Welcome to Vlaamse Wielerweek, Dames en Herren! It's the most wonderful time of the year for many of us, and with any luck this will be as wonderful an edition of the wonderfulness as you can hope for. Nearly all of the stars are here, with one rather glaring exception, and the weather is more or less springy... which is to say we haven't been able to rule out a truly nasty set of Classics, and all that implies, for this spring.
Vlaamse Wielerweek is of course an eleven-day period during which four classics and a short stage race collect around the cobblestones of Flanders, culminating in de Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday, April 4. If you don't understand yet how amazing all that is, I might have a book for you in the coming months that explains this in OCD-like detail. [Aside: do Belgians think of de Ronde as part of Vlaamse Wielerweek? I always thought the term only applied to the activities leading up to Sunday. Details...]
Douglas is our lead on the Cobbles this year, but I am Senior Team Power Poll Correspondent, and as such that means I have two specific duties this year: writing team power polls and looking after Cuddles the Cobble, our old friend and resident font of wisdom (a title he insisted on in his contract). Thus, without further ado, let's start delving into that old mystery stew, the Total Team Awesomeness Rankings!
A few details... these are not individual rankings; Cancellara might be the favorite but that doesn't add up to team strength; nor does lack thereof diminish his favorite status. Also, what exactly is team strength, as opposed to the sum of its parts? The answer is... probably not much. Most DSs say they aim to have as many riders survive to the final stages of the race as possible, and just figure out how to play the cards then. It's not like a leadout train, where riders learn highly specific roles. It's just, get to the last 50k with the front group no matter what. So yeah, it's really just the sum of the parts, plus maybe some sort of compatibility among those who can do so. If you want to enlighten me further on that point, I'm all ears!
Bryn Lennon, Getty Images
1. Etixx-Quick Step
Tom Boonen Zdenek Stybar, Mark Cavendish
Supporting Actors: Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, Guillaume Van Kiersbulck, Yves Lampaert, Michal Kwiatkowski, I could go on.
History: How much time do you have? Let's just say you probably would have been shocked to see them ranked any lower.
Run of Form: Uh, aside from losing their team captain to a vicious injury? Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
Except in their case, the answer in that metaphor would be "I loved it!" Even minus Tom Boonen, they won Strade Bianche with an amazing show of strength from Stybar, They won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Cavendish, who counts for the cobbles when one remembers that the Scheldeprijs exists. Terpstra won earlier in Qatar and was second in the Omloop. Even their domestiques Yves Lampaert, Iljo Keisse and GIanni Meersman all won relevant races (3 Days West Flanders, Handzame Classic, Ronde van Zeeland). Only Van Kiersbulck has fallen short of what people expect of him, which may say more about people than Mini-Boo himself.
Oh, and the World Champion. There is a lot of excitement around the fact that Kwiatkowski will ride the Tour of Flanders, a not terribly common rainbow showing in that great race. Enthusiasm should be contained a bit -- he views Flanders and Dwars before it as warmups for his goals in the Ardennes -- but it's cool enough in its own right, and he's just clever enough to maybe even do something.
Prediction: Stybar will win a monument. I get that Cancellara blah blah blah but I don't see him as stronger than Stybar right now. Terpstra is too dangerous to leave alone as well, and with so many other potential helpers they should factor into the end game of every single event. Basic statistical probabilities suggest they will win at least once, and team cycling concepts suggest it could be much more than that.
"Gosh, this is so enlightening. I'm so glad I didn't accidentally just read the 2014 Power Poll. Or the 2013 poll."
Protagonist: Greg Van Avermaet,
Supporting Actors: Daniel Oss, Marcus Burghardt, Sylvan Dillier, Manuel Quinziato, Michael Schar, Jempy Drucker. Philippe Gilbert.
History: Gilbert warrants a brief footnote, as a former Ronde podium occupant and regular winner of Brabantse Pijl, which resides in that grey area between the cobbles and Ardennes. But I don't see him on any other startlists, so make of that what you will. Burghardt is the only former winner of a cobbled classic by the stricter definition, and that was before BMC existed on this level. But that's not to disparage the actual BMC palmares: Van Avermaet is the reigning Ronde runner-up.
Run of Form: Phinney has not resumed racing following his horrible crash last year, though a year from now hopefully we will be discussing him quite a lot in this poll. Van Avermaet won a stage in Tirreno. Drucker has been seen in the sprint bunches. Dillier looks dangerous at times, albeit in small attacks. Burghardt and Schar seem as strong and useful as ever. Oss was frickin killing it at Milano-Sanremo.
Prediction: While a lot of us gnash our teeth over Van Avermaet's clouded status, the fact remains that he's racing and is once more a favorite for a top result. I'd bet on him being on a couple podiums, though wins will be hard to come by in the coming days. What makes BMC more interesting is the likelihood of them having several cards to play, and playing them aggressively. Oss doesn't have many glittering results besides 5th in Gent-Wevelgem in 2010, but every year a guy like Oss comes in with no palmares but a hot hand and the right mix of skills, and is suddenly everywhere. The rest of the guys are wildcards, and probably more relevant to Dwars and E3 (being shorter), but you never know.
Other than the fact that they've never won anything in Flanders, and experience counts for like 90% of it, they're awesome!
3. Team Sky
Protagonist: Geraint Thomas
Supporting Actors: Bradley Wiggins, Ian Stannard, Bernhard Eisel
History: Well, at this rate they won't relinquish control of the Omloop until it's pried from Stannard's cold, dead hands. Thomas has a second in Dwars and a smattering of top tens, joined by Wiggins in the Paris-Roubaix honor roll last year. Eisel is a former Gent-Wevelgem winner, in HTC colors.
Run of Form: Thomas was super strong in Paris-Nice. Stannard's form might be heading in the wrong direction, proving once more what a red herring the Omloop can be. Eisel and Wiggins have done nothing this year, but they're both looking toward winding down their careers, so you can probably count on some improvement over the next couple weeks.
Prediction: I'm sure to get some pushback in the relative ranking of Sky vis-a-vis BMC, and all I can tell you is that I'm a bit more convinced by BMC's captain than Sky's. But just a bit. While BMC have upward mobility in their young legs, Sky are counting on some aging riders to step up once more. That goes against our usual age-ism bias, this being sports, but Flanders isn't like normal sports, and getting old is sometimes a very good thing here.
I expect Thomas to impress us again, but I'm a little skeptical as to how much assistance he'll have.
"Cycling teams and manufacturers put untold money and time into developing minute aerodynamic advantages for riders... who then grow beards to get back at their parents. That's cycling."
4. Lotto NL - Jumbo
Protagonist: Sep Vanmarcke
Supporting Actors: Bram Tankink, Maarten Tjallingii, Maarten Wynants, Moreno Hofland
History: Vanmarcke grabs top-five placings at cobbled classics out of habit, though his only victory was the Omloop, and from his Garmin days. Lotto-NL have an inglorious history of securing wins in the classics, dating back to its Rabobank years, but they can be counted on to show up on the scoresheet. Tjallingii was third in Roubaix in 2011. Tankink ripped off top-fives in E3 and Brabantse Pijl that same year.
Run of Form: No victories to speak of, and Hofland looks like a non-factor at the moment, but Sep has shown enough to warrant co-favorite status in the monuments.
Prediction: We are well into the second tier of Classics teams here, as the dropoff after Sky and BMC is not nothing. Still, Lotto NL can keep themselves well in contention thanks to one man. I firmly believe Sep will win a monument. He and Stybar will combine to shut out Cancellara. And Vanmarcke will be all over E3 too. After that, if anyone else is around to help, or if Hofland can get up to speed in the Scheldeprijs or Driedaagse de Panne, all the better.
"Chris's Sep worship was a lot cuter when it was more pathetic."
Photo by Patrick Verhoest
Protagonist: Alexander Kristoff
Supporting Actors: Luca Paolini, Alexei Tsatevich, Alexander Kolobnev, Jacopo Guarnieri
History: Kristoff has two top-fives in Flanders and a top ten in Roubaix, along with some high placings at Driedaagse and the Scheldeprijs. Paolini was on the Flanders podium back in his Liquigas days, and was 11th in P-R for Katusha in 2012. Guarnieri has been 23rd and 31st in P-R. Tsatevich was seventh in Gent-Wevelgem last year.
Run of Form: Paolini and Kristoff were excellent in Milano-Sanremo, as good a gauge as you're gonna get.
Prediction: If the weather is nice, Kristoff will be in contention to win any race he enters. Nowhere I'd make him a favorite, but if rival teams don't drop him from the peloton on Friday (E3), they'll be sorry. Tsatevich's GW performance was nothing to sneeze at, and promises him a shot at some nice placings before too long... though of course that was in good weather. Anyway, not to be overlooked.
"We sure do get a lot of great Norwegian sprinters in the classics nowadays. Is this a bad time to mention that they trail Sweden in cobbled monument wins?"
6. Tinkoff - Saxo
Protagonist: Peter Sagan
Supporting Actors: Matti Breschel, Daniele Bennati, Christopher Juul-Jensen
History: Sagan has so far been kept out of the Monument winners' circle, runner-up two years ago at Flanders for his former team, though he also took E3 last year and Gent-Wevelgem the year before.. Of course, quite a bit was won in Saxo colors five years ago, including Breschel's only major win, at Dwars, as well as Cancellara's breakout performances. You could also throw a couple Paris-Roubaixs in the hopper (good on ya Stuey) if you see this as an historical exercise. Bennati is historically useful around this terrain as well.
Run of Form: Sagan was a disgraceful fourth in Milano-Sanremo, and didn't even win Strade Bianche (by not taking the start). Breschel was even more pathetic, twelfth in MSR, suggesting he has the ability to disappoint management even further starting tomorrow. Bennati might be injured or ill, given his DNFs in Tirreno and MSR, which is just another tired excuse. Really, the whole team needs to be fired and replaced by some riders who care about winning. Like (insert riders currently under contract with other teams).
Prediction: If the team's morale bottoms out quickly enough, they could rebound in time to do something. Sagan hasn't been overly convincing this season, if you are subjecting him to his past devastating results, but those results were largely in lesser races, and he comes into the Monuments more experienced than before. Flanders suits him to a tee and he had little trouble remaining in contention in his first stab at Paris-Roubaix last year. With a somewhat resurgent or at least still useful Breschel as co-captain, Sagan seems like a lock for a podium place somewhere, and a win if either Sep or Stybs should falter.
"I don't know what Tinkoff is thinking with his mind games. I can tell you from my 15 years as a Director at Rabobank that those tactics don't work."
7. Lotto - Soudal
Protagonist: André Greipel at some point. Probably Jurgen Roelandts the rest of the time.
Supporting Actors: Jens Debusschere, Kris Boeckmans, Lars Bak, Tiesj Benoot
History: Roelandts has been on the Ronde podium (2013) and sixth in Gent (2010). I swore he was going to do something big last year, but he crashed out of Flanders. Tony Gallopin was their protagonist last year, finishing sixth in E3 and third in Brabantse Pijl, but he's on Ardennes duty this time around. Greipel can't seem to find the podium in the classics, and would need GW or another race to stay together to the very end.
Run of Form: Hotter than the surface of Venus. Boeckmans has three wins, two in Belgian semi-classics. Debusschere won a stage of Paris-Nice. Greipel has a lone win. Benoot has been in the mix. And perhaps most importantly, Roelandts is fine, finishing 11th at MSR.
Prediction: For all their quality, oozing from every pore of the roster, it's hard to see them gaining a win outside the secondary races like Driedaagse or the Wednesday action. Not because they lack the necessities; there are just too many bigger stars around. But I will be borderline angry if they aren't animating every race in the final hour.
"What if Lotto win Flanders while Boonen is home babysitting? Is it too soon for the girls to see their daddy cry?"
8. Trek Factory Racing
Protagonist: Fabian Cancellara
Supporting Actors: Stijn Devolder, ... would you like me to keep going? OK, Gregory Rast and a couple hard-working New Zealanders. In the non-monuments you can add Giacomo Nizolo and Danny van Poppel to the mix.
History: Cancellara has a history of making history. Devolder has a history too, which is becoming harder and harder to fathom as it ages.
Run of Form: Cancellara missed out on the podium at MSR for the first time in years, but that can be discounted by the lack of selectivity in the course. He won a couple forgettable stages and otherwise seems like he's laying low.
Prediction: Spoiler alert! Oh wait, I should have included that above. Cancellara is human, I think, so while it won't surprise a soul if he sets the record for career Flanders wins, it says here that the ghost of Fiorenzo Magni sleeps soundly on April 5.
"Imagine what Cancellara could to if he had any support. Oh, wait, I'm reading from a 2010 script."
9. Giant - Alpecin
Protagonist: John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel
Supporting Actors: Koen De Kort, Bert De Backer, Ramon Sinkeldam
History: Kittel seems to enjoy his annual stopover in CobblesLand, which lasts long enough to win the Scheldeprijs. Degenkolb was second in Paris-Roubaix last year (!!!) and won Gent-Wevelgem. He also owns two top-tens in E3 and Flanders. De Kort was third in Dwars once. De Backer was 11th in Roubaix last year.
Run of Form: Degenkolb won Milano-Sanremo, which is about as good as runs of form get. Sinkeldam went home sick from Paris-Nice. Not much else of note.
Prediction: Degenkolb might hang around but MSR winners don't have a great track record of following through in Flanders in recent years. No reason Kittel can't win another Scheldeprijs, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Degenkolb won Gent-Wevelgem again. Probably best to temper expectations after that.
"Remind me again who the genius was who said we should encourage Germans to embrace cycling? Oh, right, the boss."
10. MTN - Qhubeka
Protagonist: Edvald Boasson Hagen
Supporting Actors: Tyler Farrar, Theo Bos, Reinhart Janse van Rensburg, Kristian Sbaragli, Matt Goss
History: Bubkis. Boasson Hagen owns a Gent-Wevelgem win from days of yore. Farrar was fifth in Flanders and won the Scheldeprijs back in 2010... again, not with MTN.
Run of Form: Boasson Hagen has been consistently good, including tenth in MSR. Farrar hasn't scored much, which is not unusual. Sbaragli has been in on some sprints. Ciolek was second in a Tirreno stage.
Prediction: Remember how I spoke of a second tier up above? I think we're down to a third tier now, with about six teams whom you could credibly place in any order you want. Boasson Hagen might do something this weekend, or in Driedaagse, and any race ending in a sprint will see Farrar in the mix for a top spot. But there is nothing they do that someone else doesn't generally do better. Luck will have to come in heaping helpings for them to score a victory.
"Well I certainly hope they have a great couple weeks.
"What? I can't say something nice once in a while?"
Protagonist: Lars Boom
Supporting Actors: Borut Bozic, Laurens De Vreese, Andriy Grivko
History: Almost nothing. Bozic was threatening last spring, taking third in Dwars and 7th in E3, but again that was the year of nice weather and bunch finishes. Even more impressive was 2013, when he was second in both. So there's a pattern. Grivko has a history of hanging around Driedaagse, but that is pretty stale. Boom is a perpetual threat in all of the classics, though he's yet to top sixth in Roubaix, and even that wasn't for Astana.
Run of Form: Boom is his usual self. I can't remember if he was being called too skinny or not skinny enough back in January. But his results are typical so far. Bozic has been perhaps a bit too quiet.
Prediction: Boom may still be adjusting to life in the Astana circus, and there's no reason to get especially optimistic that this is his year. De Vreese was a smart pickup as a very useful guy in the late stages of the classics. I'd feel stupid for overlooking Bozic once again. Not foreseeing anything much though.
"Astana are under fire this season, but there's an old saying that I think applies: Don't judge anyone til you've walked a mile in his pajamas."
12. IAM Cycling
Protagonist: Sylvain Chavanel
Supporting Actors: Heinrich Haussler, Dries Devenyns, Vicente Reynes
History: Chava took fifth at Dwars last year. Haussler went 4th-6th-11th in Gent/Flanders/Roubaix two years ago, and of course owns a second place in Flanders from his Cervélo years, as does Chava, among many results from his Quick Stepping days. Devenyns was 14th in Flanders a year ago, for Giant-Shimano.
Run of Form: Haussler and Chavanel are their usual selves. Devenyns left Paris-Nice with a nasty cold.
Prediction: Top 20s in the monuments. Chava's time trialling is often good for points in Driedaagse. Can't see much more than that.
"I'm not sure what they have left in the tank, but I can't wait for the post-retirement Chava and Hauss buddy-cop drama series. That's gold!"
Protagonist: Sebastian Turgot, Damien Gaudin
Supporting Actors: Johan Van Summeren, Sebastian Minard
History: Minard was top 20 last year, but the duo of Turgot and Gaudin, while quiet last spring, lit up the two monuments in 2013 in Europcar colors. Van Summeren, of course, owns a cobble from his Garmin years.
Run of Form: Turgot seems to have barely raced this year. Gaudin seems fine, as does Summie. Minard left Paris-Nice, for reasons I can't decipher.
Prediction: Was 2013 a mirage? These two were sensational, and with some essential help in Van Summeren and Minard it seems reasonable to expect to see AG2R colors on the front near the end of the race. Hoping for real results is another matter, but AG2R deserve their money's worth from Turgot and Gaudin.
"There's an old saying in cycling: never bet against two Frenchmen with a handful of intriguing results."
14. Topsport Vlaanderen
Protagonist: Jelle Wallays
Supporting Actors: Edward Theuns, Preben Van Hecke
History: As a pro-conti team Topsport Vlaanderen aren't usually able to steal podium spots, though their stable of developing young Belgian riders sometimes surprises. Like when a teenaged Sep Vanmarcke took second in Gent-Wevelgem back in 2010.
Run of Form: Theuns won Drenthe and has made it into a few other one-day sprints. Wallays hasn't scored much this year.
Prediction: The fields are loaded, so it might not be a good year for shock results. But Wallays nabbing some points would hardly be a shock. This is a guy who won Paris-Tours, after all, which is a pretty good comp for Gent-Wevelgem.
"If I ran the TSV bus I would take a page from basic child-parent dynamics and blast Teen-pop tunes in warmups. The earworm effect would bring every rider over 30 to his knees inside of three hours."
Protagonist: Arnaud Demare, Yoann Offredo
Supporting Actors: William Bonnet, David Boucher
History: Demare has won Le Samyn and been second in Gent-Wevelgem last year. Offredo is usually hanging around the top 20.
Run of Form: Demare has been on a couple sprint stage podiums. Offredo is out and about, with little in the way of stunning results.
Prediction: Demare could win the Scheldeprijs, if he can get by Kittel, and will be a major threat in any of the shorter classics if a bunch sprint happens. He's shown enough to be respected as a true classics rider, not merely a fast finisher who hides out all day. Also, we're talking about a 23-year-old. Offredo is more of a proven also-ran at this point, but if Demare makes a finale with him, perhaps they can work some magic.
"Has anyone figured out how to leverage the whole Madiot-screams-at-things-and-its-awesome? I mean, his riders, for sure, he needs to be screaming at them out the window of the car more. But what if he screamed out of his car at more important things, like global warming, or Middle East peace talks? I mean, it's gotta be worth a try, right?"