New Gimmick Alert! The spotlights light up the Podium Cafe roundtable. Join the Editors in some free-flowing discussion. Episode 1: The Cobbled Classics, and the Week Ahead.
Chris: I've got a good one for you guys: So is this year the end of Boonen-Cancellara? Or did that happen in 2010?
Conor: I'm sad to say no. The classics are going towards Kristoff, Sep, Sagan and Degenkolb, and Cancellara-Boonen doesn't seem at all likely to me, especially in the one-on-one sense of 2010.
Jens: Destiny seems intent on never letting that head-to-head happen so while I'm hoping I don't really dare to think we'll get one last hurrah. And as Conor says, there seem to be many who will prevent it from becoming a pure duel. That said, if we get healthy Boonen and Cance both contesting Flanders and Roubaix it would be magic even if they aren't dominant.
Conor: Exactly. Cancellara could possibly win one big race this year, but I really doubt Tom's going to do much.
Chris: Yeah, the entire rivalry, which has been by far the greatest of the 21st century, has been a lot like a dance battle sequence from Breakin where each team takes turns dancing while the other one stands around. It's awesome but you never quite come away feeling like you could tell who won.
Jens: 2010 really was as close as we ever came to a duel where they were both near peak.
Chris: Indeed, that moment in 2010 that happened partly right in front of us... whew!
Willj: Jens forgot the Beer? I'm out of here.
Conor: I rate Quickstep's chances of an Ardennes win more likely than a Roubaix or Flanders.
Chris: Do they know what to do in the Ardennes? Can you race L-B-L like a hillier Paris-Roubaix? QS have certainly jacked up their Ardennes roster but the idea of them owning those races seems very weird.
Conor: Do they know what to do on the cobbles? They have a good duo. Martin has what it takes to win hilly monuments, and with Alaphilippe behind him to win sprints he can attack. I don't think they're going to own them - Sky have also improved their Ardennes squad, though you'll rarely find me being too positive about Kwiatkowski, and Movistar have Valverde. However, Martin and Alaphilippe are two big guns.
Chris: Don't forget Jungels! Seems like he should be better at these races, but he might give EQS more depth than they've ever had.
Conor: True, though I'll believe that Jungels is a Liege winner when I see it.
Jens: Also when it comes to the Ardennes there really isn't the build-up and the narrative that the cobbles has. You have three fairly different races that are usually dominated by one guy who hits a rich vein of form for two sundays in a row.
Jens: BMC will still be a brutal Ardennes foe. They would be even more so if they could actually get a working dynamic between Gilbert and van Avermaet.
Chris: Gilbert and Van Avermaet... the second great 21st century rivalry?
Jens: The second great passive aggressive 21st century rivalry maybe.
Chris: Right? I mean, sometimes something seems so obvious that you talk yourself out of believing what you're seeing, but it's going on like five years now. I suppose it works in terms of the team getting a fair number of points, but it's hard not to wonder if maybe there's a better arrangement.
Conor: I think BMC must think it's brilliant. They've brought in Porte to create yet another pair, this time of guys who could maybe come fourth in a GT.
Jens: It's a dynamic that has deprived us of Gilbert racing the Ronde for one thing which is bad enough. It's not like BMC aren't getting results but I do think if they had found a way for the two to work as a tag-team rather than work around each other they both would have had bigger wins.
Chris: I wish we knew more about contracts in cycling. Maybe this is my American ball-sports mind working but I would sure love to make fun of how much Gilbert is making. He seems like a decent guy and has had a brilliant career, and BMC don't seem to be out of money, but boy did they buy high on him. If they just had Van Avermaet and spent that contract on god knows how many other top guys, seems like that'd be better?
Conor: Sure, but remember, they bought him after 2011, right? As far as they knew, he was going to dominate the hills for years, and they did get a rainbow jersey out of him.
Jens: BMC have a habit of signing people at their peak-value. It's a bit like going after the high-priced VDS riders, you often get a decent return on your money but never the big positive surprises.
Chris: That's a strategy for teams who have nothing but money, i.e. teams people aren't sold on.
Jens: Getting back to Boonen and Cancellara I feel pretty confident that Cancellara can muster one last big push to get a successful last year, Boonen sadly seems more caught in the slow decline of the old dudes. And he doesn't have that phenomenal drive for one big target that Cancellara has always had. Even a healthy Tom might be left in the shadow of his teammates in March/April I suspect.
Conor: That's what I feel as well. Cancellara's said he's retiring after this, it's his last big go at the classics. Boonen has a whole pile of very fast guys on his team who want to win. Remember even the way he was dropped in Het Nieuwsblad last year?
Chris: On its own OHN isn't a great data point unless you know how committed he was, but taken together with his 2014 results... yeah, it's hard to picture. That said, he's a classic case of a guy whose name is so big, in the precise geographic region where all these races go down, that EQS might feel some public pressure to... no, I can't. This is the team that knifed him with Devolder, twice, in Boonen's prime. Lefevre is a great cold-blooded decision maker, I'll say that. Personally I'm ready for the Lampaert Era
Jens: Crikey, that Stybar Era just flew right by, didn't it? It's like we totally missed it.
Chris: Tell me about it. I still have a half-written recap of the Boom Era.
Jens: Speaking of Eras. While things never pan out as promising as they look we really could be looking at a massive Flandrian period with Lampaert, Benoot and Theuns . Which of these three do you see as most likely to live up to the promise of 2015?
Conor: Benoot. Partially because I'm grateful as he was the only thing keeping my VDS team's head above water.
Chris: Not Theuns. He's had chances to excel for a few years and only now making it. He's a fine rider, but when you consider where Benoot came from -- a trainee the year before -- straight to the top, at age 22, that's a hell of an introduction. I also wouldn't rule out either Lampaert (formerly 2nd at P-R Espoirs) or Van Kiersbulck having been brought along a bit more slowly but ready to show what they have. But yeah, Benoot's performance last year was one of those rare experiences where you wonder if you just saw the beginning of something great. Your vote Jens?
Jens: I don't see how you overlook Benoot after the way he raced last year. My only reservation is that he may be heading a bit in the Leif Hoste/forever the bridesmaid direction. The other two I know have the finishing power that we tend to overlook in the classics, not sure Benoot has that? He may end up being the dominant force in many races but then get punked by faster finishers? It's no coincidence that some of the biggest cobbles guys have been transformed sprinters, like Musseuw, Boonen and Van Petegem.
Conor: Sure enough, Theuns wins a sprint between the three of them.
Chris: Benoot once won a sprint over someone named Petr Vakoc! Also a few people I know once got very excited about Martijn Maaskant. So yeah, it's all quite premature.
Conor: He did sprint to fourth in a stage of the Dauphine, so he can't be too slow.
Chris: Yeah, we're not talking Stijn Vandenbergh here.
Jens: I do think you're giving Theuns too little credit though Chris. He's coming on at perfect pace and he's made a very good team move at the right point from the looks of it. I do worry about any young rider coming under the tactical tutelage of Dirk Demol but Trek looks like the near perfect balance of opportunity/strong teammates for a kid his age...
Chris: Well better now than in a year, since he can exist in Cancellara's considerable shadow for as long as there's a successful Farewell Tour in progress, but after that the pressure is all on Theuns. How can Trek-Segafredo fend off the EQS hordes for him?
Conor: Rumour has it they spent all their money on a hairdresser.
Chris: Well that's a start.
Chris: OK gents, apart from the usual suspects do you see another team out there ready to become more of a player on the cobbles? We're not forever doomed to a battle of the Belgian teams plus whoever Sagan and Kristoff are representing, are we?
Jens: Well, Cannondale signed Breschel so......
Conor: ...they have consigned themselves to Breschel jokes, that's a given.
Chris: I'm really stuck in 2010, aren't I?
Conor: Lotto, Trek, Tinkoff, Katusha, Giant and Etixx are diverse enough anyway, aren't they?
Jens: I thought we would see Giant move in among the classics bigs but then they may be moving in a different direction. They do have big talent behind Degenkolb but perhaps not guys ready to step up just yet.
Conor: Where are they moving? They have a sprint train, but no big sprinter, they have no real classics support for Degenkolb (bar Bert de Backer, who can only ride Roubaix), and unless you count Barguil, that Oomen guy, and Laurens Ten Dam, aren't going to do much in stage races.
Chris: Someone isn't ready for the Soren Kragh-Anderson era just yet...
Conor: No someone isn't, though now someone thinks of it, someone doesn't think he's going to win a great deal, for a while at least.
Jens: I'm sure the aim is to back up Dumoulin and Barguil 100% in the GTs, letting sprints become low priority. To me they look like a team with two aims now, GTs and Classics. I'm more bullish about their classics support but at the moment they are a one-weapon team there with Degenkolb as far as who can actually win races. If they lose him, they will be struggling.
Chris: OK it's time to go negative. What's your biggest complaint about the classics these days?
Conor: Not enough rain.
Chris: Ooh! That's a good one. Though at least last year we had an epic shit-show of a Gent-Wevelgem.
Conor: That we did. But considering the guy who won it was probably high and it was only Gent-Wevelgem, it only whetted the appetite.
Jens: Trying to remember who said it recently, might have been Boonen, but too many of the big races have become waiting games. Maybe the Flanders course has helped accentuate this but we really do see too many guys missing their chances to win because they all have the same strategy of sitting tight and hoping to be the fastest of whatever group that makes it to the finish. Not a lot of guys are going to beat both Sagan and Kristoff that way this year.
Conor: Sure, but doesn't that mean that guys like Terpstra and co. can attack early? Tinkoff and Katusha are by no means the strongest classics teams.
Chris: Funny you should say that, Jens. I was going to say the lack of Italian competition. Historically Italians have made excellent foils in the classics for the usual northern subjects and been fun to watch, albeit in a way that provokes accusations of negative racing. BUT! If the problem is too much negative racing, maybe a stronger Italian team would help that by putting everyone on notice of negative tactics and goading them into being more aggressive!
Conor: What can you mean! Southeast have Pozzato, how can they fail to dominate the classics?
Jens: He is preparing on the track at the six-days, how can he fail?
Chris: OK, let's take a quick look at the week ahead before we declare victory here. We've got the Tour Down Under starting this weekend. Looks like it's set up to follow the usual formula, with some fun sprints and a Willunga Hill stage. Apart from the Antipodeans kicking off their season, is there anything else to get excited about?
Jens: BMC having their first try at getting everyone to play nice and act as a team. That is going to be a storyline all year, starting here with Dennis and Porte I suspect.
Conor: If you're a fan of insomnia, yes!
Chris: Dennis has to be the overall favorite, no? I'm personally very curious to see how Dimension Data put all those pieces together -- they basically got the 2010 HTC band back together again -- but for now it's Farrar and Renshaw in Adelaide, so I don't know if there will be much to learn just yet. Oh, and I can't wait for Petr Vakoc to win sprints for EQS, just to make me look stupid.
Conor: I'm going Porte, or maybe Geraint Thomas.
Jens: Can Thomas really be aiming for wins already? He has some massive goals ahead of him if he is going to confirm his GT contender status this year. He's no youngster, if he is making a play for GTs it has to be now, can you combine that with trying to win the TdU?
Conor: Good point. Battle of the BMCs it is then?
Jens: Well Sky ARE odd. The big seasons for both Wiggins and Froome included going for wins in just about every stagerace they entered so who knows?
Conor: They have the other Henao going, as well. Anything else to discuss?
Jens: On Down Under? Only how odd it is looking at the startlist that this race that was once a sprinter's heaven now seems almost empty of the best sprinters. All allrounders and GC guys now, not sure I like that transformation but WT points rule I suppose.
Conor: Yeah, not even Greipel's going.
Jens: At this point everyone is just chomping at the bit to see some roadracing, whether we know it or not, so it doesn't really matter what type of race we get. I've never been too excited about the TDU but every year once it starts I get sucked in. It's a big party for the aussies and the riders clearly like it, you almost always get an intro to some new rider who gets a breakthrough. It's not the TdF but it's great for what it is. I'm looking forward to it.
Conor: Well said, me too. Well, thanks everyone, our work here is done. Bye!
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