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Strategy Check: Cobbling Together Victory?


[All this week we will be featuring different angles on playing our year-long fantasy game, the FSA Directeur Sportif. Remember, deadlines for submitting your teams are Feb 22 for the women and Feb 24 for the men. Don't miss out! Let's start with -- what else? -- the cobbled classics.]

Fsa-ds_mediumOne rite of winter in my family is when my brother starts emailing me with his team and asking me if I think it's Belgian enough. Mr Van P knows the various strategy choices and has tried a few over the years. But like the moth to the flame, he can't not stack his team with Belgians. Cobbles addicts are like that. Trust me, I know.

I don't usually engage too much in these dialogs. Maybe I'm a lousy brother, but I have trouble settling on my own strategy, and something inside me tells me not to look at Pete's team. Sure, I'd love to follow my heart and go all-in on the classics, but stacking a squad full of Belgies -- what happens to them after Brabantse Pijl? Last year he went completely off the rails and built a team of 25 Belgians. Hell, it was almost entirely Flemish, except for Gilbert, Monfort, Amorison and Baugnies. It's like setting an April 12 expiration date on your team's season. Meanwhile, I quietly built a nicely rounded team stacked to compete through October. Needless to say, in our field of nearly 700 teams last year he finished... 148th. Exactly 210 spots higher than me.


Should you be like Pete and build a Cobbles Team for your FSA DS entry? First, let's define what the Cobbles Strategy looks like. "Classics" can be defined various ways -- if you include the hilly classics, the fall classics, etc., but for me it centers around the fourteen events that define the Cobbled Classics:

  • The Omloop and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
  • Monte Paschi Eroica
  • Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico (every classics hopeful picks one or the other)
  • Milano-Sanremo
  • Vlaamse Wielerweek: Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Prijs Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Driedaagse de Panne
  • The Monuments: Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix
  • Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl

Yes, I know, Milano-Sanremo and the Strade Bianche are not cobbled classics. Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico are not classics at all. But I bunch these events together because the guys who want to win in Flanders are doing these earlier events, because they are hard, their place on the calendar make them ideal for polishing one's classics form, and MSR is a destination race in its own right. So you get a lot of the same top guys competing for points in this grouping.

Fourteen events on a calendar of some 200 days of racing is nothing much. You could ignore them at little peril, maybe picking up some surprise points en route to your grand tour strategy or whatever you've got cooking. But they are fun, and the three monuments are big point pickup opportunities, so they are probably worth getting involved in. Among last year's top 30 riders, there were ten guys who made or should make an impact at the races I just listed. But pick any one of them and you'll see that a "cobbles strategy" is only half true. Fabian Cancellara was wildly successful in his spring campaign, and scored 1300 of his 2091 points in the classics calendar. Greg Van Avermaet scored 260 of his 1200 points in spring. Bjorn Leukemans was even better, but his 485 was still barely a third of his season's points. The second-best cobbles rider in the world right now, Tom Boonen, scored all of his 580 points on the cobbles, and was one of the worst bargains in the game.

The point is simple: finding guys who win in spring is fine as long as they don't pack it in as soon as the daffodils start to bloom. To win on the infernal stones AND win for you, a rider has to be a bit more evergreen than, oh, Peter Van Petegem. The other part is, he has to be reliable in Flanders. Winning the classics is one of the sport's great crapshoots, but secondary finishes in a monument can add up quickly, so if there's anything resembling consistency to a rider's spring game, that's worth knowing.

Let's quickly run through the top 15 classics guys from 2011, in no particular order...

1. Fabian Cancellara

Reliable? Like a Swiss watch. His triple win in 2010 would be a record for cobbles points if we tracked such things.

Got any other tricks? He's always good for a few results, especially in time trials and double-especially at the Tour de France time trials. But the world championships are his best point haul post-spring.

2. Philippe Gilbert

Reliable? At this point he's had a couple strong runs at Flanders, but he never does Paris-Roubaix. I suspect he will try for Gent-Wevelgem again. And at Brabantse Pijl he's essentially unstoppable.

Got any other tricks? Um, you do follow cycling, don't you?

3. Tom Boonen

Reliable? Absolutely. See Ursula's article.

Got any other tricks? Hm... see Ursula's article. He used to own the sprint world, and scored massive points in 2005-06, but at this point he isn't interested. Now? He still picks low-hanging fruit in his back yard.

4. Bjorn Leukemans

Reliable? Like a Belgian watch. Following an interruption in his career in 2009, he's been a stalwart in Flanders and Roubaix. Bound to score a big win one of these days. He's also a good illustration of Brabantse Pijl's importance: a lot of guys have cashed in their chips after Paris-Roubaix, but the climber types can score some nice points in this last classic.

Got any other tricks? He keeps going into the Ardennes, finishing 7th at Amstel and 9th at Liege. And he's likely to grab some small-race points in Belgium later on (Ronde van Belgie or what have you).

5. Greg Van Avermaet

Reliable? Hm, tough call. Van Avermaet has looked fantastic two years running, but he hasn't scored big in the two monuments. No idea why, as he keeps getting better. He's a wild card, especially with Gilbert joining BMC. But in 2011, he paid big dividends to teams like my brother's.

Got any other tricks? Summer classics, smaller Belgian stuff. He's likely to enter the World Championships as a dark horse. More uncertainty there too though, since he'll still be on Gilbert's team, but that could simply mean he'll unleash his awesomeness a month later in the season. Either way, points are points.

6. Nick Nuyens

Reliable? Er, maybe at this point, yes. He had some off-years along the way but most of the time he can be counted on for a high finish at de Ronde and some other nice results.

Got any other tricks? I wouldn't count on much. Amstel Gold is a target, and he's done well there at times. Elsewhere, he falls into handfuls of point but that's it.

7. Juan Antonio Flecha

Reliable? Yes -- his CQ points have been between 419 and 641 for ten years, except for one bonanza run in '04. But he hits 35 this year and was nothing special last spring after losing a heartbreaking Omloop finale. That sell-by date may be approaching.

Got any other tricks? Funny, he usually shows up for at least one stage race a year, somewhere up north. Last year it was the Tour de Luxembourg, the year before the ENECO Tour, he won the Circuit Franco Belge in 2008. If his owners are lucky, this year's splurge won't be confined to the Tour of Qatar.

8. Edvald Boasson Hagen

Reliable? He's limped through two consecutive spring campaigns now, but before that he won Gent-Wevelgem, and before that... he was a teenager. So who knows? Also, his classics ceiling is hard to predict. Can he win the Tour of Flanders? In its new incarnation, he seems like an ideal candidate, but I've been worked up about budding superstars before.

Got any other tricks? Trying to control myself here... he's technically not great at everything just yet. But his repertoire keeps getting longer and longer, with Tour de France stages and the ENECO Tour added last year.

9. Thor Hushovd

Reliable? I suppose so. He fared poorly with the rainbow bull's eye on his back last year, but part of that was his crash in MSR, which deprived him of one of his two regular almost-Monument-winning points -- a pretty good haul most years.

Got any other tricks? Defo. Tour de France stages have become a mortal lock. The Norwegian nats, a sprint win here and there. He's money, probably for another season or three.

10. Sylvain Chavanel

Reliable? I'll say yes. He didn't show in the classics before joining Quick Step four years ago, but in three years since he's been outstanding on the cobbles. If Boonen weren't Flemish or Chava were, they'd be co-leaders by now. Changes to de Ronde should keep him very relevant, and if he were to make the finale of Paris-Roubaix, well, that would be so freaking cool.

Got any other tricks? The only truly predictable one would be the French nats, road race or time trial. After that, he always bags something, with a Tour stage being the most dramatic and the ENECO Tour the pointy-est.

11. Alessandro Ballan

Reliable? Only unless you think the Mantova investigation is going to rear up again. Or cytomegalovirus. Last year was the first time in three years that he looked fantastic on the cobbles, but even if the landscape has changed, it's still encouraging that he rode like the guy who was glued to Boonen and Cancellara in the 2008 Hell of the North. They were the Three Kings of the Cobbles back then, with Ballan just the slowest sprinter. I loved his fourth in MSR last spring; if that's part of his repertoire now, his value goes up.

Got any other tricks? Hard to predict, like a lot of the guys on this list. But his signature wins, the '07 Ronde and '08 Worlds, were presaged by victories just prior. He gets hot, he's gonna win a race or two.

12. Sebastian Langeveld

Reliable? Eeehh, no. I mean, everyone on this list is going to show up somewhere in spring, but compared to the top guys Langeveld spends too many classics anonymously. When he's good, he's quite good. But the transition to GreenEdge is another wildcard.

Got any other tricks? Nope. Less so than anyone here. It's all or nothing in the classics for Seb.

13. Geraint Thomas

Reliable? Well, last year was his breakout season in the classics, with a dashing performance in de Ronde coming on the heels of a near-miss in Dwars door Vlaanderen. He has the pedigree, so he should be considered reliable in a few years' time... BUT! For 2012 he's pledged his season to Olympic track events and is skipping the classics this year. I knew the British obsession with track was ugly, but I didn't know it was this bad. Unless Thomas is pulling the ultimate sandbag here, it's a shame.

Got any other tricks? Yeah, track. Seriously, what is wrong with you people?

14. Johan Van Summeren

Reliable? As far as his teammates are concerned, absolutely. Summie is one of the great teammates you could have: big motor, blocks a ton of wind. But Paris-Roubaix is his only real specialty, and nobody, not even the reigning champion, is assured of a good day on that (ahem) road.

Got any other tricks? Nope. Well, if Garmin win a TTT someplace (maybe even the worlds) then that's something. Otherwise, forget it.

15. George Hincapie

Reliable? At long last, no. His last top ten in Paris-Roubaix, his most beloved race, was in 2008. Flanders he's hung in with the leaders, looking threatening right to the end last year, but the guy is 38.

Got any other tricks? Finishing the Tour, where he will set the all-time record this summer, if things go well. Also, the plethora of American stage races is a boon for his owners. However much we love those events here, they aren't contested at the same level as their more established Euro cousins, which means winnable stages for home-nation all-rounders like Big George. Not many points in that cache, however.

This list omits all the sprinter types -- Cav, Greipel, Freire, Farrar, etc. They obviously win all year round, and their reliable classics hopes are limited mostly to MSR, Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs. Nothing to sneeze at. But for the sake of brevity, well, you know who they are. It also omits a lot of lesser-heralded riders like Jurgen Roelands (another one of Pete's big scores last year), Lars Boom, Bernie Eisel, and on and on. The classics are stacked with talent these days, which makes them even tougher to predict. A lot of Classics guys are priced very low or very high, depending on whether last year's Classics Crapshoot worked out well for them. Your job is to figure out which is which. Good luck!

Photos by Chris Fontecchio for the Podium Cafe