Though it pains me to say so, we're more than halfway through the cobbled portion of the Spring Classics, with only two events to go, and only one that you might order a DVD of. The races only seem to get more exciting and intriguing, but then that's the Classics. We argue back and forth about strategies and outcomes, but I caution people against assuming riders and managers have more control over the situation than they do. Shit happens-- fast, without warning, without even a lot of logic. How could Fabian Cancellara suddenly break down? Why did Sylvain Chavanel wake up with what he called "legs of fire" and Pippo Pozzato didn't? Why did nobody see Nick Nuyens coming? Answer: that's the Classics for ya.
Which is a long way of saying that this updated Power Poll will not simply recite the finishing order of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Nick Nuyens was Number One for a day -- a very big day -- and may be Number One in a lot of Flemish hearts today. But unless Bjarne Riis got Cancellara to give the motor back so that it could be hooked up to Nuyens' drive train, I'm not predicting Nuyens does the Double. So onto the poll! (Prior ranking included)
To the Flipmobile!
1. (1) Fabian Cancellara ↔
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.
Results: Winaar, E3 Prijs; 3rd Ronde
Last Lap: In the end, he got Chavaneled instead, which is sort of a hybrid "OK, you caught me but you can't stop me" outcome. Of course, until he cramped up we all expected Chava to get Boonened on the Muur. Speaking of cramps. Is cramping a sort of post-race unsandbagging for riders who just got beat? Is it that hard to drink water? Can we blame this on the UCI somehow? For my money, he got klopt. Which is Dutch for... I dunno, but it sounds bad, in kind of a cartoonish, hit-over-the-head way.
Seriously, if we want to talk strategy goofs, don't we start here? Clearly the race showed he was the strongest man, but he didn't win. That happens, but Cancellara is hardly helpless in the face of sprinters. Whatever his faults are in the final 200 meters, Spartacus has shown plenty of ability to accelerate away and time trial to victory. In the E3, a race that's 50km and six climbs short of de Ronde, Cancellara ended the race with a 20km crono, attacking out of a pretty splintered group. Then on a harder, hotter day he goes from 45km, against a much bigger peloton. Why do this instead of dropping everyone on the Muur or the Bosberg or even after, on the flats, and shortening the crono? Vanity? Did the element of surprise really matter all that much? Interestingly, he did almost the same thing in 2007, on the Berendries just after the Leberg, and they caught him in Geraardsbergen then too.
But he's still #1, partly because nobody else looked better, and partly because Paris-Roubaix is his perfect race, not Flanders.
2. (2) Tom Boonen ↔
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.
Results: Winaar, Gent-Wevelgem; 4th Ronde
Last Lap: Hm, it's early in the accountability process, but I came out smoking in the last poll. I'm sure that'll last (cough). Boonen did indeed get Tafi'd (attacked on the flats in the final kms), but sadly for him Nuyens and Chava didn't, so his last-ditch catchup maneuver fell short. Prior to that, his race was a mix of typical Boonen, standing tall on the climbs, and 2008-09 Boonen, sitting anxiously in the pack with a teammate up the road. Combined with his win last weekend, there is no reason to fault Boonen's performance level or prospects for Paris-Roubaix, other than to point out that he's still not as strong as Cancellara. In a two-man escape I don't hate Tommeke's chances of hanging on and winning in the velodrome, but I don't love them either.
3. (14) Nick Nuyens ↑
Possible Waterloo: When does he start next?
Bonus! From the comments:
If Nuyens shows up...and pulls some major VDS points this year after I carried his ass the last few years, I will hunt him down and the UCI will list him as missing from testing. -Sminer
Results: Winaar, Dwars door Vlaanderen; Winaar, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Last Lap: Hey, it wasn't just me. Also, can we try a little experiment and insert "Vlaanderen" into Paris-Roubaix to see if he wins there too? Just curious...
Nuyens is the living embodiment of a fundamental, if sometimes overlooked, principle of racing: if you aren't strong enough to stomp away from the competition, then your next job is to survive and see what happens. Let's be honest, this is essentially what Jonathan Vaughters told Farrar to do, but from the reaction around the sport you'd think he was advocating for paving over the Koppenberg. Nobody is upset that Nuyens was invisible until the final km, because winning justifies the means. Riders are paid to win, not to be the Lion of Flanders. Cancellara tried to be the Lion of Flanders, not without reason, and it's not without benefits if you can pull it off. But guess whose sponsor is happier today?
4. (4) Alessandro Ballan ↔
Date with Destiny: ... 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.
Results: 12th, Ronde
Last Lap: No question he's getting up and down very, very well, but I don't know that we'll get any payoff for it. "We," of course, being the 86 VDS teams counting on his big comeback. Coming over the Muur I thought he looked sensational again, and I don't have any problem with BMC telling him to set up Hincapie in the final few km, a sensible move if the mini-peloton had stayed together for the sprint. In hindsight, once things split up Ballan would have been better off going for it, but again that's the Classics for you. Things happen far too quickly for a team to huddle up and decide on the best course of action.
Did you all catch that BMC had their entire team, minus crashed-out Karsten Kroon, leading the chase of Cancellara after the Leberg? Their entire team?!? A lot of fine riders had been spit out the back by then, and it's no surprise that aces Ballan, Hincapie, Van Avermaet and Quinziato survived. But chapeau to Danilo Wyss, Mickey Schar and the scraped-up carcass of Marcus Burghardt for staying strong late into Vlaanderens mooiste. And double chapeau for taking charge of the race when enough teams had given up hope. As Cuddles said, "I like this team. They fight."
5. (10) Sebastian Langeveld ↑
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.
Results: 5th Ronde (winaar, Omloop)
Last Lap: Crikey, I was on fricking fire when I wrote the last poll. Well, except for the winaar. Not that that's important. Anyway, Langeveld was not merely among the last men standing, but even launched a homestretch attack, proving to the masses that he tried. In post-race interviews he said he had no chance in a sprint, but is that literally true? Maybe only if Flecha is involved... anyway, he had two modest cards to play, and he played one. More importantly though, Langeveld has had a great season and he and Boom would be major, major players if Matti Breschel were healthy and scaring the daylights out of groups like the one that came into Ninove first yesterday. With the possible exception of their medical examiners, I give Rabo tons of credit for putting together a perfect team.
6. (3) Philippe Gilbert ↓
Possible Waterloo: 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.
Results: 36th, GW; 9th, Ronde
Last Lap: Kind of a nonsensical prediction there, though mostly in the details. The bigger picture is that Gilbert has been very good, but short of the magical form we've come to demand of him. Speaking of tactical errors, why did he bother going on the Bosberg? In hindsight it wasn't so bad, he says he pulled up when he realized it wasn't going to work, so maybe he spent too little of himself to fault him. But for a while yesterday I had him fingered for worst strategy, launching a 2km attack from 15k out instead of, say, 2km.
7. (unr) George Hincapie ↑
Results: 30th, GW; 6th, Ronde
Last Lap: I could pull up another bonus quote or two here but I'll spare some of you the shame. But there were at least 200 starters yesterday who wish that time had passed them by the same way it's passed by George. Of the guys in the survive-and-see-what-happens set yesterday, Hincapie was as strong as anyone.
[I have to admit, with about 4km to go I pulled what I call a "1986 World Series," where I start prematurely clearing furniture out of the way so I can jump up and down at the final moment -- in Hincapie's honor. I root for a pretty big handful of guys in any given race, but for me a Hincapie win carries historical significance and the reward of perseverance, in addition to a good result. However, the 86WS maneuver is about as big and powerful a jinx as there is, anywhere, so to BMC and George Hincapie, my sincerest apologies.]
8. (9) Thor Hushovd ↑
+/-: "He can do it all." Except at the Tour of Flanders.
Last Lap: Hushovd, more than anyone on this list, is a Classics one-trick pony. That trick happens next Sunday. I haven't seen anything to change my mind that he's a top-five favorite, at worst, and a guy with a real chance to win. In a sense Garmin-Cervelo have been like Rabobank up to now, with lots of strong guys but no clear top-end option (save for Farrar in GW). That changes next week.
9. (8) Bjorn Leukemans ↓
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.
Results: 17th, Dwars; 7th, Ronde
Last Lap: Let's face it, I punted on Leukemans before and I'm punting again now. That opening statement is a lot more vapid than it may appear. You could say the same about pretty much anyone. I dunno, for some reason I just don't have a feel for him. I will point out that I've swapped him and Thor, despite Leukemans finishing 7th yesterday. That was his big day, while Thor will probably do better than 7th on his big day.
10. (5) Filippo Pozzato ↓
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.
Results: 38th, Ronde
Last Lap: Reports of his death are premature; Pippo finished at the back of the first big chase group, led in by Farrar in 13th place. Flanders and Roubaix are very different races, for reasons we will beat to death this week, but for some reason, even though I called it, it surprises me that Pippo is so much better in one than the other. I guess climbing is really only one tool for the crowded Flanders toolbelt.
11. (unr) Sylvain Chavanel ↑
Results: 4th, Driedaagse de Panne; 2nd, Ronde
Last Lap: Firelegs would have been an even more shocking winner than Nuyens yesterday, and one can't help wonder what the fans in Ninove would have reacted to on the podium, the shirt or La Marseillaise. [They do anthems, yes? Thought I heard it at the Scheldeprijs....] Ordinarily I would think that Lefevre might try to avoid using up Chav in Paris-Roubaix, saving him for Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold, but they're shorthanded and anyway Chava was 8th in Roubaix once. I'll definitely tap him for a result in Brabantse Pijl. Anything more than that would be more shock.
12. (7) Juan Antonio Flecha ↓
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.
Results: 11th, Ronde (2nd, Omloop)
Last Lap: Here is where I have officially cooled off in the predictions game. Flecha skipped E3 entirely though he hung on to the final selection for 11th yesterday. I don't expect anything special next weekend from him, but I wouldn't close his account yet either.
13. (12) Tyler Farrar ↓
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.
Farrar: [Millar] went when Fabian went on the Molenberg. And it was great for us, like I said, because I can play that card hiding in the group behind and hope they come back in the closing kilometers. For me, any time I start getting out in the wind in the final two hours, the less likely I’m going to be there at the finish. So I just have to gamble at those races and just hope someone else does the work and gets me where I need to be.... I’ve always been decent at the longer races.... You know, sprinting against guys after 150k in the espoir race I would maybe get fourth place, fifth place. Sprinting against them after 200k I would get second. I handle distance failry well, the distance itself is never really the issue. The issue is if they blow up my engine on a climb, there’s not much you can do. So in Flanders, the fact that it’s 250k isn’t the issue; the issue is whether I can get over all those hills.
Results: 3rd, Dwars; 3rd, GW; 13th, Ronde
Last Lap: I get that everyone thinks I'm such a homer for Farrar, but the only thing to complain about for him is the lack of sprint wins. He has one more shot Wednesday, after which we can either say he had a poor run this spring or that he out-performed all the sprinter dudes, depending on the result. Two podiums so far is more than everyone except Cancellara and Nuyens; all he needs is a win.
I included that interview bit to help point out, if possible, how utterly unscandalous Vaughters' quote was yesterday. Riders tend to know what they can and cannot do -- even Philippe Gilbert learned that he can't go solo at 75km... eventually -- and Farrar has been pretty open about what his chances are in de Ronde. But it's not just Farrar. Almost everyone in the peloton should have a pretty good idea by now of when they're close to their limit -- or past it. We can shout at them to close down a break or to launch an attack, but if that were possible, isn't there about a 95% chance they'd have done so already? If you can win on the attack, then you attack, because it's probably better odds-wise than waiting for the end. And if you can't attack, then you wait for the end, because it's almost certainly better than nothing.
As for the team, perhaps a more pertinent question is why Haussler is 8' back, Klier even further, and three guys DNF'd. The top two are doing what you'd expect, and Hammond was on the early attack, but the depth guys aren't looking too deep right now. Maybe Vaughters' biggest error is his failure to invent or procure a time machine. One where he and Sep Vanmarcke can head off into the future, swap out 22-year-old Sep for, say, fully-developed 25-year-old Sep, transplant the latter back in the 2011 team, and start kicking major ass. Cuz that guy is who they needed yesterday.
14. (unr) Geraint Thomas ↑
Results: 2nd, Dwars; 10th, Ronde
Last Lap: Jeebus, where the hell did he come from? Thomas, inches from his first win last week, was smoking yesterday late in the race, finishing 10th even after wasting energy trying to tow Flecha around. The 24-year-old Brit is coming of age in a hurry this spring. He's way up on the list of people whose effort next week I am very, very curious to see.
15. (13) Edvald Boasson Hagen ↓
Date with Destiny: Tour of Flanders. A sprint out of the chasing bunch for a high placement is a very realistic option.
Results: 40th, Ronde
Last Lap: Poor guy. Rumors of fitness issues cropped up last week, though Sky did their best to deny them. But when he failed to turn up at any of the earlier classics, I figured, he's on my Editors' League team, so his knee probably exploded or his achilles burst into flames. Something horrible and debilitating. But there was half-fit Eddy, charging over the Muur, making the selection prior to the Bosberg, and rolling in with the Farrar group. He's still the new Merckx.
16. (15) Peter Sagan ↓
Date with Destiny: Driedaagse de Panne. With a few sprints and the one hard stage, he could walk off with pretty much everything.
Results: 6th 3daagse st. 1; 3rd 3daagse st. 2; DNS st. 3; DNF, Ronde
Last Lap: I could justify dropping him from the poll, but as soon as I do that he'll win the Scheldeprijs or something. He's had some crappy luck in his first go-round in Belgium. Probably won't last. How many bikes can he break?
17. (18) Lars Boom ↑
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.
Results: 9th, GW; 37th, Ronde
Last Lap: What's a Vlijmenaar? Google says it means "razor back." The Lars Boom Enigma deepens.... Boom was on the attack, joining Chavanel after attacking on the Eikenberg. Seemed like a great idea at the time. He also survived to the finish with the main peloton. Both are improvements over last year, though probably not enough to satisfy impatient fans.
18. (6) Matt Goss ↓
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.
Results: DNF, Ronde
Last Lap: I didn't catch what happened to him yesterday. He's been ill anyway so very little was gonna happen anyway. Hope he gets back on track for next week. Let's see where this is going.
19. (20) Greg Van Avermaet ↑
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.
Results: 13th, GW; 22nd, Ronde
Last Lap: Great teamwork yesterday. I've liked everything I've seen from GvA this year. His turn is coming up soon, but not in France. He's on the Gilbert schedule.
20. (unr) Staf Schierlinckx ↑
Results: 8th, Ronde
Last Lap: Another guy who, if I slept on him before, I was in good company. Wait... ew. Anyway, he's a pretty steady latter-half-of-the-top-twenty in Roubaix, so if this is his historic run of form, look for it to extend into next weekend.