Chris was kind enough to pass on the baton of this week's power poll to me (personally, I think he just wanted time off to split a few litres of Leffe with Cuddles the Cobble), and I couldn't have picked a more interesting time to come in. Every preconceived story we had before the past week has been upended. Boonen is out nursing a dislocated shoulder (but miiiiiiiiight toe the line in Roubaix, if you believe his overly optimistic sponsor), Cancellara is joining him at the bar drinking away a cobbles season stolen away by injury, and Peter Sagan seems to have regressed rather than gotten stronger over the past year. In fact, the only two storylines that seem to have held up are 1) Stybar is made for the cobbles, and 2) Sep Vanmarcke is strong as an ox, though we will have more on those in a moment. The rest...? Well, take a look see below.
1. Etixx - Quickstep
Protagonists: Nikki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, Michal Kwiatkowski
Run of Form: Physically, the Quickstep lot look - to nobody's surprise - positively formidable. No major podium since Dwars door Vlaanderen has been without a Quickstep rider, and Kwiatkowski came in fourth in Dwars. Simply put, no team is stronger than Quickstep.
But, they're not winning.
This isn't the Quickstep of old, where you could rely on solid tactical decisions race in and race out. Instead, they seem to be floundering this year, especially after the untimely departure of Boonen. It all started in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where they somehow managed to lose to Ian Stannard despite having three of four riders in the winning breakaway, and it's only continued since. In Gent-Wevelgem, both Vandenbergh and Terpstra made the select group of seven and it seemed like Vandenbergh was working for Terpstra... until the final ten kilometers, when Vandenbergh - clearly the less strong of the two - failed to chase down Paolini, instead trading probing attacks with Terpstra while the Italian churned away towards victory.
The exception may be Stybar, who seems adept enough on his own. Yes, he made a mistake in not chasing Geraint Thomas down immediately at E3 Harelbeke, but it's hard to blame him for paying heed to one of the time-honored principles of racing - lick your opponent's [Sagan's] plate clean before starting on your own. But, unless the Quicksteppers get their ducks in a row, someone could easily steal the Ronde from underneath their noses.
Prediction: Stybar is going to win de Ronde, and GS will die a happy Belgian.
Three times world champion in cyclocross and a Ronde winner? Can Belgium take that much awesome?
Protagonists: Alexander Kristoff, Luca Paolini
Run of Form: The only race Katusha hasn't won since Gent-Wevelgem is the time trial in Driedaagse de Panne, and Kristoff came in third in that. Yes, a time trial, a feat the Norwegian is not known for dominating.
If you are a keen observer, you'll notice Katusha has two protagonists now instead of just one.
If I believed Paolini had the power to make a select group over the Oude Kwaremount, Katusha would be in the pole position. But, as strong as he is, I think Paolini still resides a level beneath Vanmarcke, Thomas, and the other upper level contenders. Guile does count for a lot, though, and if the other favorites fail to race aggressively, they'll be entering the final 20 kilometers with the most cohesive duo in the sport right now.
Prediction: Kristoff wins a small sprint for third. Or second or fourth.
A Norwegian on the podium? Are you trying to make Jens cry?
3. Team Sky
Protagonists: Geraint Thomas, Sir Bradley Wiggins
Run of Form: Thomas is on fire, taking a solo win in E3 and looking the strongest in the winning break in Gent-Wevelgem. His support cast is looking pretty formidable too, especially with Wiggins making his way over to Belgium to lend a helping hand before trying to win Roubaix for himself. But, without multiple real threats to win, Sky's chances of pulling out a win are a little lower than Quickstep's.
Prediction: Win or fifth
The last time the British were so imposing in Belgium was 1945. Been a while, hasn't it?
4. LottoNL - Jumbo
Protagonists: Sep Vanmarcke
Run of Form: Hellaciously strong, Vanmarcke is. Tremendously unlucky, Vanmarcke is. Whether it's puncturing - twice - at critical moments in the Omloop to breaking a cleat mid-attack on the Paterberg, His Sepness' luck this spring could hardly be worse. But, despite all the misfortune he keeps racing like his chin is up, refusing to give in and always animating races. The fact that he got fourth - after a long, hardheaded, solo chase - in a very hilly Strade Bianche is all you need to know about how his legs are going. The only concern is Sep's overabundance of aggression - unless he is head and shoulders above the other riders and can solo clear over the top of the Paterberg a la Cancellara in 2013, he could have a win stolen by a smarter rider. His team support is okay, but it's really just Sep's formidable strength that puts Lotto so far up.
Prediction: Sep cracks the race open, and gets taken advantage of by a more wily rider
Maybe LottoNL should hire a body double to ride an identical bike next to Sep all race for the inevitable mechanical that strikes.
Protagonists: Greg van Avermaet, Daniel Oss
Run of Form: Van Avermaet looks great these days, and Oss is looking mighty fine himself. But, whether van Avermaet has any remaining soreness from his nasty-looking crash in E3 remains to be seen. It always seems like there is someone a little stronger or a little faster, and this year seems no different with Thomas having more pure power and Sagan and Kristoff having more speed from a small group.
Prediction: Another year, another second place
Will this be Greg's year? I've been fooled one time too many to place big bets on him.
6. Tinkoff - Saxo
Protagonists: Peter Sagan
Run of Form: Sagan, once (or, still) considered to be one of the major challengers to the cobbled thrones left vacant by Cancellara and Boonen as they approach retirement, was last seen looking thoroughly miserable in Gent-Wevelgem.
But, he also managed to slot in second in the sprint for 8th place behind Alexander Kristoff, so maybe he's coming around.
Prediction: Not this year.
Uncle Oleg must be pretty disappointed these days... I for one wouldn't want to be on the Saxo bus after the last few races...
7. Lotto - Soudal
Protagonists: Jurgen Roelandts, Jens Debusschere
Run of Form: Strong, especially in the "taking the race to the favorites" department. But, inventive and aggressive tactics aside, the pure power isn't there in any of their riders. Debusschere is a threat to win out of any sprint, but Kristoff is faster. Maybe Roelandts will go up the road a little earlier than the favorites again and pull a repeat of 2013, when he finished in third.
La de dah de dah
8. Giant - Alpecin
Protagonists: John Degenkolb
Run of Form: Winning MSR isn't a joke, but Giant-Alpecin have definitely been less imposing on the cobbles. Degs has a solid support cast, but it isn't the level of Katusha's.
Prediction: Wait for Roubaix, then be scared.
So Degs won't win in Flanders... But the Giant-Alpecin boys look scary when it comes to Roubaix.
9. Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise
Protagonists: Jelle Wallays, Edward Theuns
Run of Form: They went 1-2 at Dwars, over the reigning world champion. But, that's 60 kilometers less and they are young kids yet.
Prediction: Either pure entertainment or invisibility before nabbing 10th
I'm super duper excited... for three years from now.