Welcome to your penultimate 2012 Cobbles Power Poll! Chances are you're most of the way through your Cobbles Lovefest PdC Survival Guide: you've stopped drinking trappist ales, or maybe beer altogether. You're done stumping bewildered colleagues with Dutch idioms and Koppenberg gradients. You aren't adding "-ekke" to your kids' first names. The last time someone offered you mayonnaise with your fries you replied "Actually, I'll have the arugula salad."
Frankly, you should be congratulated. The buildup to the Spring Classics lasts longer than a Seattle winter, with about the same effect on its subjects: a seemingly endless inescapable cycle of repetition drumming your senses into oblivion. And yet, you soldier on through the drab, muddy spring, on little more than an abiding love of cycling. We use the word hero around here quite a bit, but for once I am going to use it correctly. You, with your pink and/or yellow jerseys and your featherweight climber avatars, you are the true heroes of the Cafe.
But your work isn't done. There are two big stations left to visit on your odyssey, and a couple minor detours as well, if you aren't careful. Don't stop now. Don't give in. You can make it. Cuddles -- no wait, Girbecco believes in you.
There, that should hold a few of you heretics over for a while. Back to business... The reason this is the penultimate cobbles poll is that there isn't much you can say about a team heading into Paris-Roubaix that you didn't say the previous week pre-Flanders, apart from regurgitating results. The Scheldeprijs is a chapter of the Spring story by virtue of proximity more than anything else, and though I'm sure there are crosswinds up in Greater Antwerp, almost no result there will inspire me to amend the overall ranking so close to the end. After the concrete shower stalls are cleared out at the old Velodrome, there will be a time to look back and write the history of the 2012 spring season, but that's about it.
This week, though, great battles are brewing. So we turn to the greatest general of all for insight. [No, not Cuddles.]
1. Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Previous: 3)
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.
Present Tense: A lot will be said this week about Quick Step and how much ass they just kicked. So for now I'll be brief and simply say that they do what everyone knows your supposed to do. They are on the front every day, whenever it's a good idea. They get guys up the road, either in a feint (Chava in E3) or for real (Terpstra in Dwars). They aren't reinventing the wheel. But why can't or won't other teams command a race this way? OPQS are strong in the head, and it shows.
As for Boonen, the fact that he is back on top of his game is just so great for cycling. His 2005-6 peak was legend, and while it's typical for that sort of greatness to come and go, it wasn't right for a guy like Boonen to walk away with only two Ronde wins. We need at least one year where the two dominant classics riders of the first post-Mapei decade go head-to-head, full tilt. That moment has arrived.
Sun Tzu Says: If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.
Cuddles Says: "Um, so my job is to follow that guy? For this whole post?"
2. Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek (Pvs: 1)
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.
Present Tense: Mark my words, Boonen will win de Ronde and Fabian Cancellara Paris-Roubaix. I've long said that Boonen, with his explosive power and sprint, is a perfect prototype for Flanders, whereas Cancellara, whose thing is blasting wattage at the peloton like an open hydrant, is the Cycling Gods' gift to l'Enfer du Nord. What I haven't said much before is that I'm rooting for the Swiss Bear. I never really have -- you can't root for everyone at once, and he kind of broke my heart for Hincapie in 2006. But I have finally come around to full-on Fabu fanhood now. Think back to the past ten days -- what race has he not singlehandedly lit on fire? One, Dwars, because he wasn't there.
You don't have to love him, or even like him, but if you love cycling, you want him around. He made a dry, wind-less Gent-Wevelgem exciting, by attacking not on the hyper-obvious Kemmelberg but coming off the final climb, the Monteberg, and hammering home the gaps behind. The guy never misses an opening -- even (especially?) if it was in service of a teammate.
Oh, speaking of which, Bennati was presumably the protected guy Sunday, but flatted in the last 10km and had to (ahem) chase back. Cancellara flatted three times Friday. If this is a trend, it's one the RNT guys will ignore at their gravest peril.
Sun Tzu Says: What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.
Cuddles Says: "Gee, those Ancients sure were perceptive. I bet they would have said Boonen is on good form. Yep, you gotta get up pretty early to put one past the Ancients."
3. BMC (Pvs: 2)
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.
Present Tense: Paging George Hincapie... Paging Thor Hushovd... All hands to battle stations!
Time to tear up Plan A for good and just use Gilbert as a decoy. He simply isn't where he needs to be right now, and won't likely be til the (other) Ardennes -- or maybe Brabantse Pijl. That leaves a mini-peloton of secondary favorites in charge of the team's well-funded but still fruitless Classics campaign. Alessandro Ballan? Cruising. Greg Van Avermaet? Threatening. Gonna beat Boonen or Cancellara? Fat chance. Not no chance, by any means. But it sure would help a lot of Hushovd and Hincapie, both seemingly on the slow track to top fitness, could catch up. Hushovd's illness definitely set him back, but not terribly, and he's likely to be good in Roubaix. Hincapie on the other hand... no idea. His results suggest nothing good, but it's possible he is simply laying low.
Sun Tzu Says: To kill the 100-foot snake, you need only cut off the head.
Cuddles Says: "Hey! That's not your saying! That's from Big Trouble in Little China!"
Sun Tzu replies: The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It has also sold over 200 million copies worldwide in the last century alone. So stuff it.
4. Farnese Vini (Pvs: 8)
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?
Present Tense: I totally love this team. Classic example of how sometimes you need to just keep shuffling the deck. Something fell apart at Katusha, a team that on paper looks more solid than his current Farnese Vinny lineup, so Pippo throws in with a continental squad and suddenly it all makes sense. The team rode all last weekend in utter defiance of their Flemishlessness, dominating the E3 breakaway and still having enough left in Oscar Gatto's legs to make it within a village or two of Harelbeke. Armchair ride all day for Pippo, who nonetheless has fired up his own engine on a handful of occasions, including Sunday's sprint (Pippo can sprint? Still, I mean?). They were a presence, which is more than you can say for a few other teams.
Pippo remains a person of great interest. At his best he does everything Boonen does, except for the top-end speed and the aggressiveness. Two important exceptions. But in a three-up sprint with the two Bigs, Pozzato has a chance and Cancellara probably doesn't. Last three-up sprint in a monument? 2008 Paris-Roubaix.
Sun Tzu Says: All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Cuddles Says: "Yah. We have a single word for that. It's called 'sandbagging.'"
5. Rabobank (Pvs: 9)
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.
Present Tense: It's been a long time coming, but on Sunday I think it's safe to say that Matti Breschel was one of the five strongest guys in the race. At least among the contenders. Now, a sunny, pleasant Gent-Wevelgem is no Ronde, but considering where he's come from, watching Special Breschel outsprint a good number of sprinters after trying an attack and generally being at the front for the last couple hours was beyond merely encouraging. For Rabobank, it's merely justice delayed, not denied. Nothing ever seems to just fall in their laps, but Rabobank have been seen around the front of the last few races, in numbers. For 26-year-old Lars Boom, 27-year-old Breschel and their cadre of strong, experienced helpers, there's no time like right fricking now.
Sun Tzu Says: Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.*
Cuddles Says: "Finally we agree on something. Only took 2600 years."
[* Whether Sun Tzu said this is disputed. It might have been his cousin Mike.]
6. Garmin-Barracuda (Pvs: 4)
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.
Present Tense: Garmin are not a one-man show. Johan Van Summeren is in cracking good form. Nobody is taking away his cobble without a fight. But yeah, the story 90% of the time is Sep. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. See if you can guess which one of these three statements is untrue:
- Sep outsprinted Boonen in the Omloop
- Sep killed an angry bear with his bare hands
- Sep blasted up the Taaienberg stuck in his big ring
You can't tell, can you? (It's the bear. They're protected in Belgium.) At this point, if Boonen and Cancellara can see the writing on wall -- and that's pretty much a given -- then they should enjoy their two-man, undisturbed rivalry for one last spring. Smart wielrenner that he is, Vanmarcke predicted last summer he'd get his shot in 4-5 years. There's a good two years' worth of modesty/sandbagging in that statement. He is very nearly there right now.
As for Farrar and Haussler, I'm tired of saying "they might be great at" this or that race. Haussler belongs in the conversation but until he joins it, there isn't much to say. Farrar remains of much greater interest to me, as one of my favorite racers, and a regular high finisher the last two springs. I don't disagree with a Gent-Wevelgem in his future and a you-never-know at Flanders, but he's one of the majority of guys who can't hold the front consistently when the pack swells. It's sheer numbers, and only a few superstars always seem to make space for themselves in the top ten when they need to. It's not exactly a failing of Farrar's to sit 35th in a group of 85 guys with an hour to go. You don't make the Flanders selections he's made without a lot of class. But he himself says that to win a classic he needs things to unfold in his favor, and the chances of that happening are enhanced by a more broken-up race... not by the sunny pleasantries we've seen so far. Maybe Andreas Klier can keep Tyler in position Sunday; losing Millar was a blow.
Sun Tzu Says: Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy.
Cuddles Says: "Wait, aren't we supposed to appear inactive? Isn't that what you said to Farnese two paragraphs ago? Are you making this up as you go along?"
7. Vacansoleil (Pvs: 7)
If Leukemans doesn't get on the podium at De Ronde this year, chances are it'll be on him, not his team.
Present Tense: Indeed, his team is looking as good as ever. If Stijn Devolder's frisky behavior in Driedaagse de Panne today indicates a long-awaited return to form, then Vacansoleil are every bit as good as BMC heading into de Ronde. And with about the same results too. Oh, and if Marcato tries to knock Boasson Hagen sideways in a sprint again, he'll have to answer to me. And my army of zombie goat mascots.
Sun Tzu Says: The ultimate in disposing one's troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wise lay plans against you.
Cuddles Says: "Isn't that exactly what Lefevre said about Devolder two years ago?"
8. Liquigas (Pvs: 10)
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.
Present Tense: The Sagan Hype has to chill out a bit. Sure, he was fourth in MSR, sure he was second in Gent-Wevelgem, sure he won today in Oudenaarde... Wait! I'm not done. He's not ready. There, I said it. Look, GW was a solid effort. The guy was in position all day, as opposed to nearly all the other fastmen. But it's just not that selective. E3 marked the first truly competitive cobbled classic that Young Sagan has finished -- in 14th. He's good, he's on his way. Sep vs Sagan will define our lives starting in no more than a year. But he's not there yet.
Sun Tzu Says: When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of its momentum. When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing.
Cuddles Says: "Seriously, what are you even talking about?"
9. Sky (Pvs: 5)
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.
Present Tense: Smash Cavendish was good fun for about 19 teams this weekend and last. From what I gather about the guy, in his own words, Cavendish runs pretty hot and cold, including with his confidence. When he starts winning he can be impossible to stop. But when he's losing, as he has lately, turning around his confidence becomes pretty important. Sky should throw him at the nearest winnable stage of a race to get him turned around. Because that rainbow jersey must feel like it's made of lead right now.
And are we really ready to look past Boasson Hagen simply because a couple younger guys are coming up fast? Remember, he hasn't had a good spring buildup since 2009, when he won Gent-Wevelgem on a beastly day. I'm a lot more interested in waiting to see what he can muster next week than Haussler. Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, where the hell is Geraint Thomas?
Sun Tzu Says: If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him.
Cuddles Says: "Um, this is supposed to be advice to Sky, not about them."
10. Europcar (Pvs: n/a)
Present Tense: Pichot and Turgot are among the beneficiaries of this year's sprint-happy spring. A lot of big names are not among the beneficiaries. Vincent Jerome was up there in Dwars. Europcar have a lot more to show for Vlaamse Wielerweek than Sky or Garmin or Vacansoleil, at least on a points basis.
Sun Tzu Says: Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
Cuddles Says: "Damn straight."
Postscripts: GreenEdge certainly aren't done yet, though if they are they can go home satisfied after MSR. Project 1T4I are within shouting distance of cracking the final poll, but their relative youth is a potential barrier in the much harder monuments. FDJ and Astana could argue for a place in the rankings as well... which is more than you can say for the Belgian government's official team, Lotto-Belisol. And gotta love Saxo Bank for not slipping to the back, even without Nick Nuyens on hand. I don't see a team feeling sorry for itself; I see guys fighting back.
Photo by Patrick Verhoest for the Podium Cafe