Are we gonna get into this? Are you ready? Because I bloody well am.
This weekend the curtain raises on the northern classics with the sport's most prestigious dress rehearsal this side of the Criterium du Dauphine. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad -- now coming under the same Flanders Classics umbrella as the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the race it was invented to protest -- kicks off the cobbles season with ten mostly familiar climbs and nine other named cobbles sectors straight from Kasseien Central Casting. More details later but the point is, it's time to start seeing who's got what in store for this spring.
Let's start with the criteria. To win a classic, you need one guy having a great day, from legs to luck. But the latter is unknowable, so assessing teams here is really more of an effort to see who goes into the season with the best odds, whether they pan out at all or not. What gives you a chance to succeed?
A Winner: The strongest rider wins, right? Depends on the race; in a few instances it's more likely the fastest finisher among the strongest set of riders will take it. But all the other factors are out the window if you don't have someone who can finish the job.
Attacking Potential: I can think of a few races where this isn't such a big deal -- basically, everything Garmin has won in spring. Not to disparage their successes, it's just that so far attacking hasn't been their thing. Which is why they haven't shown well enough in de Ronde. Anyway, the classics are tactical as hell, so having riders who like to stir up trouble is a major advantage.
Depth: This comes in at least two flavors: guys who can safeguard their leaders, and guys who can go up the road and make other teams nervous. Partly overlapping with the attackers column, but having guys who can follow the pace is big too.
Je Ne Sais Quoi: Mojo? Experience? Swagger? Kind of a grab-bag for everything else which could matter.
"Gee, this sounds so science-y."
Oh hello Cuddles. Our old friend and springtime commentator, Cuddles the Cobble, is back this year to "help" with our coverage.
"I see what you did there.'
Right. Let's get down to it. Each team is rated on a 1-5 scale per factor. Shall we?
Winnerishness: New signee Philippe Gilbert is... you do follow cycling, right? On the 5-point scale, we're already at 5. But on almost any other team I'd be gushing about how interesting Greg Van Avermaet looked last year. I might even start reminiscing about Alessandro Ballan's 2007 magic. But no... Rating (1 to 5): 5
Attackability: Same three guys make this team not only hard to beat, but probably hard just to stay in contact with. I wouldn't describe any of these three, however, as the most aggressive guys around. GvA and Phil-Gil will make the winning push, or throw a couple punches late in the race. Good enough. Rating: 4
Depthness of Depth: This is where they kill you. Just pummel you. While you're eyeing Gilbert, the world's most threatening rider, Van Avermaet is itching to go up the road. George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan are making the pace or marking you. Thor Hushovd is sitting on wheels, just daring you to not break up the race. Seriously, what the hell do you do? Rating: 5
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Tough call. Do the egos and the confidence meld together into the biggest swagger in the sport? Sure, maybe. By mid-April, the sight of the BMC team bus could send a few teams into seizure. But it's all pretty new. The spoils haven't been shared yet, and no matter what anyone says, I will believe Hushovd is tranquillo when I see it. Until it happens, it hasn't happened. Rating: 3
Cuddles Says: "Managing expectations in cycling is critical. For me, it'll be a total disappointment if BMC don't sweep the Ronde podium, drink all of Garmin's espresso, steal Liquigas's hair gel, and make grown men in the OPQS team car cry."
Winnerishness: As great as Philippe Gilbert is and as much as the new Ronde looks like his race, the fact remains Phil-Gil only projects to do stuff like what Fabian Cancellara has already done. There's only one elephant in this room so far. Rating: 5
Attackability: Cancellara authored the single most demoralizing attack of the last decade two Paris-Roubaix's ago. Last year his efforts were a tad more human, but still, blink and you might never see him again. None of his teammates bring an attacker's resume though. Rating: 4
Depthness of Depth: Last year isolating Cancellara was on everyone's pre-race strategy chalkboard, and Tony Fab came away with only E3 in his pocket as a result. Adding Gregory Rast gives Cancellara another big engine to count on, and Bennati is useful here, but it thins out quickly after that. Don't overreact to the rating though; in a top-ten poll we're just separating the cream from the half-and-half. Rating: 1
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Any other champion of Cancellara's stature might take a look around at his competitors and bemoan the lack of support coming from his team. But it's not particularly his style, and anyway since when does Cancellara need help? Rating: 3
3. Omega Pharma Quick Step
Winnerishness: Number three in the poll also boasts the #3 winner, and not by mere coincidence. Tom Boonen has almost never not been among the five strongest guys in the race every spring since 2004. Plenty of people wish they won Gent-Wevelgem, just as a lot of these guys envy Boonen's 2010 when he finished second in MSR, E3 and de Ronde, or his two Paris-Roubaix wins in '09 and '08, and so on. Boonen hasn't lived up to the monstrous expectations in a few turns, but he remains perhaps the last guy you want to tow into the last km anywhere this spring. Rating: 4
Attackability: Sylvain Chavanel is the guy I had in mind in the BMC discussion when I was arguing that the boys in red aren't quite the ultimate attackers. Late attacks are predictable and everyone else's job is to either shut it down or better still get someone else to do so. Chavanel's attacks on the Oude Kwaremont and the Molenberg last year, on the other hand, were total game changers -- moves that force other teams to make hard decisions and which, succeed or fail, work to the advantage of his team. Boonen himself owns some pretty successful long attacks, and Niki Terpstra isn't above some frisky riding either. Rating: 5
Depthness of Depth: You'd think the merger of Belgium's two biggest teams (or segments thereof) would score big in the depth area, but the fact is that they've missed out on some of the bigger names among the young'uns (Sep, for one), while watching other majorly useful guys like Van Avermaet head overseas. The result is that the support for Boonen and Chavanel is a lot of useful guys who won't scare BMC. Rating: 2
Je Ne Sais Quoism: You think expectations fo BMC are high? That's a normal year at Quick Step, merger or no. Like BMC they've taken on a number of new faces, albeit not at the top of the classics squad food chain. Rating: 2
4. Team Sky
Winnerishness: Well, nobody can argue with their chances in Gent-Wevelgem. Edvald Boasson Hagen soloed home to a smashing win in 2009 while Bernie Eisel stole the Sep Vanmarcke Show the next year. More to the point, they have two legitimate classics dudes who can finish terribly fast. Juan Antonio Flecha has the odd day where he smashes the competition. And if Mark Cavendish is anywhere to be seen in the finale, it's over. Rating: 4
Attackability: Eisel, not so much, but Boasson Hagen has made a few accelerations. Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard were seen in some longer efforts last spring. Flecha left the Omloop field in the dust when he set off in search of Langeveld. Stannard can stand in for Thomas while the latter wastes his prodigious talent on the track, hopefully for a last time. Anyway, someone has to go up the road, and Stannard did it once (2011 KBK) already. Rating: 3
Depthness of Depth: Matt Hayman is someone you don't want to sleep on entirely, after his 10th in Paris-Roubaix to pair with 3rd and 4th in the Omloop and Dwars. Not a bad support rider for Boss Hog, Eisel and Flecha. Really, they have their bases covered for every race. Rating: 4
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Hm, their primary patron is being investigated in a gruesome phone-hacking scandal, savaging the Sky brand. At this point, the cycling team may be the only thing that brand still has going for it. Can all this repair itself in time for the London Olympics? If I were to spin the karma wheel for 2012, I wouldn't like Sky's chances. Rating: 1
Cuddles Says: "Could you do worse than taking British Cycling's nearly-miraculous, heavily-homegrown project and dipping it in the molten slime that is the Murdoch Empire? This is the sporting equivalent of sacrificing the village virgin to a volcano."
Winnerishness: The potential is hard to miss... if Matti Breschel is fully back to health, Lars Boom accepts him as at least a co-leader, and the bikes don't suffer undue mechanical trouble. Breschel is a massive talent, and while the responsible thing to say here is all about injuries and uncertainty, I can't shake the memory of him in 2010, looking very much like the next big, big thing. Boom has potential here too, packing a decent sprint with all that power, and his spring campaign last year looks worse on paper than it did in person, where he was flirting with the leaders all spring. Intrigue is higher than ever. Rating: 3
Attackability: Same two, Breschel and Boom, have been known to throw a punch or two, usually in the late race-winning stages of the game. Breschel in particular could use his climbing power to drop his rivals on the Paterberg. After that, you've got big engines like Tjallingii and Van Emden but neither will make rival DSs nervous, except possibly Tjallingii in Paris-Roubaix (after coming third last year). Rating: 4
Depthness of Depth: Lost of useful lads (Flens, Leezer) and guys who could be unleashed after points, like Bling Matthews, Mark Renshaw and maybe maybe Jetse Bol (who's lined up for KBK). With Langeveld they had a multitude of cards to play, but having two left, that's still a pretty good number. Rating: 3
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Rabobank are always on the verge of chaos once the race heats up, right? Maybe, though they have a certain evergreen quality to them, and the deck keeps reshuffling itself. Maybe the constant influx of fresh young legs keeps things loose and fun. This is a complete question mark, so for now let's say Rating: 2.
Winnerishness: I suppose it is my duty to inform you here that Stijn Devolder is a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders. Now, having dispensed with that duty, I would like to go take a shower. Their top two guys, Marcato and Leukemans, are the usual suspects of the Cobbles finales, only they don't seem to ever win. Rating: 1
Attackability: Johnny Hoogerland may not have invented the long-range attack, but he owns it now. Good Stijn was a fantastic attacking weapon, at least as far as some former teammates were concerned. [Bad Stijn yoyos off the back in the first two hours.] In truth, Hoogerland's attacks have usually been unconvincing, but teams may start growing nervous about letting him get away. Rating: 3 [plus 1 more if Good Stijn shows up.]
Depthness of Depth: Their calling card, at least until Bjorn Leukemans scores a victory, which should be any day now. Behind Leukie and Marco you've got one Devolder or the other; Hoogie; Westra; and DeGendt. The latter is more of a fit for Brabantse Pijl, where he got third in 2010, but he can help, as can cronoman Westra. Their sprinters' stable is full with Romain Feillu the main guy, supported by Kenny Van Hummel and maybe Kris Boeckmans. There is no specific element of a cobbles squad that's missing here. The question is simply whether they can be better than the other guys on occasion. Rating: 4
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Devolder's post-Quick Step hangover was big baggage last year, not that it had any negative effect. So I'll guess that they're flying under radar a bit in 2012. Especially Marcato. Yes, the other riders know him, but how many wheels can you sit on at once? Rating: 3
Winnerishness: How much more ink can we spill on this subject? [Answer: a lot.] Gone is Thor Hushovd, whose winnerishness is more a creature of Tour de France stages than anything else. Still around is Tyler Farrar, a strong contender at Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs if not quite the monuments. Also defending Paris-Roubaix champ Johan Van Summeren, who has lost the anonymity that worked for him last year, but if there's a single race where surprise and cunning mean squat, it's there. The sole major addition to the cobbles team, Seb Rosseler, has been known to finish off a couple races a year (winner of 2011 Driedaagse and 2010 Brabantse Pijl), so add back one. Rating: 2
Attackability: The team's achilles in 2011, but there may be a little addition by subtraction happening here with the World Champion out of the picture. When Hushovd was back in the Head Honchos chase scrum, it made it hard for Garmin to do anything, even if they'd wanted to. Even when they won Paris-Fricking-Roubaix, there seemed to be a lot of discomfort around the action. Prior to that, had they put guys up the road, nobody would have taken them seriously -- they're just decoys. Now, Sep Vanmarcke is 23, growing ever more capable, and there is no big star he's absolutely, definitely working for. When he goes on the attack (as he did throughout E3 Prijs), letting him go is a LOT riskier. Rosseler can ride with aggression too, as can Haussler in the late stages, if he's on. And Navardauskas is surely capable of the longer, earlier attack. Suddenly Farrar's thing about following wheels til the race unfolds makes some sense. Rating: 3
Depthness of Depth: Very solid in the middle of the squad, i.e. guys like Sep, Rosseler, Martijn Maaskant (!), David Millar, Navardauskas, maybe even one last showing from Andreas Klier. Rating: 3
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Garracuda have plenty to feel confident about, but I wonder if they will. Vaughters' openness is remarkable, but he gets defensive, and it makes you wonder -- adding in the results -- if they are truly comfortable with their place in the Cobbles food chain. Peter Van Petegem was brought in as a tutor last year, Allan Peiper joins this year in a more prominent, long-term role. They keep shuffling the deck in their classics direction til they get it right. Rating: 2
Chris responds: Shut up Cuddles.
Winnerishness: Plenty of potential, though I urge caution on behalf of their fans. Matt Goss is a massive talent, but winning MSR and winning on the cobbles aren't the same. Now he's timing his season to peak a tad later, i.e. Flanders and Roubaix, so the sky is the limit here. He also has his eye on the Olympics, but that shouldn't hinder his Classics run. Still, until he's done it, he hasn't done it. Sebastian Langeveld, on the other hand, is a truly known quantity. On one day, somewhere, sometime this spring, he will have fantastic legs. What that translates to, I dunno. Rating: 3
Attackability: This is the biggest hole in their lineup. Goss won by surviving and sprinting. Langeveld is heroic on occasion, so if he takes off in a race where Goss can survive to the finale, they could make magic. But the rest of the roster consists of young sprinters (Jens Keukeleire, Aidis Kruopis) and old hammerheads (Stuey O'Grady, Baden Cooke, etc.). Rating: 2
Depthness of Depth: I hate-hate-hate Mitchell Docker's bad luck here; he's an up-and-comer on the flatter stuff, including the Hell of the North. With him (and O'Grady and Goss and Langeveld and the fast kids) this is a deep team. Without him, it's the two leaders and a lot of wild cards. Rating: 2
Je Ne Sais Quoism: It's a bright day for Australian cycling, on the individual and now the team/sponsor level. So inevitably throwing a bunch of guys together for the first time is going to go off without a hitch. Right? Rating: 2
Winnerishness: The other half of the team that finished #1 in the world last year is probably only going to make an impression in the bunchy sprinter classics, where the Gorilla, Andre Greipel, is looking like a true beast. Greg Henderson could show well in KBK too. Rating: 2
Attackability: Er, well, there's no reason not to attack. Jurgen Roelandts' injury is a big blow here. Rating: 1
Depthness of Depth: Plenty of guys you'd expect to see in Belgium, including an entire startlist of guys with "Van" in the surname. Rating: 2
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Something about the Gorilla strikes me as very confident and anxious to prove himself once and for all. This is a team that won't get much attention, and expectations are dwarfed by OPQS's. So when they win KBK, look out. Rating: 3
10. Project 1T4I
Winnerishness: The German duo of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb have already eaten enough people's lunches to cure hunger in Africa. After that, it's a very young squad. Hell, including them it's a very young squad. Also, those sprint wins aren't guarantees on the cobbles. Rating: 3
Attackability: Sure, give it a try. Rating: 1
Depthness of Depth: A work in progress. But there's some competence and some real potential. Ramon Sinkeldam was a good pickup from the Rabo Conti team. Rating: 1
Je Ne Sais Quoism: Winning, even SSRs, can give you confidence beyond what you deserve. Rating: 2
Yes you can. Total: 7
Farnese Vini, team of Pozzato, 16 other Italians, and designated sherpa Kevin Hulsmans. But this is a team poll, and anyway Pippo's speedy collarbone repair will be believed when seen. Saxo Bank, team of Nuyens, who won't have the element of surprise on his side this time. Saxo's got some late top 10 potential but I'm not feeling generous or excited. Accent Jobs-Willems Verandas, home to Leif Hoste and a lot of passable Flemings, but nobody on the level above. Topsport Vlaanderen, team of Van Staeyen, but they're looking picked over and the endless youth pipeline isn't what it used to be, with the big money teams trolling for Belgian talent like never before. Lampre, team of... no, I wasn't thinking of Lampre. Liquigas... same. Prove me wrong,
Keukeleire and Sagan.
OK, that's all for today. Treat this as your baseline stab at rankings, but unless I'm a savant they'll be changing every week.