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Grading on the classics training curve

A look at the preparation of the favourites coming into the cobbles season - who is riding better than we expected?

2012 Paris - Roubaix Cycle Race Training Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

As we move towards the end of February, everyone’s FSA-DS teams are sorted, and we’re ready to take a wider look at the world of cycl… nah, that’s not going to fly.

With FSA-DS tinkering top of everyone’s priorities, I am here as an honest and kind friend to help with the final decis… nope, nobody will believe that for a second.

Let’s try honesty: I know you’re all thinking about your team and unable to create any other space in which to think about cycling results, articles on PdC, or the possible links between your house number and dossards with historic success rates. I also know that it is too late for any kind of meaningful guidance from me (though if anyone wants to help me with Degenkolb vs Jungels, jump in… I’m leaning Degs, but it ain’t easy). So, I thought I’d write a piece that is sort of semi-related to picking teams, but far enough removed to be free of bias.

This builds on something that we discussed on the 3rd podcast, and that I’ve been thinking about a lot since then… what do early season results actually mean? How seriously should we take them in picking riders to have big springs, and what does “good” look like? Who is peaking too soon and who is showing that they’re in for a hot 2017?

My general feeling is that different riders come into form at different times, and have longer or shorter peaks. Good for one rider isn't necessarily the same as good for another.

Below are some of the bigger names for the cobbles races. For each of them, I give a precis of their results thus far, and compare these to their own results in previous seasons. I am judging them against their own “curve” and attempting to read the tea leaves as to what this means for the coming year – in the context of a rapidly changing early-season calendar, team changes, and all the other variables that make team-picking so much fun.

(One other wish: I'm getting nothing at all from of all these interviews that say “I’m happy with my new team/teammates/manager/bike, have good feelings, am happy with where my training has got me and am looking forward to the season.” If just one guy would come out and say “my bike gives me piles and saddle sores, I loathe my manager, my teammates are imbeciles, and I am riding slower than the illegitimate toddle that my sponsor doesn't know about” then at least we’d be clear on where we are. Seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?)

Tom Boonen:

Results this year: A first and second in San Juan. Meh in Oman (so far).

Expectations: The win in San Luis was his first pre-April win since 2014, but in his peak years he started the season dominantly. Hard to compare his performance in the absence of Qatar, where he was routinely brilliant, but this year's early-season form looks very promising. The last time he won in Argentina was 2012, and you don’t need me to tell you how good he was that year.

His curve: I’d say he’s ahead of it, for a rider in his final season. The signs are promising for an on-form Boonen crushing one final year on his beloved cobbles. Gosh, I hope that happens.

Alexander Kristoff:

Results this year: Two wins in Oman. A win and two seconds in Besseges.

Expectations: Kristoff starts the year winning, and to be honest it doesn’t tell us very much. Has gone awfully well in Qatar the last three years and his Classics form has been up and down after that. Still, for a guy who, his critics say, has sacrificed his sprinting speed, the wins are encouraging (though he’s not beating top-tier sprinters, with Demare probably his most notable scalp).

His curve: He’s right on the curve, and you’d be hopeful he’s preparing to give of his very best. As one of the most consistently high-performing guys in the peloton, not a big worry.

Peter Sagan:

Results this year: Proved to everyone’s satisfaction that he was second-fastest, to Caleb Ewan, in the Tour Down Under, and hasn’t raced since. Due to reappear at Omloop where his form will be a mystery.

Expectations: He’s not the hottest of starters, and last year’s run in San Luis looked a bit like this year’s TdU. He came out with 2nd in Omloop on his next start last year before a spring, and season, that were distinctly above average.

His curve: Something of a mystery but he’s earned our trust and you’d assume he’s going to be ready to be competitive come opening weekend. The move in his race programme looks like it was for sponsorship, not anything to do with starting earlier or racing different roads. He’s nicely on his curve.

Sep Vanmarcke:

Results this year: Utterly anonymous so far in Valencia and Algarve

Expectations: He’s always utterly anonymous as he gets the miles in before the Omloop. It doesn’t mean a great deal.

His curve: I assume he's on his curve, but how can you tell? Nothing to see here.

Niki Terpstra:

Results this year: A couple of top 20s in Oman, but nothing to shout about. Helper for Dan Martin in Valencia.

Expectations: A man who can time trial and find the right echelon, Terpstra won Qatar in 2014 and 2015, and had great springs. Last year he was less impressive early and a win in Le Samyn was the highlight of a relatively disappointing spring.

His curve: He’s behind the curve, though he's certainly missing the Tour of Qatar and I might be overstating the case. On that basis, it’ll be interesting to see how he goes in Omloop. Others at Quick-Step are looking better right now.

Jon Degenkolb:

Results this year: A win and never outside the top five in Dubai (with a top sprint field) and another fifth in a good field at Algarve.

Expectations: Draw a big line through last year, but he’s had decent early season runs in 2014 (Besseges and the Mediterranean) and 2015 (Dubai and Ruta del Sol).

His curve: Sets a high standard for his early season results but he’s ahead of it. Looks like the crash is firmly behind him and he’s one to have confidence in.

Lars Boom:

Results this year: Picked up 5th in an 18km time trial in Algarve.

Expectations: His time trial form has proved a surprisingly useful barometer to spring success. His peak years came when he was able to ride with the best against the clock in Mediteranean (2013) and Qatar (2014) and he didn’t do so well in 2015 or 2016.

His curve: He’s well ahead of it – and he’s sort of the reason for this post. The change in team and the result yesterday in Portugal have me wishing I could have my “hold” rating on him back. He’d be a "buy" now and I’m expecting an improved spring. He’s not a favourite to win the biggest races but I’d expect him to be involved at the sharp end, especially in the Monuments.

Greg van Avermaet:

Results this year: Part of the BMC TTT juggernaut in Valencia, and a few other top tens there and in Oman.

Expectations: Got off to very hot starts in 2016 and 2015 (carrying excellent form from the Middle East into opening weekend and down to Strade Bianche) and, for varying reasons, didn’t quite see it through in the monuments. Curiously, went better in 2013 and 2014 after slower starts.

His curve: He’s behind the form of the last two years, which, counter-intuitively might mean he’s in a better place for success. I like his chances of peaking at- the right time.

So, there you have it. Around 1,400 words that give you a reason to like the chances of all, or nearly all, of the main players, and that, I think, is the key takeaway. Everyone is preparing for the bigger targets in their own way, and all we can really do is gaze at them through rose tinted lenses, and dream of glory.

What do you think of the riders I haven't covered? Have any riders forced themselves onto your teams with big rides in February? Or would we all be better off ignoring every result after last year's Lombardia and just hoping our chose 25 avoid injury?