Well, that was interesting. One story has dominated the headlines but in many ways this was a very unique Cobbled Classics season. Course changes. New faces. Unprecedented performances. And not a little heartbreak.
Teams are as focused as ever on these glorious, brutal races. Riders from all over the world talk of orienting their season around a few weeks in Belgium, more and more. You guys were locked in like never before. So were an awful lot of English-speaking fans. So was NBC Sports, where the cobblestones made their live major US network debut. The Ronde van Vlaanderen is no longer the race people here have never heard of; it's becoming the race they wish they'd heard of sooner. Good times.
To put a wrap on things, today represents the season-ending Cobbles Team Power Poll, a mix of looking back and looking ahead. The 2013 Spring Classics aren't exactly just around the corner, but the transfer whisper season is, and Sep Vanmarcke is owed a new contract -- that's for starters. OK, without further ado...
1. Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Shocking, I know. Op de flip!
1. Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Ranking History: 3, 4, 3, 1
Season Summary: Superteam Exhibit B: take two teams that have a lot in common, including a history of merging, put them together and watch the results pour in. Of course, most of the improvement can just as easily be attributed to the rejuvenation of Tom Boonen, without which all the great teamwork would have been swept under the rug. We have beaten this subject to a pulp, frankly.
Pleasant Surprises: The work of Stijn Vandenbergh (mild surprise, thoroughly awesome) and Niki Terpstra (moderately but not completely surprising). OPQS's rivals were pretty alert to every move Sylvain Chavanel made, so it fell to the Dutch classician to Devolder the peloton, which he did rather nicely in Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Regrets: Chavanel's flat tire in the early part of the Paris-Roubaix finale cost him two minutes and, in his mind, a podium place. That's what counts as a regret at Team Boonen.
Needs for 2013: Puhleeze... Actually, the one thing they desperately need are videos of Cancellara in the 2010 Classics. Or maybe video of Gilbert last year. Whatever it takes to keep the riders scared of losing.
2. Team BMC
Ranking History: 1, 1, 2, 3
Season Summary: Superteam Exhibit A -- one made up of various (awesome) parts. It's tempting to go into psychoanalysis mode about how teams take time to gel, because they certainly do. But does anyone think BMC goes winless if Gilbert and Hushovd are at full strength? In the end, they still had one Cobbles Capo left, Alessandro Ballan, and all he did was deliver the spring's second-best performance (albeit a distant second).
In fact, you get the impression that the cobbles campaign ended all too soon for these guys. Their last race, Paris-Roubaix, was their best yet in many ways. Seven of eight riders finished, by far the best in the peloton, including Ballan on the peloton, Hushovd a somewhat hard luck 14th, and young Taylor Phinney on his wheel at 15th. Timing was tough on these guys all spring, starting with Gilbert's dental issues, but there is practically nothing that needs to be fixed.
Pleasant Surprises: Phinney is the big one. Fifteenth in Paris-Roubaix? After sitting on the front pulling all day? His game may have plenty of holes in it, but that's a BIG result in l'Enfer du Nord the first time around. He even had the class/good sense to let Thor cross the line first. Guys who ride that strong in this race at age 21 go on to get big results there. Van Avermaet's 4th in de Ronde was the next best thing to happen to the team, showing they were in good hands even without the big guns, though it hardly counts as a surprise.
Regrets: George Hincapie went out too quietly for a guy padding his record of finishes in the classics. That's life. Maybe he comes back for one more round and doesn't flat out of contention three hours from the velodrome.
Needs for 2013: Even less than OPQS, who will have to battle expectations. BMC are clean for 2013. Maybe even room to start Phinney in Flanders.
3. Farnese Vini
Ranking History: n/a, n/a, 8, 4
Season Summary: Given the last two seasons it was easy for wags like me to view Filippo Pozzato's departure from Katusha for Farnese Vini as riding off into the sunset. To begin with, the Italian squad (posing with a British license) wasn't guaranteed starts in the races where Pozzato might be relevant, and Pozzato himself had spent the last two springs fading from the scene anyway. But athletes at that level usually have a fire in them, and Pozzato's was finally lit when he left a contentious situation at Katusha for a team where they seemed to care about him, and before we knew what happened the guy was back, slightly better than ever.
Pozzato is another guy who's been thoroughly written up here, but it suffices to say that his big comeback fell apart a bit in France this past weekend, when he reverted back to his defensive posture at the wrong moment, before slipping out and taking a DNF with a banged-up knee. Kevin Hulsmans stayed up front where he'd been shepherding his captain around, and held on for 17th on the day, his best day on the pave since 2005 when he placed a couple spots higher after launching his teammate Boonen into the stratosphere. Oscar Gatto, coming off a third in the Strade Bianche, hung around to help his captain throughout the campaign as well, meaning Pozzato had a support crew. In fact, maybe it's the neon, but I could swear Farnese Vini had a rider in every key break of the last three weeks. It's easy to see a bunch of Italians coming to Flanders and write them off, but when it turns out they believe in themselves, well, it gets a lot more interesting.
Pleasant Surprises: Elia Favilli, a 23-year-old sprinter, took sixth in the Scheldeprijs, 5th in the first stage of Driedaagse, and 22nd in de Ronde, working for Pippo. Those kind of results don't necessarily translate into wins later on, but he's one to keep an eye on. Kids who can sprint are good people to have up the road in an early break. Also, considering 7 of their 8 starters in Compiegne didn't make it to Roubaix, maybe next time they give the kid a shot?
Regrets: Pozzato's failure to bridge up to Boonen in Paris-Roubaix, while he and Ballan engaged in a very Italian discussion over who was supposed to take the next turn (Ballan, for the record), has to go down as one of the bigger moments of the year so far. Personally I didn't take it seriously either at the time, but it's not my job to be right about this stuff. If Pozzato was on historically good form, this was his moment. And if not, then I suppose we can dial back to his failure to try anything on the run-in to Oudenaarde for the next regret.
Needs for 2013: To forget this past Sunday. The team came into the Cobbles season throwing caution to the wind, and came within half a wheel of the ultimate reward. That needs to be the takehome lesson.
4. Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek
Ranking History: 2, 2, 1, 2
Season Summary: The Cobbled Classics are as treacherous as a Kung Fu villain, and even the biggest stars have hard lessons to learn. Last year fate picked up everyone in a Quick Step jersey and body-slammed over and over, for all 260km of Paris-Roubaix. This year the routine accordion-ing of the peloton in de Ronde, combined with a wayward bidon, took out Fabian Cancellara with extreme prejudice. Somewhere Roger De Vlaeminck was complaining that in his day people rode with quadruple fractures of the clavicle. Won, even. Back on Earth, if anyone was capable of this it would have been Cancellara, but reality says otherwise. Speculation is a poor substitute for results, but when Fabian goes down, we all suffer.
Pleasant Surprises: Cancellara's support crew wasn't too bad, in hindsight. Greg Rast was as good as advertised (13th in P-R); Bennati was in position for Gent-Wevelgem when his tire blew, and Tony Gallopin had the same good form/bad luck the last two weeks. Bodes well for next year.
Regrets: Choice of tires? Pressure? Whatever it was, the team spent waaaay too much time at the side of the road. Remember the time in E3 when Cancellara got decked while swapping wheels on top of the Kwaremont? Tire problem.
Needs for 2013: Better tires. Better luck. Maybe one more front-line lieutenant, preferably of the Stannard/Terpstra/I-might-win-if-you-let-me caliber.
Ranking History: 7, 3, 4, 6
Season Summary: Another team whose fortunes we've combed through pretty thoroughly, particularly because there has been little to say since the last power poll. Sep Vanmarcke was three-fifths of their season, with Farrar in Gent-Wevelgem and Van Summeren in Paris-Roubaix taking turns at the helm. Neither one found themselves in the right place at the right time, and SuperSep lost his cape with about 20km to go in de Ronde. It was always a squad with interesting potential, but there is a reason they weren't the focal point of conversation this year.
Pleasant Surprises: None, really, insofar as the things they did well were what you expected them to do well. I guess the closest thing to a surprise was that Summie was as strong as he was in Roubaix -- no fluke winner, remember? But even there I am having trouble feeling surprised. Farrar was 26th on Sunday, a sign that he might have a memorable day there before he's done.
Regrets: Heinrich Haussler was all too quiet in the classics, three seasons removed from his one dominant performance. He came in with the first chase group in de Ronde though, so maybe rather than saying "OMG he sucks! What the hell?" we could just adjust our expectations of him. He's obviously a capable teammate but not a dependable captain. If Sep stays, problem solved. Nick Nuyens had a 15th and a DNF in Flanders before his win, right? Maybe that's a way of looking at Haussler too: you never know. Also, this is classic 20-20 hindsight, but it kind of sucks that Farrar was in the break considering de Ronde played out the way Farrar would have liked, with a big bunch sprint for 4-49. Unless his goal is victory or nothing, my hunch is that he'd have preferred to be around for that 4th place sprint, even if seeing lead the race up the Oude Kwaremont was pretty cool.
Needs for 2013: To re-sign Vanmarcke. [Or forget about most of the classics. It's that simple.] Vanmarcke is clearly ticketed for big-time success and an ideal guy to build around, assuming he's as tranquillo with his teammates as he seems. Flanders is fickle, and a lot of teams will come in to 2013 thinking they have a chance to win, but only 3-5 teams know for sure they have a chance: the teams of Boonen, Cancellara, Vanmarcke, Gilbert and Sagan.
Ranking History: n/a, n/a, 10, 8
Season Summary: More of a one-man wrecking crew than a team, Liquigas have just ensured that they are part of the conversation for the next three years, signing Peter Sagan to an extension that will keep the young star in their colors, fighting Vanmarcke and the old guys on the cobbles each spring. Before this season, Sagan was looked on as someone with interesting potential in the hard one-day races, given his blazing sprint and overall strength, but his 2011 Flanders debut was unremarkable. Now still just 22, Sagan arrived with second in Gent-Wevelgem, fourth in MSR, fifth in Flanders, and the ability to stay at or near the front of the biggest races. The highlight was seeing him set out alone after the winning break in de Ronde, after a spill left him on the ground at the foot of the Paterberg, a sign of determination and ability, if not luck. Like a young Boonen, if you don't shake him before the sprint, he wins. This year they just held him off. Whether they ever do again is an open question.
Pleasant Surprises: Fabio Sabatini hung with the first chase group of de Ronde and was third in the opening stage of De Panne that Sagan won. Daniel Oss was one of a very small handful of Italians to finish Paris-Roubaix. Not a bad start for a support squad. Both have a sprint on them, which is critical for making people worried about them being in a break and really giving Sagan the freedom he will need in the late stage of big races.
Regrets: So where was Sagan last weekend? I get it, they want him at Amstel Gold, so Sagan is on the Gilbert Plan, which calls for skipping the Hell of the North. Sagan has a DNF and 86th there so far, as well as second in the Junior version all of four years ago. Yes, he was a junior four years ago. On his Wikipedia page there's a note about him getting a sniff from Quick Step but no contract. Talk about regrets!
Needs for 2013: I don't know if you can expect an Italian squad to make more of a go at it in Belgium, particularly when you consider that De Gaas can expect Sagan to win races with next to no help. Why spend a dollar to win if you can win for 75 cents? At some point, however, expectations will follow him, as will other teams, and then he needs help. Sabatini and Oss are already two valuable assistants, but one more would be nice.
7. Team Sky
Ranking History: 4, 5, 5, 9
Season Summary: It never was their year, as things just fell apart one by one. First they lost Geraint Thomas to needlepoint, or track, or some other ridiculous distraction. Then Flecha fell and broke his hand a month before Holy Week, though he was able to continue. Next, Mark Cavendish became everybody's prime target in the sprint races, and none of it mattered when he became a dad. They still had numbers, including Edvald Boasson Hagen having a clean run through the spring after interruptions the past two years, but there was never enough quality to match the quantity. Eisel sprinted to third in E3, but that was as good as it got.
Pleasant Surprises: None really. Well, seeing five of the Silverbacks leading the chase of Boonen was impressive insofar as it was four or five more guys than most other teams still had left in the game. For their efforts they got their heads handed to them by Boonen and missed out on a podium spot when the sprint-fodder Flecha was their lone survivor.
Regrets: Watching Eddy blow up in Paris-Roubaix. He was Sagan before Sagan was, right? Granted, winning Gent-Wevelgem over Alexandr Kuschynski isn't necessarily better than losing it to Boonen, as far as what it means for future success. But Eddy has covered himself in glory on the roads of France as well, showing the climbing skills that guys with his sprint only dream about. And as for his suitability for the cobbles, he's listed as slightly shorter and heavier than Sagan, no flyweight by any means. So is it time to be disappointed that he's still not cracking the top 15 anywhere outside G-W? At 24, he has plenty of time for further improvement, but the next wave is catching him faster than he's catching up to the previous one.
Needs for 2013: Oh, I dunno, someone like Geraint Thomas?
Ranking History: 5, 8, 9, 5
Season Summary: Rabo are unique in that they don't really do introspection before Amstel Gold. The media tried to get some comments from them about their disappointing classics run and got nowhere. With Breschel and Boom both taking the start this Saturday, there is no question that a month's worth of troubles will be long forgotten if they scratch out a win on home soil.
Me, I've long since stopped expecting anything good to happen. Believing in their youth movement can cause impatience, whereas in reality things change very slowly. The guy who won everything has been around for over a decade, after all. Still, you can't really argue that the plan was completely flawed. Lars Boom was probably the second-strongest guy at Paris-Roubaix, and Matti Breschel one of the five strongest in the Flemish races. Neither one backed up the other too much, and the team was more sum-of-its-parts than a whole. But assuming Breschel has more time with the team, it's still not a bad plan.
Pleasant Surprises: Boom in P-R. He wasn't on top form earlier, but then maybe Boom is evolving into something of a Roubaix specialist. He's never done anything in de Ronde (OK, he's just 26, but still), whereas his pave exploits have progressed noticeably. He's tall, strong, and comes from the cyclocross world -- all attributes that would point you to Paris-Roubaix. Few one-day races cultivate their own specialists like the Hell of the North does, and if Boom gets one or two cobbles on his shelf before he's done, the whole enterprise -- giving up cross, the breathless fanhood, etc. -- will have been worth it.
Regrets: Ah, I dunno... for people to be more than they are? Or for the managers to cough up one more year for Freire? I suppose they wanted to move on to an all-climbers Tour team, so keeping Freire wasn't likely regardless, but they could have used a veteran points-getter this spring.
Needs for 2013: Extension with Breschel. The guy is the closest thing to a Ronde winner on the market [edit: well, besides Sep]. For Rabo to pay for his broken year and his recovery year, only to see him resume his winning form for someone else, would be a bitter, bitter pill. And make way for more of the kids, like Jetse Bol.
Ranking History: n/a, n/a, n/a, 10
Season Summary: Crept up on us, first with Alexandre Pichot getting top tens in Dwars and E3, then Sebastian Turgot took over with 10th in E3, 10th in De Panne, 8th in the Scheldprijs sprint mess, and the shocking second in Paris-Roubaix. Oh, and Tommy Voeckler clocked in with 8th in de Ronde, while Vincent Jerome made himself useful most of those days. Voeckler doesn't usually ride the cobbles, so it's great to see their star rider treat de Ronde the way the old school stars of the Tour did, showing up and doing well.
Pleasant Surprises: Turgot is the shocker. He's ridden the cobbles for years, dating all the way back to his finishing 14th in the U23 Paris- Roubaix in 2006, but his results on the big stage have been forgettable. Anybody who claims they saw this coming is pulling your leg.
Regrets: What? None. Zero.
Needs for 2013: Hm, it's great to see the French teams showing up at Paris-Roubaix especially, but getting more relevant on the cobbles in general. So should I hope for them all to wind up on one big Super French Team? No, actually, that would almost certainly blow up. So change nothing. And don't rest on your laurels.
Ranking History: n/a, 7, n/a, n/a
Season Summary: Like Europcar, they got a variety of performances worth remembering, starting off with Arnaud Demare serving notice that he belongs in the conversation of kids on the way up, fast. OK, we said that about Jens Keukeleire a few years back and that hasn't happened, but Demare showed he is ahead of schedule (he's 20) with 4th in K-B-K, as well as his wins in Le Samyn and West Vlaanderen. Chainel got a couple notable results, 8th in Wevelgem and 15th in Roubaix. And Mathieu Ladagnous was one of the stronger protagonists in Paris-Roubaix, coming in with the second chase group despite an untimely flat and slow wheel change, as well as 16th in de Ronde.
Pleasant Surprises: The whole thing. Who pegged FDJ to be a constant, active presence throughout the classics?
Regrets: Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Needs for 2013: If Demare, the reigning U23 world champion, is as precious a resource as he appears, then he'll need plenty of nurturing to make the leap to the top level. Chainel and Ladagnous make for some nice veteran leadership, and maybe they'll keep Frederic Guesdon around as a coach for the cobbles.
Nice try. See you next year Cuddles.
Photo by Patrick Verhoest