It's Morning in the Cobble-Landia. OK, there was yesterday, when we prepared ourselves for the coming few weeks, bumping over these courses with legs and arms covered up snug. There was last night, when we dreamt strange, beautiful, terrifying cycling scenes, almost as if we were in Liguria or something. Seemed like it went on a long time. But now the darkness has lifted, the sun is up, and it's time to awaken. The day has arrived.
The sun is up, I am told. I can't see Flanders from my house -- I don't still live in Massachusetts -- but the computers tell me that there will be plenty of sunshine in Belgium this week. Greater Kortrijk is experiencing some sort of bizarre Saharan effect... has England sprouted massive mountains and Flanders now lies in a rain shadow? One hopes not. A few nice days for our dudes and dudettes is not much to ask... as long as there's a Real Roubaix lying in the weeds.
OK, Power Poll time. Til now we were accumulating data and generating predictions (coughpoomacough) in order to establish a pecking order for the start of the cobbles season. This one last time, we are left to pick through the winter data and events in foreign countries. After today, there's no more prologue. It's time to start writing another chapter of the Kasseien and the Bike.
Cuddles the Cobble Says: "Tolstoy got to the point quicker than this. Also, where are the monsters?"
Gee, it's nice to see you too, Cuddles. To the flip!
1. Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek (pvs: 2)
2.1 To Do List:
Unlike that 2010 magic month, Cancellara doesn't have much help at Shack-Nissan-Trek... Daniele Bennati looks like an awfully useful teammate at the moment.
Locked and Loaded? Oh yes. The most notable change, at least in the discussion here, is that Bennati looks super strong after coming in 10th Saturday. If you can get up and down the Poggio, you can get up and down the Kemmelberg. Just sayin. Don't burn all your matches Friday, Benna.
Too much ink was spilled regarding Fabian Cancellara's dissatisfaction (real or presumed) with the MSR course that left him a bridesmaid again. I'd guess Cancellara is too smart not to know better... but just in case, let's be clear: being the strongest guy in the race doesn't entitle you to win! It just doesn't. Cancellara is endowed with certain gifts, including great power, but he wasn't endowed with every gift -- sprinting, climbing, etc. So it's senseless for him, or anyone on his behalf, to moan that a course which invariably ends in either a small or a very big sprint didn't go his way. Did Tom Boonen complain, in the midst of his otherworldly 2006 season, about missing the time cutoff to Alpe d'Huez? Nobody came close to his strength back then. Wasn't the the strongest guy in the race that day?
I don't believe in my heart of hearts that Cancellara feels all that chagrined about the parcours or cheated out of victories per se... but I do think he feels ganged-up-on by other teams. And that makes him dangerous. Which brings me to the reason RNT have leapfrogged BMC this week: Cancellara's dominant presence at the front of the race (how come he never gets caught behind crashes?). Combined with the fact that the cobbles provide him exactly the kind of obstacle he needs to shed guys off his back wheel, and you're looking at a very fruitful harvest.
Cuddles Says: "I'd like for the organizers to revise my next race to a contest where everyone is dropped from the top of the Belfort. I bet I could win that."
2. BMC (pvs: 1)
2.1 To Do List:
Anyway, it looks as though Gilbert's quiet start is actually the team's biggest concern. In other words, they have no real concerns.
Locked and Loaded? Not like they drew it up. There is no physical principle which says that re-made superteams have to struggle in their first year, is there? And yet, there seems to be some kind of law operating here. Yes, brighter days are ahead for Philippe Gilbert, who got through a tooth problem and came away with a crash for his troubles Saturday. The team also flashed its fangs at the peloton in the hotted-up portion of the race, from Capo Berta til the moment Gilbert got unhitched coming off the Cipressa. The things we liked are all still there.
For now, though, I think they should give up the top spot. Greg Van Avermaet, every bit the dangerous threat we expected, looked great until he hit the deck winding up for the MSR sprint, leaving him barely able to breathe. After training yesterday he told Sporza nothing is broken, but he's got plenty of discomfort. So much for plan C. Plan B, Thor Hushovd, just pulled out of Catalunya with lingering effects from a flu bout. I guess the upside is he'll take a start in Gent-Wevelgem instead, but most riders don't suffer program disruptions too well. So that leaves them with just Gilbert. Oh, wait, and Ballan! Hey, and Hincapie! And...
Cuddles Says: "All that money and no victories yet? What a travesty. What a stain on free market economics. I want my money back."
3. Omega Pharma Quick Step (pvs: 4)
2.1 To Do List:
There's reason to hope that we're seeing vintage 2008-09 Boonen, not the pressure-laden figure of the last two campaigns.
Locked and Loaded? Looks that way. Obviously it all starts with Boonen, and the reviews in Flanders-Land are all good. He was sitting in a very good position (top 5 or 15, depending on which story you believe) coming over the Poggio, and only a crash prevented a very respectable result. Everyone says his attitude or chi or body language or whatever appears changed. He even has a piece of wood in his helmet. I tell you, it's a whole new Tombo.
What I don't totally understand is the sidelining of Francesco Chicchi this coming week. If he's not running Gent-Wevelgem, is that because Boonen is still prioritizing that over E3? Or because Steegmans is their designated sprinter? His history with the harder classics isn't good, but three wins in two weeks?? Chavanel, meanwhile, finished 8th overall in Paris-Nice, and interestingly enough was never lower than 29th on any stage. Like Cancellara, these boys know how to get to the front and stay there. In a wickedly-competitive year, with the requisite crashes and other holdups, the ability to hold your position may mean an awful lot. Ask Gilbert -- he didn't crash himself Saturday.
Oh, and what the hell is with the McLaren bikes? Sounds like a caricature of a bike industry gimmick... but gimmicks work sometimes, right?
Cuddles Says: "I think Boonen is back this year. I mean, look at his haircut. Nice and short. That's a winning haircut."
4. Garmin-Barracuda (pvs: 3)
2.1 To Do List:
Van Summeren looks good, as does Haussler. Farrar will do his thing eventually, and Millar and Maaskant provide insurance. But they'd better be flying. When Cancellara grumbles about last year, who do you think he's thinking about?
Locked and Loaded? Hm... seeing Farrar off the back on Le Manie was distressing. It's never been his race, probably because of the long climbs, but lacking any more concrete info, let's just say it's not a cause for optimism to see him 20 minutes back. If he's good in Dwars then I think we can stop worrying.
Garmin are having a nice start to the season overall, but it's been a couple weeks since the guys on their classics roster have lit up a race. Like Farrar's MSR, it doesn't mean anything if we get a different answer tomorrow. Some teams show their hand early, others don't. Garmin aren't being looked to for work the way BMC or Sky were Saturday, or OPQS often is, or the way French and Italian teams are when racing in France or Italy. But the switch should flip on right away. A strong showing in Dwars would get them some precious momentum.
Cuddles Says: "Wait, Sep didn't win Milano-Sanremo? Then everything I've been led to believe is a lie?"
5. Sky (pvs: 5)
2.1 To Do List:
Boasson Hagen needs to resurface at Tirreno-Adriatico. I need a reminder of why this team is truly dangerous, and Flecha doesn't get me there.
Locked and Loaded? Good question. Nobody doubts their willingness to get on the front of the race and hammer for one of their guys. But with Cavendish looking surprisingly un-good Saturday, and Boasson Hagen missing his chance in San Remo (after crashing a week earlier), and Flecha breaking his hand in training, and Sutton having knee issues... suddenly this squad is teetering, especially at the top level.
That said, Sky still have depth that nearly everyone east of BMC would envy. Hayman should get a chance to reprise his fourth at Dwars from a year ago. Bernie Eisel is doing his thing and can't be overlooked. None of their problems -- Cav's no good day, Sutton's knee, EBH's crash -- are expected to cause long term problems. Only Flecha is truly limited, and he's training hard for his one true objective, Paris-Roubaix. Just need some better karma (is it time to blame it all on the Murdochs?).
Cuddles Says: "Remind me what the point of having a Royal Family is if the Queen can't order Geraint Thomas to focus on the classics season?"
6. GreenEdge (pvs: n/a)
2.1 To Do List:
haven't done anything wrong per se, just haven't made an impression yet.
Locked and Loaded? Problem solved. Er... sorta. They haven't lost a race since last week, but then again, Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini aren't coming to Flanders anytime soon. Matt Goss is, but only to Dwars door Vlaanderen and De Ronde, not Gent-Wevelgem. Jens Keukeleire gets a chance at the early races, but really the cobbles team revolves around Sebastian Langeveld and Baden Cooke. Both guys are pretty solid and could bag a win, but their palmares say they're medium-shots, not favorites. Still, step one to being relevant is having a few guys in the finale, and there is no reason GreenEdge can't do that. After the last half-week, this is a team on a high.
Cuddles Says: "What's with all the bleeping in this video after Gerrans wins? Were they saying derogatory things about New Zealand again?"
7. Vacansoleil (pvs: 6)
2.1 To Do List:
Their support guys are constantly making an impression: Westra, De Gendt... they don't sit still any longer than Hoogerland.
Locked and Loaded? Yeah, sure. In fact, I like them better than GreenEdge, but when a team is on a streak, you respect the streak. But what's in a number? Vacansoleil have drawn the 170s dossards for all of the Flanders Classics except the non-WT Dwars. Does this include car order? If so, that actually matters -- and makes them the Rodney Dangerfield of WT teams at the Classics. If not, never mind.
Anyway, Vacansoleil only made news last weekend when Kris Boeckmans took down half the chase on the downslope of the Poggio. [To amuse myself, I am picturing Patrick Lefevre gritting his teeth, clenching a fist, and grumbling "Boeckmans!" Yes, I spend too much time thinking about the Classics.] But the team is in fine shape, with Marcato, Leukemans and Hoogerland all in the finale at MSR, and Devolder looking somewhat springy in Tirreno-Adriatico. Boeckmans, Romain Feillu, Lieuwe Westra and Pim Ligthart also get part-time roles on the cobbles. [Hoogerland is not on any cobbles startlists at the moment.] Westra in particular was spectacular in Paris-Nice, for what it's worth. If Leukemans doesn't get on the podium at De Ronde this year, chances are it'll be on him, not his team.
Cuddles Says: "If Hoogerland isn't racing, who will Devolder Leukemans? Marcato?"
8. Farnese Vini (pvs: n/a)
2.1 To Do List:
Farnese Vini... might have a nice duo working for them if Pozzato gets fit and Gatto can handle the cobbles.
Locked and Loaded? Reports of Filippo Pozzato's demise have proven quite exaggerated. I know it's de rigeur to hate on Pippo this time of year (for racing like Simon Gerrans just did), but can't we get a little love for a guy who comes back to racing two weeks after having his collarbone reassembled because of his love of the cobbles and devotion to his new team? The smooth-pedaling Italian will have a bit of protection in the form of Belgian vet Hulsmans, and he can sit back and let Oscar Gatto chase the sprints. Chances are still that his support won't match up with his rivals', he'll park on Boonen's wheel, and we can argue tactical etiquette all over again.
On a more positive note, though, as an Italianish Cobblophile I am pretty thrilled at the prospects of both Ballan and Pozzato in top form together. Seems like we always get one or the other, not both. Pippo in particular was kind of lost at Katusha, so this has to be a year of opportunity for him.
Cuddles Says: "Only God can flick his elbow at me."
9. Rabobank (pvs: 8)
2.1 To Do List:
Boom rode decently in the Omloop and Breschel showed that he had his old instincts, if not quite his old legs. That last bit is the key to their entire spring. By next Saturday we should know a bit more.
Locked and Loaded? Do all Rabobank fans feel like they're stuck in a Beckett play? The real problem is that, despite the lack of results, there truly is no reason to give up on them. Breschel was where he needed to be Saturday before getting stuck in the Poggio crash [Boeckmans!]. Boom was on the front after 290km, putting to rest the 200-k threshold argument, one hopes. The supporters like Tankink and Tjallingii are where they need to be, it appears. Matthews has a win in his pocket and could figure in Gent-Wevelgem. I just... can't... let go.
Cuddles Says: "Breschel and Boom still sounds more like a cop buddy sit-com than a cycling team. Breschel the serious captain; Boom the easy-going, wise-cracking junior partner who keeps pissing off Breschel by sabotaging his equipment. This works. Where's that useless agent of mine?"
10. Liquigas (pvs: n/a)
2.1 To Do List:
Locked and Loaded? Definitely not. In fact, I kind of hate myself for putting them here, instead of more seasoned, sensible choices like Astana or Lotto or FDJ. But I can't shake the image of Peter Sagan surviving to the finale in Harelbeke, and I don't want to be the only idiot who failed to mention him in a preview. Demare has been good, even great, but when you see Sagan looking stronger than Edvald Boasson Hagen, two years younger... that's another class.
Cuddles Says: "Inside tip, hair gel on smooth cobblestones is a bad combination. Trust me."
Photo by Patrick Verhoest for the Podium Cafe