Teamwork will mean a lot this coming Sunday on the devilish, narrow, twisting roads of Limburg Province. Got a strong captain, who loves the hills and the bursts through the corners? Fine, but it won't mean much if you can't hold your team's forward position like a group of demons possessed. Experience and sheer will are likely to be determining factors, along with the usual "strongest guy" stuff. Amstel Gold is (almost) always a tactical race, or should be, and the slightly diluted version of Amstel passing as a Worlds course will only make it more so, as some fast finishing dudes cast their shadows over the peloton.
So yeah, teamwork. Who's got it? Let's run it down!
Finishers: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet. Can Boonen get into the lead group? My guess is, no way in hell. In an off year his rivals might tolerate his presence accidentally, but he's won everything in sight in 2012. Still, if he's strong, then his presence forces people's hands... and Gilbert and/or Van Avermaet follow. And the rest is history.
Table Setters: Johan Van Summeren, Jurgen Roelandts, Bjorn Leukemans.
Cohesion: Van Avermaet occasionally chafes when blocked by flashier teammates, but he's been riding with Gilbert more often than not, so maybe he's used to it now. Aside from that, the Belgian nats teams tend to work pretty well together. Summie and Roelandts are terrific workhorse teammates. The quartet of Boonen, Gilbert, Roelandts and GvA did fine at the Olympics already, and the structure of the team -- with minimal duplication -- is ideal for the race. That plus their quasi-local heritage adds up to a team with good senses as to how to race in Limburg.
Finishers: Alejandro Valverde... Oscar Freire... Alberto Contador... Joaquim Rodriguez. Probably in that order. The latter two would be picks if the race finished on the nastiest slope of the Cauberg, and the Cauberg were about 10km in length. Freire is the guy who, if you don't get rid of him (and it's never easy), will make you pay. Or he used to, about two years ago. Really, that leaves Valverde. Do I think Valverde is going to win? Not necessarily, but he won't be able to complain about support.
Table Setters: Juan Antonio Flecha, Dani Moreno, Jonathan Castroviejo. The latter hasn't much experience in the north, but Flecha, despite being more of a Flanders guy, will certainly bring the right skillset to his job. Still, I had Spain ranked first until I started thinking more about the course, and decided that overall might isn't gonna get it done, at least not without some skinny-road horse sense. Spain have some. Belgium have more.
Cohesion: Not bad. The Spanish riders on rival teams are always unfailingly polite to each other in public, so the odds of simmering rivalries behind the scenes aren't great. Plus, Contador and Rodriguez pretty much know they can't win this race out of any group larger than, say, two, so there's a strong chance of everyone pitching in for Valverde.
Finishers: Simon Gerrans. Positively on fire. Lots of other strong finishers -- Matthews, Haussler, Davis -- for a course located anywhere else in the Netherlands. But that just simplifies things.
Table Setters: Adam Hansen, Richie Porte, Simon Clarke. No shortage of useful blokes, though you have to wonder what Porte or Clarke have left in the tank. That's true of a lot of riders, but a little extra true here.
Cohesion: I wonder, when there's a trade team that functions as a quasi-national squad, like Orica GreenEdge here, do the guys like Hansen and Porte who aren't on the program feel out of place? Yeah? Well, if so, there's only one answer... Anyway, Gerrans is absolutely the key rider, and the OGE guys will be all too happy to set him up.
Finishers: Not sure anyone from this team can win out of a bunch, but Thomas Voeckler and Sylvain Chavanel can stick it to the peloton any day of the week. Both are going well, have endless experience, and can't be expected to behave anywhere in the last hour.
Table Setters: Tony Gallopin is a very good fit for this race, and also riding well, but he's young and has only one Amstel start to his name. Jerome Coppel and Jeremy Roy strike me as guys who can pitch in, but France won't need a big presence at the front for Voeckler or Chava.
Cohesion: Hard to say. Nine guys from six different trade teams. And there's no reason why Voeckler and Chavanel would be overly cozy, but they've shared national team duty often enough by now. Chava and Gallopin rode together in London too.
Finishers: Tough call. By veteran status you'd think Nibali, or maybe Nocentini (who hasn't raced since finishing a solid Vuelta). But for form, there's Moreno Moser, hoping to step into Uncle Francesco's shoes at the ripe old age of 22. Oscar Gatto and and Marco Marcato are both going decently and capable of a result on this course. Confused yet?
Table Setters: Paolini and Ulissi, plus whoever of Marcato, Moser, Nocentini and Nibali doesn't have it working. My guess is that coach Paolo Bettini, who knew what to do in a crowded field when he was still in the saddle, will have to trust his instincts as the race unfolds. No way do Italy go in with a simple, set plan.
Cohesion: Italy have occasionally been the poster child of infighting teammates, at least afterward, when more than one Italian could legitimately claim he had a chance to win. Ask Cunego about Ballan's victory. Speaking of which, where are either of those guys? Speaking of that generation, Danilo DiLuca is probably watching this course and wishing he never dialed up Dr. Santuccione.
Finishers: Hard to pick one: Betancur? Uran? Henao? Nairo Quintana? I'll stick with Henao this year, given his 21st in Amstel 2012 is the only Colombian result of note on these roads. But the next two years (Tuscany, Spain) this is going to be a very dangerous team.
Table Setters: Fabio Duarte was fourth in Brabantse Pijl, meaning he's likely bringing something to the table. Wouldn't shock me if it were he and not Henao going for it.
Cohesion: Isolation in the Netherlands is probably a good thing for team spirit -- who else are a bunch of South American kids gonna mingle with? Experience is a big problem though. Few coaches have a taller task here than the Colombian DS, willing his young colts through this twisty course. I had them ranked higher until I drank some coffee (irony much?).
Finishers: Your guess is as good as mine. They tend to back Gesink no matter what. Mollema was good at Amstel Gold. Overlook Terpstra at your peril -- at least he attacks. Kroon isn't out of the question, even at 36.
Table Setters: Lars Boom -- I don't believe he can make the finale so he goes here. Slagter, Ten Dam. Never a shortage of quality riders in the Oranje.
Cohesion: Rabobank may be the exception to the notion that forming a national team out of a single trade team lends cohesion to the squad. On the plus side, there are only five of them. On the minus side, being home only seems to add pressure, which hasn't worked out for Dutch riders in forever.
Finishers: Michael Albasini, Oliver Zaugg. Two perfect fits in terms of style... but form? The latter has been strangely quiet all year, though he looked pretty good in Canada. Albasini may not be on any sort of form, if his recent results are to be believed. Where's Johan Tschopp?
Table Setters: Steve Morabito, Greg Rast, Michael Schar, Matti Frank. The Big Man is sorely missed here.
Cohesion: Does infighting exist in Switzerland? I thought that was a rest-of-the-world thing. Anyway, they'll be fine. But they should be more dangerous on this course than I fear they will be.
9. United States
Finishers: Tejay and Taylor. The WC road race is a pretty tough nut to crack for a couple young gunslingers. The last time a young rider won out of anything more than a field sprint, it was Lance Armstrong in 1993. And I have no idea what to make of that. Anyway, this isn't likely their year: Phinney has been unbelievable but it's not a good course for him; van Garderen is a very nice fit, but he'd have to escape alone to win. The chance of that is not zero, but it's not great either.
Table Setters: Andrew Talansky, Chris Horner, Matthew Busche, Tim Duggan. Very nice mix of skills, but short on experience.
Cohesion: I like the young roster, on a lot of levels. And if Horner is the only old dude, well, he seems pretty easy to get along with. Team USA is laying the groundwork for a decade(ish) of solidly relevant competition. Like Colombia, I'll be more excited in a year's time.
Finishers: Peter Sagan. Who, oddly enough, might not be on top form. I mean, he tracked down Gerro in Quebec but he didn't just blow past him for the win. What gives?
Table Setters: Juraj. The Velitses. Any one of them sticking around til the last lap will get it done.
Cohesion: As a parent of young boys I don't necessarily equate brotherhood with cohesion, but it seems to work out pretty well in cycling.
Left off: Great Britain -- the dominant Olympic squad has simply run out of gas, and doesn't have the type of climby classics dudes you'd want here. Germany -- Apart from Martins, this is a sprinting squad at a climbing race. Ireland -- Dan Martin is an individual to watch. Too bad this post is a team ranking. Same for Norway (EBH) and Portugal (Rui Costa).