and all those guys glued to Cancellara's or Boonen's wheel will have a really tough choice to make.
4. Alessandro Ballan, BMC
+/-: forza, agressione; can only outsprint n\o/n-sprinters
Team Factor: Suddenly looking very strong. If Van Avermaet's run of form continues, he could be the man up the road who provides Ballan a very comfortable ride in the chase group. Burghardt and Quinziato are also major weapons in the classics. Presumably he and Hincapie have a plan to divide the spoils; they'd better.
Date with Destiny: For a former Ronde winner, monuments are what count. My guess is that Flanders is his big target. It's really the ideal race for him as long as it's hard enough to keep the sprinters away. He accelerates well and gets over the hellingen very quickly.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. Ballan came flying out of the gate, which makes me a little concerned about how he'll hold up through the full Cobbles season. Shouldn't he be working for George anyway?
5. Filippo Pozzato, Katusha
+/-: The most fluid pedalstroke I know. But as unshakeable as he is, his pathway to victory seems limited to late counterattacks.
Team Factor: He lost Stijn Vandenbergh, I think? Hoste and Paolini make them interesting in the latter stages, but they're not a power squad like Quick Step or Garmin.
Date with Destiny: Paris-Roubaix. It's a war of attrition, and if there's one thing Pozzato does well, it's survive. His second there in 2009 was impressive. Of course, as usual there was no clear pathway to victory, but at least in Hell he can hope the faster finishers fall off their bikes before the velodrome.
Possible Waterloo: Flanders. It can be hard to remember, outside of MSR week, that Pozzato is another monument winner, and his approach to the dress rehearsals is more blase than ever. So... Flanders. I'm not seeing it. My newly-invented phrase about "getting Devoldered" doesn't just refer to the 800 pound gorilla in the race but to all the guys parked on his wheel as well. If that doesn't describe Pippo, I don't know what does. Though, I hasten to add, I'm on his side in the (pointless) argument about Pippo's tactics. Only God Can Judge whether he is strong enough to take some pulls.
6. Matt Goss, HTC
+/-: Sprinting, setting up his sprint, surviving to the finish. He can be dropped on the climbs though. In theory.
Team Factor: Not as burly as others, but why do they keep winning? Anyway, the presence of either him or Eisel will terrify the pack inside of 25km of any race.
Date with Destiny: Gent-Wevelgem. To be clear, If I say five guys have a Date with Destiny on the same day, it doesn't mean I think they'll all win. Goss may actually be working for Eisel; certainly as the Cobbles Season goes on perhaps Goss's tank will get low while Eisel comes on. Anyway, I just don't think the climbing circuit around the Kemmelberg is going to be very selective on a dry, sunny day. In a big, big bunch, I'll take Goss over Gilbert; not sure about Farrar.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. The process with Goss has been to say "well, sure, but he hasn't done (fill in the blank) yet." All we're doing is kicking the "Goss is the Boss" can down the road. Eventually we'll have to pick it up, or however that metaphor works. Anyway, "dropping Cancellara on the Carrefour de l'Arbe" is one of the few remaining ways to fill in that blank.
7. Juan Antonio Flecha, Sky
+/-: Surviving, light attacking. Guaranteed to lose almost every sprint you can think of. Maybe not to Sammy Sanchez.
Team Factor: Sky shouldn't be underestimated, which is how I start writing up underestimations of teams. But regardless, they have routinely made a show on the front of the 200km cobbled races, but I don't see them exerting control over any of the Monuments. Thomas was a revelation today, and Hayman has been good all spring, but I'll believe the hype when I see them blocking in France.
Date with Destiny: E3 Prijs. Flecha is at his best attacking on a long flat after a reasonably hard race (e.g., the Omloop). E3 sets up nicely for him, with 16km back to Harelbeke after the Tiegemberg.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. Flecha hasn't had a bad day here since 2003. Nobody goes that long without a problem.
8. Bjorn Leukemans, Vacansoleil
+/-: TBH, I don't have much of a feel for the guy. His climbing is obviously an asset though, given all the results at Brabantse Pijl.
Team Factor: "Awesome." Until you get Devoldered, which is a literal possibility here.
Date with Destiny: Brabantse Pijl. It's not the only race he's done well in consistently; he can perform anywhere from the Nord/Pas de Calais region to the hills of Limburg (NL). That's a pretty wide range. But the oxygen in the bigger races will be in short supply.
Possible Waterloo: Flanders. Unless the weather turns, there will be a pretty big crowd at the front. He'll need sharp elbows just to have a chance of picking his way through again.
9. Thor Hushovd, Garmin-Cevelo
+/-: "He can do it all." Except at the Tour of Flanders.
Team Factor: Here's where things get murky. I appreciate that they took responsibility for setting up the sprint at Dwars today. They are a very strong team with many, many options and the ability to shut down anything. But what I'm not seeing is decisiveness and aggressiveness. Instead of having Haussler hammering at the front of the chase, wouldn't it have been better if he'd gone with Nuyens and Thomas? And no, that's not mere hindsight. When you have five aces, you need to play a few of them.
Date with Destiny: E3 Prijs. I like that they've loaded up for it without Farrar, so they don't have that air of "let's get lulled into the sprinting scenario" about them. Thor will want to do something more than leadouts here. And as I've hinted, the weather makes me think we'll see big fields in play in both weekend events.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. He has staked so much on it, which is what happens when you carry the rainbow, presumably only for one year. He's got everything to lose. But I do look forward to seeing Thor in full flight. I'm only saying it's a "possible" Waterloo.
10. Sebastian Langeveld, Rabobank
+/-: Confidence, all-round ability, can out-sprint slow Spaniards. He's a bit banged up at the moment though.
Team Factor: Matti Breschel isn't gonna come walking in the room, not in 2011 anyway. Too bad, they'd be absolute beasts. Now? I like them but I'm not sure who the headliner is. Boom is a candidate for greatness, but the rest is up to him. For now, Langeveld is probably the main guy, and if he's in play, he'll have very good support.
Date with Destiny: Tour of Flanders. No reason he shouldn't be at the front, and if he's as aggressive this time as he was in the Omloop, Langeveld could catch a lot of guys napping again.
Possible Waterloo: He hasn't had a decent result at Paris-Roubaix since his espoir days.
11. Heinrich Haussler, Garmin-Cervelo
+/-: Deadly sprint; enough climbing ability to follow wheels. Not getting a positive vibe off him at the moment. And he gets hurt too much.
Team Factor: See above. In any race where they're bringing a big bunch in, he's got a great team.
Date with Destiny: E3 Prijs. Same situation as Hushovd, except he has a little more history in Flanders, generally. He was fourth in Dwars too, in addition to second at de Ronde, in that magical 2009 spring. Well, if you can do Dwars, you can do E3. If I had a second choice here, it'd be Paris-Roubaix. He was on a stonking run til Flecha doodsmak'ed him and Thor in that corner of the Carrefour de l'Arbe.
Possible Waterloo: Flanders. If you look at his history, that second place is a bit of an outlier. Someone will be on the attack, and if it's not Haussler, it's not happening.
12. Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Cervelo
+/-: Sprinting, following wheels, surviving on the basis of pure power. Inexperience hurt him in Gent-Wevelgem last year. He needs to jump when it's time. But! In a big bunch finish at the end of a classic, Farrar is becoming a proven commodity. He won the Scheldeprijs, won minor place bunch sprints today and in de Ronde last year, and has hung around a few others. And don't forget, 2010 was his first clean shot as a Classics leader. There is room to improve.
Team Factor: Beaten to death already.
Date with Destiny: Clearly Gent-Wevelgem. While Farrar may dream big, he and Vaughters seem to accept the walk-before-you-run approach that common sense dictates, and that all points at Gent-Wevelgem. Supposedly there are two more climbs this year, and GW may be a bit more competitive than in the past, but in nice weather and with the benefit of a lesson learned last year, Farrar should have a chance to pull back the leaders this time.
Possible Waterloo: Ronde. That fifth last year has raised expectations perhaps a bit too high. I'd give him a year or two before expecting him to really compete for the win in Flanders.
13. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sky
+/-: Fast finish, generally good climbing. Fitness may be a problem, though Sky has insisted otherwise. Confidence may be another issue.
Team Factor: Flecha seems like a prickly guy to have as a teammate, but I dunno. As I said above, they've been very strong up to a point.
Date with Destiny: Tour of Flanders. A sprint out of the chasing bunch for a high placement is a very realistic option. This weekend's races are better for him (former G-W winner, yo), but he hasn't sent many messages on the bike lately, so I'll expect more of him after he's done one more ride.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. No results history there, at any level.
14. Nick Nuyens
+/-: Let's just say he wasn't in the first draft of this power poll. Did it all today though.
Team Factor: Saxo Bank are deeper than the leopardSchleck squad supposedly formed from their carcass. Baden Cooke is a guy you want on your team.
Date with Destiny: Dwars door Vlaanderen. I predict that he and another guy, maybe a young British rider, will escape the peloton in the last 20km and just barely hang on for the win.
Possible Waterloo: When does he start next?
15. Peter Sagan, Liquigas
+/-: Sort of an eastern European Matt Goss, only better at both climbing and sprinting. He was sick or injured at Paris-Nice, so badly that he could only manage 17th at Milano-Sanremo. Shall I play the "he hasn't done (blank) yet" card?
Team Factor: Poor. Oss and Guarnieri are his key allies.
Date with Destiny: Driedaagse de Panne. With a few sprints and the one hard stage, he could walk off with pretty much everything. Might surprise in de Ronde too.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. Inexperience and a thin team at Paris-Roubaix is like starting with four strikes against you. You have to surprise people just to merely strike out.
16. Stijn Devolder, Vacansoleil
+/-: Finally, he found a team that won't nag at him for focusing entirely on Flanders.Good all-round rider. Specialty is known now as "Devoldering."
Team Factor: Leukemans is a sure bet to be up there with him. But they're not prominent enough for other teams to expect a lot of work out of them. Kind of the best of both worlds... unless it doesn't last.
Date with Destiny: Ronde. It suits him, body and soul.
Possible Waterloo: Ronde. It'll take a lot more than body and soul to stop Boonen, Cancellara, etc.
17. Bernhard Eisel, HTC
+/-: Good all-rounder who can finish things off. Exemplary teammate and leader. Might have already passed the torch to Goss.
Team Factor: Covered already.
Date with Destiny: Paris-Roubaix. As the team leader (for now), he's off-duty at the smaller events, and he has a fifth here way back in 2005. Way under the radar at the moment.
Possible Waterloo: Ronde. I don't have much here, except that I expect others to be stronger. In a big bunch, surely they'll turn it over to Goss if they can?
18. Lars Boom, Rabobank
+/-: Sprinting, light aggression,
hegemon ... can we retire that one? Experience is a work in progress. The old saw with him is that he bonks at 200km. I hate old saws.
Team Factor: The most optimistic thing I can say about them is that despite sharing the world domination task with HTC, they probably won't raise much alarm at de Ronde if/when they start moving around.
Date with Destiny: E3 Prijs. Came good there last year. He might have a chance to sneak away this time, from a bigger group.
Possible Waterloo: Flanders? I don't expect anything bad; it's just that if he isn't on the attack at 240km everyone will keep saying he can only win the shorter races.
19. Sebastian Rosseler, Radio Shack
+/-: Excellent all-round ability.
Team Factor: Retirement Shack?
Date with Destiny: Driedaagse de Panne. GC potential abounds given his cronoability.
Possible Waterloo: Paris-Roubaix. Nothing spells trouble like "I can climb OK" and "my team isn't strong."
20. Greg Van Avermaet, BMC
+/-: On fire lately. Supposedly can sprint. Showing renewed faith with his aggression. Not sure though if that translates into confidence in the bigger events yet, but it's nice to see.
Team Factor: Very strong. See Ballan. Being the quieter option makes this setup even more favorable for GVA.
Date with Destiny: Gent-Wevelgem. Not sure why BMC doesn't do E3, but Hincapie has indicated that they like G-W well enough. Hincapie and Ballan may be holding their cards, but either way a multi-rider finale including GVA should allow him to take chances. Second choice is Brabantse Pijl, where he's already shown he can do well.
Possible Waterloo: Does he even have a spot on the Paris-Roubaix team?
Honorable Mention: Yoann Offredo, Roger Hammond, Andreas Klier, Thomas De Gendt, Marco Marcato, Gert Steegmans, Niki Terpstra, Steve Chainel, Daniel Oss, George Hincapie, Manuel Quinziato, Marcus Burghardt, Leif Hoste, Jens Keukeleire. This list could keep going. Hopefully Sep Vanmarcke will join it soon. Just a note or two, BMC looked a bit spent today but that shouldn't change their prognosis. What could change it is sunny weather that plays into the hands of the big teams with fast sprinters, particularly Garmin and Quick Step. But a few nice days in the forecast is no cause to start talking of the Flemish Riviera.