[And yeah, we will do the riders' version too. Cuddles isn't allowed within 30mb of that post....]
Well... that didn't suck, huh?
Newcomers to the site might have wondered over the last year or so why we talk about the Spring Classics with such reverence, but no more. This year's events proved, once again, the intricacy and immediacy of one-day racing, as well as displaying the brutal, beautiful, physical odyssey of these unusual roads. Anything can happen in the classics, including races where nothing happens or the favorite wins. But this time around, surprise was the main course.
One reason for this is the lack of a dominant team, something we had come to expect: from Saxo last year, to Quick Step for several season, even back to Mapei. This year, nobody stood too tall. Not because they all sucked; quite the contrary: they all kept hammering away at each other mercilessly til nobody was left standing. The teams in this poll (and a few others) were all stacked for the Classics in one form or another. This is good, yes?
Also, I don't want to spend this post commenting on the ethics of tactics, so I'll just say it up front: everyone is going to do what helps them win, whether we like it or not. This is how teams pay back their sponsors, not by putting on a good show and blowing themselves up. The people sniping at Garmin or whomever are the ones whose own interests are best served by a more aggressive race. Cancellara wasn't pissed after Flanders because he thought we the fans got cheated; he was mad because he lost. Had Vaughters told his team to work more yesterday with Van Summeren on the attack, and lost, people would be calling for his head. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to care, and if he knows his cycling history, he shouldn't. The next DS to apologize for winning Paris-Roubaix will be the first.
I have a solution to all of this: we need more rain in Northern Europe in early April. This all reminds me a bit of post-Cold War/pre-Sept 11 America, where instead of reveling in unprecedented peacetime we just found sillier things to argue about. If we had a "real Roubaix" -- not seen in six years -- I suspect very few riders would even remember what someone else was doing, or that they saw them during the race at all.
Anyway, let's turn to the teams poll -- our mini-poll we've done on a rather casual basis, where we've ranked the top ten teams on the cobbles. Team strength and strategy played a big role in the big races this year, and while I don't expect everyone to agree with me -- and I've invited Cuddles the Cobble to join me, just to be sure -- I'll try to make the case for this or that and you all can have at it. Cuddles feels like he said all he needed to say last time, at least without being paid, but he took me up on my invitation to write a team slogan for each entry. Aight, here we go. Sharpen your pencils. And remember, this is purely subjective. If it were merely about results, you know those already.
1. Quick Step
Big Men: Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra, Gert Steegmans
Podiums: Ronde van Vlaanderen (2)
[W]hat 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.
Final Thoughts: Quick Step had a pretty forgettable spring because they didn't win a monument, but they had a very versatile, active and threatening team up until the last day, when Marc Sergeant finally got his voodoo doll kit right. They scored one of the two B-list wins and were an inch away from a legendary ride by Firelegs Chavanel in Flanders. That inch is how close we came to being able to say definitively that they were the best team. Close enough for me.
I really like their offseason, BTW. Terpstra is kind of a Dutch version of Chavanel, and had he stayed intact Lefevre would have had another big card to play. I also love seeing Steegmans come home and return to what he does best: sprinting when called upon, and pounding away at the front when not. A real glue guy, which is important on a team with so many escape artists. It didn't work out, but this was an excellent team.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, no a plane... no, it's another Merckx frame. And I think I saw a piece of an Ambrosio wheel too.
Big Men: Johan Van Summeren, Tyler Farrar, Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, Sep Vanmarcke
Podiums: Gent-Wevelgem (3), Dwars door Vlaanderen (3)
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.
Final Thoughts: The Garmin Experiment was one of the more interesting Classics stories in a while. They had numbers, every day, and deployed them pretty well. Flanders was the only place they didn't reach the key moment of the race with guys in effective placings up and down the road, and then only because there was no "up the road" except for Cancellara and Chavanel. But in the end, they had a bit of trouble with their best guys being a bit too similar to each other. This is what separates them from Quick Step, IMHO. The lack of diversity. Only Sep Vanmarcke fills the "deadly attacker" role that Boonen and Chavanel do for Quick Step, and as great as he is, Sep needs a year or two before he starts blowing up the monuments.
But they are very well matched to a few races -- Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem mainly -- and Sunday they absolutely nailed it. Van Summeren was on the gallop largely because Hushovd was able to mark Cancellara to a stalemate. Hushovd was able to mark Cancellara right up til the 3km mark because he had Farrar, Klier, Rasch and Vanmarcke looking after him up til then. That 19 seconds was a narrow margin, considering how fast Cancellara came up, and without that full team effort it doesn't happen.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: All you haters can suck my cobble.
[Editor's note: Cuddles would like to point out here that the cobble reference in this slogan is NOT about Cuddles.]
Big Men: George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet, Alessandro Ballan, Manuel Quinziato
So their 8th ranking here is less a knock on them than a testament to how loaded the field has become lately.
Final Thoughts: The #3 team didn't get any results? That's the classics for you. The fact is, BMC unleashed an impressive show of team fortitude in Flanders, and had guys in place to make the moves in Roubaix, with Quinziato up in the lead group and Ballan successfully shadowing Cancellara. Same as Garmin. Only Quinziato didn't or couldn't go when the time came, and Ballan didn't get the armchair ride to the front he'd been angling for. The results say they didn't do anything but to see them with the naked eye, the reality is they simply didn't have enough luck, and didn't have a Cancellara or Nuyens to make their luck for them.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Peace, Love, Unity, Sixth Place.
4. Team Sky
Big Men: Juan Antonio Flecha, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas, Matt Hayman
Podiums: Dwars (2nd)
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.
Final Thoughts: I originally started this post with Sky in 8th, but had to re-format it a few times, and each time, the more I thought about them, I bumped them up a spot or two. Quirky Spaniard Flecha is now officially keeping the driver's seat warm for Boasson Hagen and Thomas, the latter being one of the handful of great revelations in the past two weeks (including Vanmarcke, Degenkolb, Matt Goss, etc.). Tactically they were basically Garmin without the last-race luck: guys all over the road, none of whom seemed all that likely to win, but they gave the other big punchers a scare. Arguably their most important guy the last two weeks was Hayman, who I think we can say is no longer under the radar on the cobbles. Mostly he played the loyal servant role, but his sprint makes him very dangerous to other teams, something Sky can use to their advantage (not that they did).
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Look! Up in the sky! It's...
[Chris] Hang on. Cuddles, is this about Edvald Boasson Hagen? Because that's in poor taste.
[Cuddles] Fine. Have it your way. "Jolly good show lads. Stiff upper lip now. Mind the barriers." Happy?
Big Men: Oscar Freire, Sebastian Langeveld, Lars Boom, Martin Tjallingii, Bram Tankink, Tom Leezer
Podiums: Paris-Roubaix (3)
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?
Final Thoughts: Hm, I still have no idea how to answer that question. I hope Dutch fans like incremental progress, because that's what they got. Am guessing the answer is yes, as long as that increment comes with surprise results like Tjallingii's podium place yesterday. Tjallingii is 33 with no great classics history, so this was a gift that takes the sting out of losing Matti Breschel, the guy who could totally put this team over the top. But Langeveld also hit his stride, and Boom enters his prime years looking like a guy who can handle the biggest races. I loved seeing him bang shoulders with Flecha. Don't take any shit Lars. Anyway, Rabo are where they need to be, and with any decent luck and health they will be monsters in 2012.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Home-grown. That's how we roll in Holland.
Big Men: Matt Goss, Bernhard Eisel, Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, Lars Bak
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.
Final Thoughts: It's tempting to look at the results, and even the video of the race, and not take them overly seriously, compared to the other guys on this list. They never had much influence on the bigger races, didn't mass in numbers, and only scored when they got Cavendish to the line in a messy Scheldeprijs finish. Which is nice but says nothing about the team's abilities in any of the other classics. But they did perform, rather well, with plenty of guys in position to make a difference. Degenkolb, all of 21, could be at least a Hushovd/follower threat, unless he develops further into a Boonen-like attacking monster. Goss fell away, tired and ill, but at 24 he's made his point too. Ignore them at your utmost peril.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Hier komt die Mannschaft! [Second choice: Garmin ist scheit! Wir sind Amerika's schaft!]
7. Saxo Sungard
Big Men: Nick Nuyens, Baden Cooke, Gustav Larsson
Wins: Oh, I can't remember. Wait! Dwars door Vlaanderen. Hm, something else too, I think...
Podiums: Saxo don't do lower steps.
Final Thoughts: They still just barely warrant mention in the teams poll. But while Riis Cycling 3.0 (or whatever) doesn't patrol the front anymore, they have enough weapons on hand to be called a strong team. Cooke isn't the only one who takes his chances seriously after yesterday, and it was nice to see Larsson duck away from his usual duties in the stage-racing outfit for a presence on the cobbles. He's been around for these races in 2010 and 2006, and personally as long as Contabuterol is racing Larsson's talents aren't really needed at the Pais Vasco or whatever else the Tour guys are up to this month.
Ah hell, they're just on the list because Nuyens won the Ronde.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Oh Andy, please don't take my Tour team! Curses! OK, but don't touch my Flanders winner! Damn you! Also, please don't take my mechanics....
8. Omega Pharma
Big Men: Philippe Gilbert, Andre Greipel, Jurgen Roelandts, Frederik Willems
Wins: Driedaagse Stage 1
Podiums: E3 (2)
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.
Final Thoughts: So easy to overlook, but there are nice things happening here, as long as you don't hold Lotto to the expectations of Flemish fans either. Greipel did great work for Roelandts yesterday. Gilbert kept playing his hand, which will work out for him eventually. Roelandts is just coming into his prime and rode an excellent E3, winning out of the post-Cancellara lead group. They simply don't have the across-the-board strength of the teams upriver from here. Jens Debusschere can't grow up fast enough for them right now.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Amongst our chief weaponry are fear, surprise, Roelandts, sprinting... OK, Phil, just attack in the last 10km.
Big Men: Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O'Grady, Fabian Cancellara...
Podiums: Flanders (3), Roubaix (2), Gent-Wevelgem (2)
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.
Final Thoughts: Team? What team? Hey, this is the squad Cancellara sigh-ned with, for whatever rea$on, turning down numerous offers to join deeper teams. Which makes it a little pathetic that he's going around berating Vaughters et al for not minimizing the damage of his isolation. You didn't want Farrar, Rasch, et al working for you last fall? You don't get them working for you this spring.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: An Army of One. Which actually isn't much of an army, now that I think about it.
Big Men: Bjorn Leukemans, Stijn Devolder, Marco Marcato, Romain Feillu, Borut Bozic
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.
Final Thoughts: They never got around to Devoldering anyone, thanks to a nasty crash in Driedaagse which cost old Stijn the effective use of an arm. As a team that knows it can't compete with the swarms of Gar-velos, I still like the composition here. It's all about Leukemans, who was as strong as anyone when he wasn't falling off his bike yesterday. That alone gets them the top spot over Pozzato and Katusha here.
Cuddles' Team Slogan: Success begins with a positive mental attitude. And Belgians. Need some of them too.
Photos by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport