Ahhhhh, the first power poll of the season. All is fresh and unknown. We have no race-results to fall back on when casting merciless judgement on teams and riders, it's all based on guesswork and reasonable conclusions based on old (and by now obsolete) experiences. The freedom is near total so it's easy to get lightheaded. But we do need a place to start, some steady ground to put our feet in. We can't just make shit up completely, this isn't Nam, there are rules. So why not go with the Ultimate Source of all Useful Knowledge, our own FSA DS points ranking? That is indeed what I've done. The topscoring fifteen teams from the 2012 cobbles season ranked in order with some likely candidates for inclusion added at the end, and that is where we start. By the next poll it will all have been irrevocably altered by the realities of a new season. To summarize the likely direction of a team during the season I will add my guess on whether they are likely to get symbolic Cobble-prize or will be in need of a long comforting April cuddle.
If you find yourself agreeing with any of the conclusions here something has probably gone horribly wrong as that would be unprecedented so please report this to the proper authorities. And with that.......... the ranking......
1. Omega Pharma - Quick Step
Let's face it, Omega Pharma is the unit to beat. No one commands these races like they do and with Boonen back on top after last year they hold all the cards. He's the finisher but he has as well-oiled a machine behind him as anyone. With Chavanel and Terpstra as the lieutenants that cover everything and grind the races down they are incredibly hard to overcome and the rest of the backup is superb as well. Stijn Vandenberg is arguably one of the strongest cobbles helpers and there are young hotshots Trentin and van Keirsbulck who will almost certainly be winning races too in the very near future. Then add recently transformed cx World Champion Zdenek Stybar who will be 100% focused on the cobbles this year and his form looks formidable. So even if Boonen doesn't quite catch up with is form in time they will still be dominant.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Even if Boonen should "fail" to live up to last year others will step up. Cobble.
Almost all the points last year where courtesy of Alessandro Ballan who will be sitting this cobble-season out . Absurdly they are still probably the most star studded team out there. If Gilbert is back on form, which all signs point to he could outscore Ballan easily. And as if that wasn't enough there's a healthy Hushovd for Roubaix and a Greg van Avermaet who is obviously primed to win a big one at any moment by now. But lets forget about those three for a moment and focus on what we all dream of, the kids Oss and Phinney released like the horsemen of the apocalypse on the cobbles. Now that would be a sight to see but of course it's not what's going to happen. Oss will more likely be a carthorse as will Phinney except perhaps for Roubaix unless the DS get a little creative. It's a pity but also what happens when you put together as many stars as BMC has in their cobbles-squad. I haven't even mentioned Burghard and Quinziato for chrissakes.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Are you kidding? They'll win everything. Cobble
3. Team Sky
This is it, no excuses, Sky have to get the results this year. This is the sense you get from the team and given how their stage-race unit went last year the standards are high. It's not like they've sucked in the past, they just haven't really wowed anyone with the big wins. Now the strong but tactically limited Flecha is gone and it's up to Edvald Boasson Hagen to actually become the big race-winner he was recruited (and paid) to be. Is anyone as convinced about that as they were three years ago? Probably not. Luckily Sky have more cards to play in the form of Thomas, who is probably making his last big spring campaign before he squanders his talent on some godforsaken french mountainside in pursuit of yellow, and Bernard Eisel who could very well snipe a win in one of the big races. He has the skills and the experience but has his babysitting career neutered him of his hunger to win?
Cobble or Cuddle? : Preparing for the classics in Tenerife? Big babies. Cuddle
Ever since the Cervélo merger Garmin have been going into classics season looking like a powerhouse and have had mixed results from it. This year they are decidedly weaker. They lost Sep for whatever reason and the replacement Nick Nuyens is the very model of inconsistency. Who knows what the hell he can do? Will we get the meek Dr Nick who flounders in anonymity or will we get the evil Mr Nuyens who strikes and wins Flanders again? Hardly sure ground to build on. Around him they have Farrar who could be a factor again (but is anyone going to bet on it ) and a Sebastian Rosseler who looks like he could be good for De Panne but perhaps not much else?The most exciting prospect is perhaps Jack Bauer who was an impressive workhorse last year and Navardauskas, the Honey Badger, who the Evil Sideburns seems to be sending to the cobbles for a first real try. Pardon me for being a little bit schoolgirlishly excited at the idea of this.
Cobble or Cuddle? : One word. Sepless . Cuddle
Fifth? They were fifth? I'm assuming this is the natural reaction to a mention of the plucky frenchmen in a cobbles powerpoll. And of course it is a result of the way we score the races because they don't have the profile wins or results but still the numbers don't lie. Europcar had a number of very active and superbly riding guys who were factors in practically all the races. Turgot at Roubaix is of course the most memorable but he was by no means alone. So some will argue that a bunch of honorable top 10s isn't much to brag about but if they can stay there or thereabouts this year again one of the big races is going to fall their way. And aggression in these races like we saw from Vincent Jerome is always going to get you places.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Repeat of 2012? Not likely. Also, name me one potential winner? Cuddle
The russians are the terminally underrated squad in the spring. Even without Pozzato last year they came desperately close to winning with both Paolini and Freire. Freire is of course gone now but something tells me Alexander Kristoff isn't far from filling his shoes already and wily old Paolini is a constant but often forgotten dangerman. Should Simon Spilak dedicate himself to the classics he would probably be up there as well but he seems a bit split in his focus. It's not the flashiest team but they always seem to over perform and if a guy like Selig could continue developing they should be a major factor, especially in the races that could end up in a sprint.
Cobble or Cuddle? : If your strongest card is a Norwegian sprinter and an old Italian relic you're going down in the ranking. Cuddle.
7. Team Blanco
This is where things get interesting and unpredictable. Rabo went into spring 2012 with Boom, Breschel and Bloody awful strategy and came away with predictably bland results. Breschel was a factor but seemed to lack the legs to go in the finales after a long injury period. Boom took another smallish step forward. 2013 feels like a make or break year in so many ways though. Boom is clearly on the brink , he could and should get a major result but if he doesn't you have to start wondering where the problem lies. He will have a superb wing man in Vanmarcke who chose Rab/lanco out of the doubtlessly multiple offers he had and he must have done it for a reason. The overall support is excellent allround so that won't be an issue but will Sep and Lars play nice? Therein lies the key to the whole season I suspect. .
Cobble or Cuddle? : Fantasies of phenomenal potential fulfilled. We like to dream. Cobble.
Can I confess to not getting Vacansoleil at all? Am I alone in this? I'm looking at a team I should be really impressed with but I just don't get a wow-feeling. Leukemans and Marcato are solid studs in these races and they've swapped one power-dummy (Devolder) for another (Flecha) and that looks like a solid trade-off (to say the least). Behind them are solid fast-men Boeckmans and Bole. But I just don't see it. They're a bit of a headless chicken to me, running around with impressive energy but with little direction. so maybe you don't need a master tactician on the cobbles but it seems to me when you don't have a top level favorite, smart strategy becomes more important, not less? That said, odds are Vacansoleil could very well be sitting with two riders in a final selection of 5-6 in Roubaix and if history tells us anything it is never to listen to my predictions (oh and that landwar against Russia thing)
Cobble or Cuddle? : Unfocused mediocrity doomed to be eclipsed by the big stars. Cuddle
Argos are the plucky underdog favorites for many, with that history of the classic Skil jerseys to boot. But they have the potential to come out of this spring as so much more. Headlined by John Degenkolb who has looked born for the cobbles from his very first races on HTC they could win some major races. This is what they brought him on for and they're probably all within his reach, except perhaps the re-vamped Ronde where there may be one or two hills too many in the finale. He has a solid, if anonymous, string of support riders with him but after Koen de Kort's unfortunate injury the responsibility to get results will fall firmly on his shoulders. All signs point to him being able to handle it.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Too fragile and too many expectations on one unproven card. Cuddle
This will be the ultimate one man show. It's all Sagan all the time. Gone is Oss who made for a solid helper in a pinch and basically it will all fall back on Sagan's ability to summon the epic levels of awesomeness or however it is the diehard saganists put it. The common wisdom seems to be that he has about a 95 % chance to win a monument this year( no pressure kid). I think he has two things against him though. First Cannondale/Liquigas has bit by bit rid itself with much of it's cobbles quality in favor of stageracers (with spectacular results).This means there is little mentorship for a young rider plus very little support in the finales of the races. Second, as a result of this, Cannondale aren't really racing that much, being one of the teams who sit the opening weekend out. Sagan could use more racedays on the cobbles to wrap his head around how they work, not less. That said, the kid was there in the Tour of Flanders last year and he has the pure quality that allows him to be a serious contender despite all of the above. 87% maybe then?
(EDIT: Yes, I did have a bit of flashback and referred to them as Liquigas. They should have gotten rid of all the green and I'd have an easier time learning new things.)
Cobble or Cuddle? : Too fragile and too many expectations on one unproven card. Cobble.
11. Vini Fantini
What? Who? When? Huh? Oh yeah, they had Pozzato. Now they don't. Moving on.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Cuddle, Cuddle, Cuddle!
Could we be seeing the biggest FDJ spring since the year when Gilbert had his cobbles breakthrough? It's a very real possibility with the return of Offredo perhaps opening up a two pronged attack for the coming month. The sprintier courses Kuurne, Gent- Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs and Le Samyn are more or less tailormade for Demáre and if Offredo is as good as millions of FSA DS players around the globe think, the team will be a factor in the rest of the classics as well. It's not as if they are starved for quality besides that. Bonnet is aging but dependable and Ladagnous and Rollin know these races inside out and rarely disappoint. It's a lot of pressure on some pretty green kids but if the get in groove they could France a classics factor like we've never seen.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Depth and superstars. Cobble.
Let's remember, this is a 13th place based on a Cancellara-less campaign more or less since he had little luck even before crashing in Flanders. Rast and Gallopin did well to pick up some of the slack but even they weren't that lucky. This year looks like a whole new ballgame. Cance is back on track, the roster is bolstered with Devolder and Hondo ensuring a depth that Cancellara hasn't had since he left Riis for his Luxembourgian mis-adventure. Who the heck knows if Devolder will be of any use, all signs point to a resounding no but what the hey, stranger things have happened. Hondo on the other hand is a brilliant pickup. He's piloted Petacchi with a lot of success and he is a genuine hardman for the classics despite his sprinter resume. He could prove to be a quality right-hand-man and a decent plan B in his own right if age hasn't caught up with him. And of course there's Gallopin who looks like the obvious choice for "France's next Monument Winner" should Offredo be more hype than actual quality.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Anyone want to bet against Spartacus two years in a row? Even Devolder and Demol can't put a pump in the wheels of this Chariot of Triumph. Cobble.
14. Ag2r- La Mondiale
Unless there are some newly introduced sympathy-points for brown shorts that I haven't heard of you most likely won't see me mentioning Ag2r much here anymore after this. They picked up Hutarovich and he might stumble on a sprint point here or there but let's not confuse it with earning a spot in a cobbles powerpoll.
Cobble or Cuddle? : The A in Ag2r is for "Anonymous" Cuddle.
Cofidis are the ultimate "what-the hell"-team. Their whole strategy seems based on puling together a random bunch of riders, have them show up at races, hold a brief team-meeting where the DS asks for a show of hands if someone feels lucky that day and if someone does the DS says "what the hell?" and that guy is the captain. The results are predictably haphazard with a tendency towards "medium-crappy". Most likely to pull something off is probably Ghyselinck who was predicted an exciting future once. If it doesn't happen this spring Cofidis are in for a dry season most likely.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Want to see Cofidis succeed? Vandenbroucke's 1999 season is probably on Youtube? Cuddle.
And outside the top 15 from last year we find knocking on the door:
Serving as the venue for the Pozzato One-Man-Show this year they probably should have inherited Vini Fantini's spot in the poll. Strangely though as Lampre is a WT team Pippo actually looks to have weaker support here. With no Gatto, no Hulsmans, Pippo had better learn fast how to attach himself to some competitors wheel for an easier ride. Wait, what am I saying? He already knows how.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Barring sudden news from the Italian court-system....... Cobble.
While last year was all emptiness with Nuyens out of commission and not much depth, this year looks radically different. Breschel, the prodigal son has returned after two years in the Rabo desert. Actually it's a bit more like the red-headed stepson returns seeing as he left because he was constantly second fiddle. Well well, the first version makes for a better story so let's go with that. If Breschel can actually return to where he was he will absolutely produce results to match the emphasis Riis puts into the classics these days so this might be one of Bjarne's smarter gambles. Behind Breschel there's a Bennati who is much underrated for the classics and good for results as well with a little luck and Michael Mørkøv, the breakaway king of 2012. He is intent to turn the experience gained in the big efforts of last year into results this year and he wants to do it in the classics. We'll see if it's a good fit but Mørkøv is fantastically driven and I wouldn't be shocked to see him succeed despite limited history. Tosatto is good for some solid support too.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Hit and miss. Can't be as bad as last year though. Cobble
Lotto - Belisol
The Other Big Belgian Team had a shockingly slender 2012 spring with both Bak and Roelandts sidelined with injury. That their depth is so weak is a testament to the changing conditions in the new World Tour era. A big Belgian team without cobbles focus? What the hell is that? This year, barring more injuries I fully expect Jurgen Roelandts to win or come very close in one of the major races. Perhaps not de Ronde but Gent-Wevelgem perhaps? Or Het Nieuwsblad? He's that good, he just needs a run of good luck. And if doesn't have it, Greipel could well salvage the campaign.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Another case of "can't suck worse than 2012". Cobble
Goss, Langeveld, Docker, Keukeleire, O'Grady, Cooke...... how on earth did they do nothing at all last year? Expect them to change that pretty much right away. They're too good not to.
Cobble or Cuddle? : Gerrans basically pulled all the weight in 2012. These guys will live up to expectations now. Cobble
A very respectable bunch of classics riders. Haussler, Elmiger and Klemme all have pedigree and Goddaert is solid and dependable. In the end their fate will probably depend on the motivation and actual quality of Heinrich Haussler. Are there still any believers out there? Do we dare dream of 2009 again?..........
Cobble or Cuddle? : .............. probably not. Cuddle