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Cafe Chat: Cuddles the Cobble! And a Power Poll

Today we have a very special guest joining us at the Podium Cafe, as we like to do this time of year. It's our very own Cuddles the Cobble! And Here he comes now.

Cuddles_the_cobble_medium_medium"Hello Cuddles, welcome!"


"How are you?"



"Are you going to ask me how I am?"


"Great. OK, let's get started."

Join the convo... and a power poll! On the flip!

"So Cuddles,  tell us a little about yourself."

"Well, I was born in the Pleistocene epoch as part of a magma flow near Uppsala, Sweden. I was separated from my parents shortly after my cobbling ceremony, when they sold me to the Royal Court of Flanders to finance their move to Norway, for tax reasons. From there, I was placed on the Koppenberg near Melden, Flanders, where I lived for about 400 years until 1976 87. That year, my life changed when I grabbed Jesper Skibby's front wheel as it passed between me and my friend Pebble, causing Skibby to fall over in the Tour of Flanders. After that, I was removed from the Koppenberg and have been on the speaking circuit ever since, as well as teaching an adjunct course at Gent University."

"So why did you do it?"

"Skibby? I thought he was Norwegian."

"Never mind. Let's talk about this year's race. What I'd like to do is a team power poll, where we rank the top ten teams coming into this weekend. I'll provide some information, and then you can chime in with your take on that team. OK?

"Sure. I'm sure your bit will be very 'informative.'"

"Did you just use air quotes?"


"Forget it. Let's get started."

1. Leopard Trek

Was: 9 [remember our baseline Power Poll?]

Since: First in E3, second in Gent-Wevelgem

PdC: The UCI ranking released this week lent some significant insight into how seriously they should be taken, awarding big points to Quick Step for Tom Boonen's win at Gent-Wevelgem and completely ignoring what Fabian Cancellara did in the E3 Prijs. I mean, he rode away from them like they weren't even trying. That's not a real race, is it? As for Cancellara... the only thing stopping him in the next two weeks is the fact that when Leopard Trek sold off those missing Monets and bought up Team Saxo Bank, Riis threw in his mechanical staff. Just to be gracious about it. Bennati might not be dead yet -- guys like him can resurrect their careers in Flanders by being hammerheads and being ready to sprint at the end of a hard day. O'Grady is obviously a nice guy to have around too.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: Cancellara will crush the competition like that time I jumped on Txirla. Hopefully for his sake, the aftermath won't be as sticky and gross.


2. Quick Step

Was: 5

Since: Won Gent-Wevelgem

PdC: Boonen is on form, but it's hard to say too much about how the squad is going to work. Why? Because the miserable UCI forced them into splitting their guys up, with Boonen and his key guys staffing Gent-Wevelgem on a sunny day (not entirely McQuaid's fault) when nobody did much. Had they sent the team to E3, where no amount of sunshine can make the race easy, we might have seen how they throw their weight around. Still, what signs exist are encouraging: Steegmans has been working hard, Terpstra was in play at E3, Chavanel drove the late break on Sunday, and when they needed points, they had four guys ready to lead out their money man. Presumably they will have a solid plan for Sunday.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: I was talking to a friend from Rome and he pointed out how important the Quick Step team car is in this race. Cancellara is almost sure to have more mechanical problems, and just as surely he'll come right back to the peloton. Unless there's an "incident." Like, involving a door or something. He said in Italy against a foreign rider they would have no trouble from the race officials whatsoever. This can work in Belgium, right?

3. Garmin-Cervelo

Was: 3

Since: Third in GW and Dwars, fourth in E3.

PdC: There's a bigger gap from 2 to 3 than there is from 3 to 10 here, but count me out of the "Garmin are disappointing!" crowd. Riders may say "win or else," and fans may say "win or else," but reality is that victory in the classics is often very fickle. Garmin don't have a Cancellara, and ficklety hasn't favored them yet. Hushovd and Farrar were the team of closers Sunday until Hushovd got stuck in the Cav-versus-carrot crash, leaving Farrar to fend for himself. That's cycling. But Saturday they had a solo leader (Sep), their main leader sitting on the first chase group (Haussler), and their secondary leader sitting on the peloton. There's no getting around the lack of a counterweight to Cancellara -- join the club -- but they're getting activated. I called Haussler the key to it all before, and his aggressiveness was good this weekend.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: Nice "analysis" there.

Win or else.

4. HTC

Was: Not rated (poll only went 10 deep)

Since: Eisel 7th in Gent-Wevelgem. Also, while lacking in cobbles, it's hard to overlook Goss's MSR win.

PdC: From underrating to overrating? Honestly, I have no idea what to make of them. Their paucity of Flanders results coincides with Goss being ill, but put the MSR winner in front of Eisel & co, and maybe they're relevant again. Flanders should be within Goss's abilities, if he can get up the Poggio OK, but that's a big unknown. Unlike their chances in Paris-Roubaix, which are known. And not good.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: Hey, the UCI has them ranked number 1, so that's good enough for me. Also, I like their new slogan, "shit happens." As a stone set in Flemish mud for 400 years, I can confirm this. 

5. Team Sky

Was: 2

Since: Second in Dwars

PdC: Not sure where this is going, but I certainly hope they keep up the new tradition of mad dashes for the line. Geraint Thomas made his pay off, sort of, when he held off the peloton for second just behind Nick Nuyens in an exceiting Dwars. Ian Stannard's would have been even more dramatic -- a solo win in Gent-Wevelgem was only a block away before reality overtook him. This plus Flecha's reliable form and the Boasson Hagen wild card keep them in the top five... for now.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: In my Koppenberg days the only thing I liked breaking more than loudmouth Iberian clams were Norwegian hamstrings. I do like that Flecha guy though. His sarcastic clapping at the Roubaix Velodrome last year was a personal highlight. 

6. Omega Pharma

Was: 4

Since: 2nd in E3; 1st in 3daagse Stage 1

PdC: Gilbert has been content to let his team show what he can do. Or that's the headline anyway. Certainly after coming second in MSR Gilbert wasn't going to do much in Dwars, and his other target Gent-Wevelgem played out too easily for him to get a result. Greipel's return is nice, especially for the Scheldeprijs. Sunday, though, it'll come down to whether Phil-Gil can hang on to the Spartacus Express, like everyone else. Unlike some of the other teams on this list, I don't love their chances of using other guys to put Leopard under pressure. Roelands, maybe.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: Leave it to cycling to breathe life into the old threat "I'll break your face!" Peronsally, I've broken a lot of faces in my time. Though on the advice of counsel I can't talk about it.

7. Rabobank

Was: 1

Since: 5th in Gent, 8th in Dwars, 9th in E3.

PdC: What does this pattern tell us, exactly? That Rabo have a lot of guys (Boom, Tankink, Leezer, Langeveld) to make things happen? Or that they have nobody to get on the podium? A more serious analysis is that they have had people in the finale of every race, and that's without much help from Langeveld since his Omloop win. Boom, though, has been laying pretty low, and he's supposed to be their guy this week. It'd be nice to see him and Langeveld firing away in the same race, for once. Minor results and hot spring aside, they are long-ish shots this weekend.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: Waiting for Rabobank is kind of an annual tradition for you guys, isn't it? I was hunting through the photo archives and I think I came across a picture of one of your editorial board meetings:


That's Superted in the middle, right?

8. BMC

Was: 6

Since: ...

PdC: Sunday is pretty clear -- all in for Alessandro. Van Avermaet will be a useful helper, maybe even a decoy, though he's tried a couple times without success, so he might not draw much fire off his captain. They'll also have Hincapie, Burghardt, a hopefully-recovered Quinziato, Kroon and Schar to round things out. So their 8th ranking here is less a knock on them than a testament to how loaded the field has become lately. Knock on wood, but it's been a light injury year too (generally, though BMC as well). The battle for second place will be truly epic.

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: I like these guys. They fight. And if you're going to get killed, you might as well put up some resistance first.

What? I can't say something nice about a team?

9. Katusha

Was: 10

Since: 3rd E3, 1st in 3daagse Stage 2

PdC: Speaking of broken faces, Leif Hoste is still on the startlist for Sunday. If he does well, I propose we retire all Leif Hoste jokes. Pozzato is a guy to watch. Everybody likes to scream at him for negative racing, but given the situation that's exactly what's called for re. Cancellara. And Pippo is good at it. Oh, don't sleep on Ivanov or Paolini as threats in a late break. Have I mentioned how ridiculously deep the field is this year?

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: I saw a video recently where Pozzato and Cavendish sat together and talked about their mutual respect, something to do with nice watches. I am all for a Pozzato-Cavendish project coming together. This has to end well. 

10. Vacansoleil

Was: Unranked

Since: 6th in Dwars; GC lead in 3daagse.

PdC: Even at #10 it's hard to say that these guys are much different than #s 3-9. Still, they seem a step behind the rest. Devolder has tried to be aggressive on several occasions and has nearly blown a gasket. Marcato looked good in Dwars but did little more over the weekend than setting up Bozic for his glorious sprint to 23rd in G-W. Leukemans hasn't been seen too much. Still... those are some options. Surely they have something up their sleeve?

Cuddles_the_cobble_small_mediumCuddles: A second big Dutch squad. What problem is this the solution to again?