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Where Flandriens... Are Done Daring: 2011 Final Cobbles Power Poll

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Stones_mediumOne more item to get tossed in the closet for the next 10 months... the individual cobbles power poll. Unlike some of the prior versions, this one is based more in results. No more projecting what I think; it's time to say what we saw, and in that endeavor results matter.

1. (1) Fabian Cancellara, Leopard ↔

Results: Won E3; 2nd Paris-Roubaix; 3rd Ronde

Looking Back: Very little left to be said. Everyone knows that the strongest individual had the weakest team, or one of them, and as a result we had surprise winners everywhere. I still say he should have feigned some terrible collapse of form at E3, just to take the focus off himself at least a little. As it was, things couldn't have played out worse for Cancellara. Also, I've backed away from saying he should have done different attacks, since the ones he tried were either too soon or too late. The guy played his cards as best he could, given the unfamiliar situation. And if he didn't ride off into the sunset like 2010, well, sometimes guys get on otherworldly form, never to be seen again. In 2011 we saw Cancellara at his peak; in 2010 we saw lightning in a bottle.

Looking Ahead: I would expect at least two additions to the Leopard roster for 2012 which will provide Cancellara some protection. God only knows who, and I wouldn't expect someone with a lot of his own ambitions, but he could use a Van Summeren or Marcato type, someone strong enough to win but probably willing to fit in most of the time.

2. (3) Nick Nuyens, Saxo Bank ↑

Results: Won Dwars; won de Ronde

Looking Back: Did someone say lightning in a bottle? Nuyens hasn't been this strong in, well, ever. Rather than taking his stellar form to Paris-Roubaix he was off in Spain contesting the final sprint in the Klasika Primavera. This isn't really news; he usually re-trains his focus on Amstel about now, and I suppose the Klasika is as good a way to keep the form as any. But he's done OK in Roubaix, and it's a shame not to have the Ronde winner take the start in Compiegne. Anyway, two wins is one more than anyone else registered in this round of cobbled classics, and neither of them were cheap.

Looking Ahead: All downhill from here. He's Belgian, he won de Ronde. There is no encore... apart from a repeat win, which is probably a bit too much to ask. With so many other teams driving up the price for classics stars, it's hard to imagine Riis adding to his stable of Cookie and Nickie. Unless Hushovd and Haussler go out on the market, in which case it's not especially hard to picture one of them in Saxo colors. Anyway, Nuyens will get another shot to ride for himself next spring, even if they sign Tom Boonen. He's earned it.

3. (2) Tom Boonen, Quick Step ↓

Results: Won Gent-Wevelgem; 4th de Ronde; 9th Dwars; DNF Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: Boonen is only measured by three events a year, one in July and two included in this poll.So looking at his performance in Flanders and Roubaix, what did we learn? That he could have made better split-second decisions in the finale in Meerbeke? That he should use a tighter chain in France? Check out some of the results on Museeuw's record: 33rd in Flanders, 16th in Flanders, 9th in Roubaix, 33rd in Roubaix... it's the classics, shit happens. There's no reason not to believe he's the same guy he's been for several years now.

Looking Ahead: See the sidebar scuttlebutt for speculation about Boonen's expiring contract. Barring a team change, he'll be at his best and surrounded by excellent lieutenants next spring. Hell, even with a team change that's probably what you can expect.

4. (4) Alessandro Ballan, BMC ↔

Results: 12th de Ronde; 6th Roubaix

Looking Back: This poll isn't supposed to take into account his fourth in Milano-Sanremo, though I can't help mentioining it. The guy had an outstanding spring campaign, basically on par with Boonen, Flecha, and Hushovd in the second tier, and not far removed from the Swiss-engineered Tier of One. Was Ballan going to get over the hump and drop Cancellara this Sunday? No way.

Looking Ahead: I have no idea what to make of the CyclingNews story about a possible cloud hanging over him. Assuming it's nothing, Ballan will have a few more years to drive the BMC machine. Quinziato and Van Avermaet will form a nice nucleus around Ballan in Flanders, but they'll need one more guy to step up for Paris-Roubaix if they're ever going to Garmin the field.

5. (9) Bjorn Leukemans, Vacansoleil ↑

Results: 2nd Brabantse Pijl; 7th de Ronde; 13th Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: Another steady campaign for the Belgian veteran, though he must be wondering today what he has to do to win. Not bring Philippe Gilbert to the line, for starters? The Devolder ploy didn't pay off this year for Vacansoleil, so Leukemans didn't enjoy enough protection to start dictating anything.

Looking Ahead: Still love the nucleus of Devo-Leukie-Marcato. The Italian is just coming into his prime, hopefully learning more each year, so perhaps next year is the season when Vacansoleil can start playing more cards on Leukemans' behalf.

6. (n/a) Johan Van Summeren, Garmin-Cervelo ↑

Results: Won Paris-Robuaix; Got engaged; Did I mention he won Paris-Robuaix?

Looking Back: Quick, name the last winner of Paris-Roubaix who didn't even take the start in de Ronde! What's so bizarre is that Van Summeren wasn't really a part of the team's plans in Flanders, although I believe he was officially held back because of a slight illness. Regardless, nobody better illustrates the fact that Flanders and Roubaix are completely different races than Summie, a thundering warhorse on the cobbles generally but not a guy for the gas-brake-gas-brake rhythm of Flanders, which he's only done three times and finished twice (placing in the mid-50s). It's nice to see everyone suddenly remembering that he was a dark horse to win in Roubaix all along.

Looking Ahead: One of the few guys whose chances of future success aren't dimmed by a breakthrough win, unless you believe in finite quotients of luck. Assuming he's still paired up with Thor next year, the dilemma for other teams will be just as sticky when Summie goes up the road. And another thing about Paris-Robuaix: just because you are watching someone doesn't mean you can do anything about it, in places like the Carrefour de l'Arbe.

7. (12) Juan Antonio Flecha, Sky ↑

Results: 11th Ronde; 9th P-R

Looking Back: Rinse, lather, repeat. Like I said, he's part of the second tier, year in and out. Though I should add, that tier consists of one guy who'll do the work (Boonen), one guy who might help (Ballan) and two guys who won't -- Flecha and Hushovd. And at least Thor had a valid excuse this year. It's funny, Flecha seems smiley and friendly off the bike, but kind of annoying in the heat of battle. I mean, did he have to mention King Phillip and Andres Iniesta to Lars Boom? Seems uncalled for.

Looking Ahead: Let's see, he was on a Dutch team that he left because they were giving young Dutch riders permission to win. Now he's on a British team with young, fast-rrising Brits (and Aussies and a Norwegian). If he's still with Sky next season, let the soap opera begin. 

8. (6) Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma ↓

Results: Won Brabantse Pijl; 9th Ronde

Looking Back: Nothing really went his way. He's a natural fit for Gent-Wevelgem in years when it plays out a little more selectively, but the nice weather works against the super-strong. Any time you're the solo leader at De Ronde coming off the Bosberg, you've had a good day, but there too things kind of unraveled strategically, with too many guys around. As with Boonen, it's nonsensical to read much into the results, other than "that's cycling." Today's win could be the start of a massive streak of victories, for all we know.

Looking Ahead: He could use another teammate up front, and it wouldn't surprise me if Greipel took on that helper role, after his strong showing in support. Roelands is coming along (more in a moment) but Gilbert's thing is Flanders and only Flanders. He could use another Flanders guy with him.

9. (n/a) Bernhard Eisel, HTC ↑

Results: 7th Paris-Roubaix; 7th Gent-Wevelgem; 14th Ronde

Looking Back: [BTW, he was 17th in the first poll. I excluded him last time because there were too many HTCs in the way.] Eisel's best spring campaign ever, in toto, though he'd probably trade a slew of good results for a win, a la 2010. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I haven't seen him on the attack much, save for GW last year. He's more of a fast guy who hangs around, like Farrar. Not a bad way to make a living, though it'd be nice for once to have a Real Flanders and a Real Roubaix, with mud and wind and chaos, so we could sort through the Eisels and Farrars and Hushovds and Haymans and determine who's really got it in the classics. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me to see some of these fastmen win in epic conditions, I'm not assuming they're just getting lucky with the weather. I'm just saying... we don't know. With the guys launching big attacks, right or wrong, you feel like you know.

Looking Ahead: He's got plenty of prime years ahead, and presumably HTC needs him badly, with Goss and Degenkolb still relatively unproven in Belgium and France. HTC seem like they have a bottomless supply of kids with high ceilings, but Eisel should be in the mix, even when the kids are grown up.

10. (8) Thor Hushovd, Garmin-Cervelo ↓

Results: 8th, Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: I was tempted to rank him one place in front of Flecha, just to piss off the latter, but, eh, he's probably too busy making vacation plans to read the Cafe today. Anyway, Hushovd rode decently enough in the first of his rainbow-clad objectives, but I have a feeling the real test -- of him and the team's commitment to him -- comes in July. He's not really a Flanders guy; he's a Tour/Paris-Roubaix guy. Too many years in Credit Ag colors can have that effect.

Looking Ahead: Totally unpredictable, although wherever he is in 2012, he'll have extracted a promise to be able to make a run at Paris-Roubaix. And he'll probably sit in on Boonen and Cancellara. Actually, save for the colors, this is totally predictable.

11. (5) Sebastian Langeveld, Rabobank ↓

Results: 5th Ronde

Looking Back: His fantastic spring campaign was in no way diminished by another meh result (26th) in Roubaix, given that the two groups challenging for big results up the road included Lars Boom and Martin Tjallingii. Langeveld played the teammate role after being on the attack and threatening to win in de Ronde. Missing Matti Breschel, the Oranje were more than respectable with Langeveld as co-captain. 

Looking Ahead: I so can't wait to see these guys in action next year.

12. (13) Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Cervelo ↑

Results: 3rd Dwars; 3rd Gent-Wevelgem; 13th Ronde; 28th Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: A respectable step forward for the Wonder of Wenatchee, though like Eisel he'd surely trade it all for a single win. But he slew the can't-manage-Roubaix dragon with solid teamwork and a 28th place finish. He was in with a shot in Flanders as late as the Muur. He made the finale at Gent-Wevelgem, only losing a quirky sprint. He hit the deck in the Scheldeprijs, in the process of losing to Cavendish anyway, but that race isn't part of the Flandrien measuring stick.

Looking Ahead: I rate him a sure bet to win in Flanders (the region, not the race) someday. Anyone with a sprint like that just has to keep hanging around, and a race or two or three will fall into place for him. If Thor moves on next year, it'll be interesting to see how they deploy Farrar in Paris-Roubaix, a race that probably suits him more than his beloved Ronde.

13. (17) Lars Boom, Rabobank ↑

Results: 9th Gent-Wevelgem; 12th Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: I'd argue that his performance Sunday should prove to his legions of waiting fans that he's arrived. Twelfth is respectable in its own right, but more importantly he was strong and aggressive, at least until the late stages when he sat in the main chase group while Tjallingii was up the road. Maybe it was pointless, but his power display in the Arenberg Forest was drool-worthy. For my money, he's a third-tier guy, with Langeveld, Eisel, Nuyens (most years), and a few other guys who aren't as consistently in the mix as the second tier guys, but can more or less be counted on to threaten the big boys.

Looking Ahead: Is it March, 2012 yet?

14. (11) Sylvain Chavanel, Quick Step ↓

Results: 2nd Ronde; 4th Driedaagse

Looking Back: He finished Paris-Roubaix? I've already covered his Flanders performance enough. He seriously finished? In the second big chase group? Wow.

Looking Ahead: He's got an option for another year in blue and white. Frankly I don't see why he'd leave, unless he wants full control in the classics. Unless a French team wants to pay big for him (a possibility if he goes stage-crazy in the Tour again), he's a great weapon at Quick Step.

15. (14) Geraint Thomas, Sky ↓

Results: 2nd Dwars, 10th Ronde

Looking Back: The dream came crashing down in France, but til then Thomas was breaking out like a teenager on a pizza diet. Honestly, I had no idea we would be talking about him this time of year until Dwars, and even then I didn't really believe. Not til I saw him messing with the leaders in Meerbeke, even after towing Flecha's carcass around all day.

Looking Ahead: Co-leadership next year. Sky could have an issue with too many chiefs and not enough warriors, but Thomas is young enough to tolerate a work-it-out-on-the-road situation.

16. (n/a) Jurgen Roelands, Omega Pharma ↑

Results: 2nd E3, 14th, Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: His spring was as good as anyone in the five slots immediately above him, really. I don't know if he can handle de Ronde yet, though I'd have to go back to watch the tape to see how much work he did for Gilbert. It's tempting to label him a Roubaix guy -- he was in a long break last year and finished up strong, before making the first chase group this year, two excellent results at his young age (25). Flanders results are lagging a bit, but he was strong enough at the end of E3 to take second from the post-Cancellara group, which speaks to how well he rode at home too.

Looking Ahead: Gilbert is a towering figure within the sport, and hence the team. How Roelands works with that remains to be seen. I'm sure he'll say and do the right things, but hopefully he'll get to do the Devoldering next year in Flanders. And as long as Gilbert stays away from Compiegne, that one's all for young Jurgen. An extra lieutenant there wouldn't hurt.

17. (n/a) Matthew Hayman, Sky ↑

Reults: 4th Dwars; 10th Paris-Roubaix; 21st Ronde

Looking Back: I guess nobody should be surprised; that's two solid Rondes in a row and three nice results in Roubaix.

Looking Ahead: With Thomas coming along, he's still plan B in the Classics, but given his finishing speed he'll scare the daylights out of you if you let him hang around til the end. A formidable weapon for Sky.

18. (n/a) Frederic Guesdon, FDJ ↑

Results: 11th Paris-Roubaix; 36th Ronde

Looking Back: Another in the wave of up-and-coming young kids sweeping the classics.

Looking Ahead: Give him a few more years and I think he could really do something in Paris-Roubaix.

19. (10) Filippo Pozzato, Katusha ↔ ↑ ↓

Results: 38th Ronde, DNF Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: I feel Pippo's pain. Last week I flatted with a tubie, then proceeded to snap off the valve after successfully (I think) administering the liquid hole-stopper. It was a good 20 minutes before my support vehicle could put away their fishing rods, pile into the car, and come help me out. Compared to Pippo, I had it easy. 

Looking Ahead: You could argue he's a second-tier guy, although he's about as reliable as a Ferrari and is pretty sure to be on the move after some unpleasantness in the team. Where? No idea.

20. (n/a) Sep Vanmarcke, Garmin-Cervelo ↑

Results: 4th E3; 20th Paris-Roubaix

Looking Back: Sunday was probably the most telling. He'd spent all day doing one nasty job or another, riding long stretches in the front of the post-Arenberg peloton and otherwise looking to help out in the winning effort. When his job was done and Van Summeren was away, with nothing better to do, he raced for his own result and got 20th. At age 22.

Looking Ahead: I'll temper the excitement a bit by pointing out that he doesn't fly up and down Flanders like a guy who loves the rhythm of that race. And I'll untemper it by saying he looks an awful lot like a future Paris-Roubaix winner.

Not to be overlooked: George Hincapie, Greg Rast, Martin Tjallingii, Andre Greipel, Lars Bak, John Degenkolb, Manuel Quinziato, Greg Van Avermaet,