Not much to argue about who the strongest,or at least most visible.....or at least most improved team of the weekend was. Ah, who am I kidding, of course someone is going to argue about it but at least in this, as in
all most so many cases, I'll take comfort in knowing I'm right. Stuyven's Kuurne win, and the style he did it in, was the highlight even overshadowing the fact that Greg Van Avermaet managed to pull of his first big Flandrian classics win. And that wasn't all, Stuyven forewarned of a big result in a strong showing on Saturday but was unlucky. He still made sure they put two men in the top 10 with Theuns just ahead of him in the sprint. Repeat on Sunday except now with Bonifazio and Theuns getting top 10s.
Thats not a bad record for a team whose previous sole hope in the classics is still on the sidelines with what looks like massive form coming into the later races. With Cancellara back in the captain chair and Devolder in the mix too it's hard to overlook this team for April. Monster-Cance, a Stuyven not afraid to go on the attack, a Theuns lurking for a possible sprint, Rast as the motor and Devolder doing whatever crazy shit that pops into his or Dirk Demols heads, no sane person looks forward to racing against that team.
With half the BMC team wiping themselves out on a cobbled section, including PhilGil it felt like it was going to business as usual for the perennial overpaid, underachieving BMC but Greg Van Avermaet struck gold and turned what has become an increasingly tiresome negative meme right around by winning impressively. This was perhaps not a stronger GVA but most definitely a smarter one, a rider that wasn't attacking endlessly at semi-poorly chosen times but rather one that played off the opposition and made sure he had a large cannonball-sized bullet left to fire in the sprint that looked inevitable as soon as they left the disappointing Boembeke behind.
With a backup crew of the caliber they have, with Oss, Quinziato, Schar and Drucker, BMC are once again looking golden on paper. If GVA can build a little more form for April and capitalize on the newfound confidence people might actually need to fear BMC this spring.
While Kuurne was a vintage old school Kuurne performance from Lotto with lots of visible presence without having much to show for it Omloop was a much different story. Tiesj Benoot was every bit as active and impressive as anticipated and behind him both Debusschere and Roelandts look to be exactly where they want to be at this point for an April assault. Given that the plan was probably to ride for Greipel on Sunday before he got injured they are slightly excused. Lotto look very complete with guys like Wallays, De Bie, Ligthart and van der Sande to round out the squad even in the absence of run-over workhorse Stig Broeckx. It is a brutal super squad that perhaps only lack the confidence that comes with having that one super-reliable winner, a Boonen, Sagan or a Gilbert. If I were a betting man I'd put money on them being the team that comes out of the cobbled classics with the most podium places but perhaps not any wins. And for the record I still wish Gallopin wasn't wasting his time with Ardennes-shit but put on his big-boy-pants and did the cobbles calendar instead.
I previewed Tinkoff saying they seemed to finally provide the support that Sagan deserves but maybe that was a little premature. At least from what we saw on TV this was once again a Sagan left to his own devices. He seemed perfectly happy to play around this weekend though, ripping legs off when he felt like it and not giving too many f***s when things didn't go his way. This wasn't his big target you could see, anything here was bonus and in Het Nieuwsblad he got a pretty big one even if he didn't have the peak sharpness to win. But still, the relative anonymity of his lieutenants did look a bit worrisome should he find himself in a spot of bother in the bigger races. We saw what that could lead to with Kristoff this weekend. A Sagan with just good luck can win a monument without a team, a Sagan with the normal amount of punctures, bad luck and general Flandrian mishaps probably cannot. That said, I do have the distinct feeling that old dogs like Bennati and Gatto will know to be there when the time comes.
Photo: TIM DE WAELE/AFP/Getty Images
5. Team Sky
This was actually a pretty promising weekend for the boys in black. I mean they didn't kill cycling or anything but for a team of promising guys they did pretty well. Young Gianni Moscon showed right away that he is going to be a factor in these races before long, staying active both Saturday and Sunday. Some new Italian blood will be most welcome on the cobbles (not actual blood on the cobbles mind you) and hopefully Moscon will continue the way he started. Luke Rowe also showed that losing Thomas to nonsense distractions might not be a disaster for Sky after all. While Boonen may be suing him for copyright infringement for it, his attack on the Taaienberg was the racemaking move in Het Nieuwsblad. And even if he didn't look as strong in the following five man finale he still showed that the team will have more weapons than one when Stannard returns for the bigger races. Looking at their qualities you get the sense that they may have the most to hope for in Roubaix. You can't really see Rowe or Stannard pulling off a win in Flanders, I mean they would need a cockup of
etixx epic proportions from the opponents to allow it to happen. On pure power on the other hand.....
Maybe a team that had Kristoff sprint so convincingly to a second place in Kuurne deserves a higher spot on this list but this is a team powerpoll after all and as a team they were, shall we say less than impressive this weekend. Between Haller, Bystrøm and new recruits Lagutin and Mørkøv this Katusha team really ought to have been of more help to their captain this weeekend. Whenever we saw Kristoff on screen he was struggling on his own somewhere behind the front of the race in places where he should have had help one would expect. It may turn out that the loss of Paolini proves more costly than we thought if the support crew don't step up their game for the upcoming races but it shouldn't make a difference to lose one guy, it isn't as if he and Kristoff were joined at the hip. Of course, much like Sagan, Kristoff is going to be a threat anyway as he showed on Sunday but the margins of error will suddenly be very slim for the Norwegian.
The Dutch bumblebees got pretty much what you could expect out of a Sep-less weekend of racing. Their new young sprinter Groenewegen delivered the goods while they might just has well stayed in bed watching Simpsons-reruns on Saturday. Teunissen placed respectably and will be interesting to follow but beyond that I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for anyone not named Sep in this team. As a support vehicle for Sep, fine but beyond that they really are limited to some B-level sprints. I'm thinking they had better pray that Vanmarcke doesn't have have bad luck and he almost never does , does he?
As long as someone needs to finish 8th place in bike races there will always be a place for IAM in the World Tour. This is the perfect home for competent but never spectacular riders like Devenyns and Van Genechten, guys who can be sort of a factor in every race but they won't ever wow anyone. Their grab of Oliver Naessen from Topsport looks a little more intriguing and they really did give it some stick in Kuurne. I don't think anyone expects anything higher than 8th places during this spring campaign though. Such forwardness would just be un-Swisslike.
A 10th and an 11th place aren't much to write home about especially since the team was more or less invisible the whole time. Yoann Offredo din't even make a silly attack at some pointless time in the races and then you know it's bad. And once again, the way the races were raced this weekend you couldn't think of a much better scenario for Dèmare and still he was nowhere to be seen. It does not bode well for a team that is paying him a decent chunk of change to make them in factor before Pinot and the stageracers come out of hibernation.
I can't remember watching Etixx-Quickstep racing two classics before where it looked like Lefevere had actually told them to just take it easy. It was an odd sight to see. I'm sure it wasn't like that but this was a surprisingly casual Etixx team. Boonen was never around, nor where Terpstra or Vandenbergh. Tony Martin had many eyes on him but a slide out in a corner is about all we remember him for but for him these early races should be a bit of see and learn anyway so let's give him some time. In normal circumstances you would have expected them to come out in Kuurne with some urgency but Sunday was almost more lackluster than Saturday (except for a very respectable 5:th place in the sprint for young Lukasz Wisniowski). Maybe Lef is getting soft in his old age?
My personal guess for what we saw here is that except for Boonen is that these guys aren't going to risk not peaking for the monuments by going overboard in February. This year is basically an audition for the head honcho job at Etixx and winning the Omloop isn't going to convince Lef if you then fade in the April races. I'm assuming we'll see something radically different come E3.
Honorable and Dishonorable mentions
Direct Energie & Ag2r
French teams in general are the supreme poachers of mid-level results in the spring classics. Here in typical fashion with Ag2r's Alexis Gougeard going in the long break and amazingly managing to latch on to the winning selection for a 5th place. The kid is a brute and this was just another confirmation that there is a huge future in store for him. One day he will race with as much brain as brawn and then he will be a Monument winner........or he just continues to ride hopelessly in morning break all his life. Adrien Petit is the guy whose career never seems to truly take off but nevertheless here he is sprinting to top positions two days in a row. Maybe the move to Direct Energie has sparked some life in the guy anyway?
My, oh my, oh my...... the loss of Degenkolb seems to have left a crater sized hole in Giant's roster. Kuurne should have been the perfect vehicle for their gang of sprint-strong classics guys and yet you'd get repetitive strain injury trying to scroll down far enough to find a Giant rider in the result list. They may have missed a few guys due to the crash but the riders who did start should be capable of so much more. On a positive note, things can only get better.
As far as racing goes we had a much better start to the season than Giant had. Neither of the races were perhaps vintage editions that we will remember for years to come but they both provided solid racing with good finales. All in all it was a promising start that indicated that we may have a very diverse field of favorites for the big races even if the Bigs looked as strong as ever. Sagan's way of casually closing the gap to the winning move after the Taaienberg and the way he ripped legs off on the Oude Kwaremont were great indicators of big things to come, as was the way Kristoff picked everyone off in the sprint in Kuurne. All we need now is for Boonen to find his level, Sep to find his luck and Cancellara not to keep falling off and breaking his back and we'll have great fun in the coming weeks.