Trying to build off of my "halfway home" assessment of the teams, below are some thoughts about who accomplished what of their stated goals for Cobbles Season, limited to the teams you're probably most interested in (and that I can think of something to say about them). In all, I would say that this year's Cobbled Classics were remarkable for their lack of tremendous surprises. Dry weather was part of that, but very few guys came completely out of the shadows to do something glorious. Our most surprising result was probably Paris-Roubaix, but even there it came from the co-leader of the world's best Classics team. Speaking of, let's get started.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Goals: World domination.
Results: Near-world domination. First in Paris-Roubaix (Terpstra), 4th in Flanders (Vandenbergh), 1st (Van Kiersbulck), 3rd (Steegmans) and 4th (Terpstra) in Driedaagse de Panne, Fifth in Gent-Wevelgem (Boonen), 2nd (Terpstra) and 4th (Vandenbergh) in E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, 1st in Dwars door Vlaanderen (Terpstra). Can I be done now?
Assessment: Holy crap. The only real debate around these guys is a chicken and egg thing, where the chicken is "embarassment of riches" and the egg is "masterful deployment." I prefer the latter, but then it's easy to have great tactics with these guys. To recap, they won Dwars when Terpstra soloed away from the leader group (containing a teammate) and held off a chase group (containing a teammate). They couldn't do the same in E3 after Boonen was left behind and Terpstra and Vandenbergh couldn't drop Peter Sagan. Nor could they win Gent-Wevelgem when it came to a bunch finish with some superior sprinters. But they dominated Driedaagse from start to finish, got beat by the best in De Ronde, and utterly crushed Paris-Roubaix in every way imaginable. Boonen on the attack; Stybar sitting pretty, Vandenbergh close by... there was almost no way for another team to reel in Terpstra and not pay for it even worse. The only big race they "botched" was de Ronde, but that was more of a power outage since they had taken advantage of Cancellara's crash and forced him to chase up to the front. Boonen and Stybar missed the key acceleration, but they still had one of their guys sprinting (ahem!) for the win.
Incidentally, Terpstra's two wins did not constitute a Devoldering. Recall, when Stijn Devolder took two Rondes off of Boonen's plate in 2008-09, those were highly choice opportunities for Boonen being nabbed from him. This time around, Boonen's prospects simply weren't as good as Terpstra's, so he played a decoy instead. Not literally, Boonen still pursued a win, but that just made it more convincing and tougher for teams to focus on Terpstra's whereabouts. As Van Kiersbulck improves, the only way to describe this team is "frightening."
Goals: Return on investment.
Results: Ka-ching! [Well, by lowering the investment, i.e. by sending Gilbert elsewhere.] Second in Ronde van Vlaanderen (Van Avermaet).
Assessment: A weird thing happened today during Brabantse Pijl -- my internet went completely dead, just as I was tying in a comment on how BMC never get guys up the road and grousing further about how Philippe Gilbert's attack didn't seem to be going anywhere. By the time the internet returned, Gilbert had won, so I suppose the outage spared me any extra humiliation. But really, I think it was the cycling gods punishing me for making ignorant comments.
The fact is, BMC did much to enlighten me on their tactics. In the two biggies, they had Van Avermaet up the road, and got Hushovd across in France. Moreover, they sent Phinney on a long-range break in de Ronde, which is a nice way to experience the race, and might have left him in position to help, though in the end Van Avermaet struck out alone. And Hushovd's move, while also not explicitly a decoy, was potential genius with Burghardt, Van Avermaet and Phinney following through with the chase... until the crash depicted rather fortuitously above. And even then they had a chance with Phinney, til a flat forced him off the pace.
Regarding Phinney, it's too bad the flat deprived us of the chance to see what he had in the finale of a 260km Paris-Roubaix. The kid is 23; at that age, Cancellara and Boonen were finishing 4th and 9th in Roubaix, and hanging with the pack in Flanders. Almost nobody actually turns into Boonen or Cancellara, even with comparable performances at age 23, but Phinney is in with a chance to do something special before long. He spoke as if he had the legs to make a difference at the end. If so, well, game on.
Goals: Grab a win someplace in the spring classics, including next week.
Results: Inconclusive. Second in Dwars (Farrar), 2nd in Scheldeprijs (Farrar).
Assessment: Hope they have something cooking in the other Ardennes. Farrar had his best campaign since 2010 with two podiums and eighth in E3, his best result there ever. Langeveld was quietly top ten in both Monuments, proving his value is what we thought it was (for most of the last decade). Things could be worse. But Garmin never seemed in a threatening position. Kittel is impossible to beat in Schoten. Terpstra was long gone in Dwars, as was the bunch in E3. Farrar crashed out of Gent-Wevelgem, possibly his best shot at a major win though Degenkolb is not much easier to take at the line than his mannschaft-mate Kittel. They rarely ever had numbers up front. Just a forgettable run.
Well, except for Van Summeren's nearly tragic crash in Flanders, which we all wish we could forget. [No recent updates on the condition of Mrs. Marie-Claire Moreels, who was placed in an artificial coma while her brain trauma hopefully recedes.] Van Summeren himself sounded like he was still affected emotionally by the event during his ride across France Sunday. Not surprisingly, since people affected by that sort of event don't typically feel fine a week later, but it is startling to hear him speak of hitting his brakes a lot, which I read to mean that he felt tentative about riding. Here's to happy days on the bike again eventually, and to a full recovery by the victim if possible.
Goals: A Sagan win someplace.
Results: 1st in E3 Prijs (Sagan), 3rd in Gent-Wevelgem (Sagan).
Assessment: Meuh. That's what us statistically-obsessed DDIFPs think of the 40-point-man's run through the classics. Why didn't he win the Tour of Flanders? I mean really, how hard can it be?
Me, I see progress in his one victory. Added to his win in Gent-Wevelgem last year, he's made a small step up the latter to E3 winner -- a tougher race most years, and certainly one that doesn't generally favor sprinters, if that's still what you call Sagan. The lack of wins at the monument distance? Sixth in Paris-Roubaix at age 24, with little luck on his side, is nothing to cry about. He has only raced in Hell one previous time, so his somewhat naive solo attack into a headwind was maybe just a growing pain. As for Flanders, it was jarring to see him lack the acceleration to follow Cancellara's attack on the Oude Kwaremont, but the guy's not a robot. For whatever reason, he wasn't as strong on that day. He will be again, don't you fret.
Goals: Win something big.
Results: Third in e# Prijs (Thomas).
Assessment: I'm just counting the most recent run of races, not discounting the significance of Ian Stannard's Omloop win. Anyway, they nearly acquitted themselves rather brilliantly, with Bradley Wiggins' Paris-Roubaix run (sixth) offering story-of-the-year potential, had he been able to finish off the win. Oh, and Edvald Boasson Hagen attacked in Flanders (huzzah!). So close, so close. Instead, we're left with rather bland storylines about Geraint Thomas hanging around a few finales, but nothing more.
The future remains fairly bright though. Wiggins sounded like a guy who will be back in the classics next year. Thomas was everywhere, even if he didn't quite know what to do in the end. Stannard will rebound from his broken collarbone and hopefully have better luck next time. Boasson Hagen should continue to play that in-between role effectively enough. Nothing to fret about here. This wasn't the most interesting team coming in, but it might be next year.
Goals: Something something Alexander Kristoff.
Results: Fifth in Flanders (Kristoff).
Assessment: Somewhere along the line, I think I called Kristoff "a poor man's Peter Sagan." Not exactly faint praise, but maybe a bit faint. At 27 years old, the Norwegian is more of a survivor with a sprint than a dominant force like Sagan can sometimes be. But he showed some very strong riding, even threatening the leaders of De Ronde in the final km. Cancellara himself acknowledged that the sprint was shaped partly by fear of Kristoff rolling up on the leading quartet. That would not have been good times, except for Kristoff and Katusha.
So Kristoff acquitted himself well enough, even if the fickleness of the classics means that his results don't say too much. A more promising story might be that of Alexei Tsatevich, two years younger and coming on as a classics threat with seventh in Gent-Wevelgem, tenth in Brabantse Pijl today, and ... well, nowhere in Flanders. But that's the story for another day. As for Paolini, he's always lurking in the shadows -- or pummeling the field from up front -- but results aren't his stock-in-trade. Just bearded awesomeness.
Goals: Sprints, which then become victories
Results: Second in Paris-Roubaix (Degenkolb), 1st in Scheldeprijs (Kittel), 5th in Driedaagse De Panne (Kittel), 1st in Gent-Wevelgem (Degenkolb).
Assessment: Die Mannschaft really is the Dutch Superteam we've been waiting for. With glittering Oranje talent like Degenkolb... er, Kitte... er, well, who cares about that nationality shit. I love this team as much as possible considering their dreadfully dull kits and repping Shimano, the people who turned your brake lever into a shifter. Bert De Backer and Dries Devenyns, who are very nearly Dutch (ducks), both just turned in rather impressive domestique efforts on the cobbles in service of their two ace sprinters, one of whom gets our Breakout Star of the Year award. It was touching to see Degenkolb pump his fist at second place in Paris-Roubaix. So often guys pound their bars instead, while we fans say stuff like "he beat everybody else" and "that's still 300 points for my FSA DS team." Degenkolb well and truly appreciated the importance of his result, maybe not for our crass points scale but for what it means going forward. He's arrived.
Oh, and that's just the cobbles overview. Don't get me started on Barguil and Dumoulin.
Goals: Don't get completely overshadowed by Giant-Shimano
Sep's Results: Fourth in Paris-Roubaix; third in de Ronde; fourth in Gent-Wevelgem; fifth in E3 Prijs.
Assessment: Look on the bright side -- if Sep hadn't had a strange falling-out at Garmin, and subsequently fallen in Belkin's lap, they would be on their second consecutive unmitigated disaster tour. Still, the headlines this week are about Robert Gesink's heart condition. Some things never seem to change.
What if? Say Lars Boom doesn't hurt his elbow, then they have Wynants, Tankink, the curiously strong spring of Jos van Emden, and Boom and Vanmarcke all in play in the late stages of Paris-Roubaix. Give Sep just one of those guys up front, and maybe Terpstra doesn't just saunter off. Instead, Sep had to go it alone, with the predictable results of not being able to dictate too much in the finale. He was good enough to win, but it takes more than that to out-duel a master like Cancellara or the wave of Quick Steppers.
It's hard to see what else Belkin should do, besides go back and try again. One of these days...
Trek Factory Racing
Goals: Get to the finish in time to celebrate with Fabian.
Results: Third in Paris-Roubaix (Cancellara), 3rd in Scheldeprijs (D. Van Poppel), 1st in Flanders (Cancellara).
Assessment: The encouraging signs include one or another van Poppel sticking with the big boys in the Scheldeprijs and Gent-Wevelgem, the two sprinter-friendly events, and the sorta-return to prominence of Stijn Devolder, at least until his left elbow turned into hamburger. After that, it was kind of a shitshow. Not that Cancellara doesn't have help -- Popovych and Rast were useful while they lasted -- but he once again has not even a whiff of a card to play. Well, I do recall Devolder up the road a time or two before de Ronde, which was nice. But that's about it.
Cancellara is a generational talent evolving into a master craftsman, but in doing so he is also showing signs that he can't last forever, suggesting that the historic rate of cyclists who eventually decline in form will remain at 100%. Cancellara won Flanders on his considerable instincts, but how many more times can he pull that trick? Give the man some help. Why couldn't they have gone after Langeveld, for example? Maybe they did and were outbid. Why did they have to lose Gallopin? It's time to up the bidding. Do something, Trek.
Goals: Something very different from reality
Results: Nothing in the top five.
Assessment: Every year one team seems to have gotten cross-wise with the Cycling Gods, and Lotto were that team this time around. First Greipel gets taken out in Gent-Wevelgem, then Jurgen Roelandts in de Ronde. Those two, plus Gallopin, made for a very interesting potential player coming into the Cobbles, but they seemed completely deflated after Greipel went down on a day where he was a very strong pick to win. I can't recall how many km were left, but it was clear we were looking at a bunch gallop in Wevelgem, and Greipel's record against his countryman is rock-solid (8-2 in stage race sprints, for example). There's nothing to analyze, besides "that's cycling."
Others of Note
AG2R were the strongest team on paper coming into the classics, but got pipped by FDJ (Demare 12th in P-R) and Europcar (Jerome 11th in Flanders) for most relevant French team. Bless em, they tried, but not in any clever or truly hopeful way.
Tinkoff's season could be summarized thusly:
I don't love crashes, but when they happen, I prefer these lucky action shots. Especially love the guy in jeans running away. That's (watching) cycling.
All Photos by Sirotti