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Pre-Cobbles Power Poll!

How do the teams look ahead of the first cobbled classics?

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Sky Stannard EBH
Remember when EBH got on the podium of classics?
Photo by Michael Steele - Velo/Getty Images

As Chris and I discuss in the podcast, it's always very difficult to divine the form of riders and teams in the early season, simply because everyone comes into races on a different curve; some people have something to prove, some people have their cards close to their chest, some others just try to blast their way through as many victories in as little time as they can, and with some exceptions you just don't know which rider is doing what. However, there may be some clues, and it is on those that I will have to work with in doing this pre-season rating of the cobbles team. So without further ado, I'll get straight to-
Anybody hear something?
I thought I heard something.
A bright light appears, a silhouette within it.
Who's that?
A harsh Flemish accent speaks: "don't you recognise me by this stage?"

Cuddles the Cobble Large

Cuddles. You scared me to death.
"It was an okay intro, pal."
Yes, well. Will you at least stick around and help me with the ratings?
"Is there beer?"
No. You can get some when we're done.
"Fine, I'll stick around. You couldn't write anything sensible without me anyway."

1. Quickstep Floors

Who's the star? How mad would you collectively be if I didn't say Tom Boonen? I'm extremely close to doing just that. Not close enough though.

Who's the backup? Quickstep, quite frankly, have a ridiculously stacked team. They have Julien Vermote and Iljo Keisse for the early work, but after that it's a team full of potential winners. Philippe Gilbert has won this race twice. Matteo Trentin can outsprint Sagan. Niki Terpstra owns a Roubaix cobble. Zdenek Stybar is a threatening presence with podium finishes in monuments, even if he's never found a way to win a cobbled classic. Then you've got Yves Lampaert, who can sprint, has great talent on the cobbles and he's Belgian.

What are their chances? Far greater if they don't go for Boonen than if they do. He crashed in Oman and may still be feeling the effects. It's my opinion that he's not going to win Omloop, he's not going to win the Ronde and he should have bowed out with Cancellara. If they don't go with him, they have so many options. Send Terpstra off on the Taaienberg. Get Gilbert in the next move. Tell Stybar to jump when he feels like it. Keep Lampaert for the sprint, or set him loose late if Trentin is there. Nobody else in the race will have the power to stay with them if they employ tactics such as those. If it's all for Tom though, victory is extremely unlikely.

What does Cuddles say?

Small Cuddles

"Boonen's still around? Didn't we have a week commemorating his retirement?"

2. Bora-Hansgrohe

Who's the star? Why don't you tell me.

Who's the backup? Meh, just like most of his career, Sagan is practically without support. I respect Marcus Burghardt as much as anybody else but he's not going to be hammering out the pace on the important bergs. Maciej Bodnar is a loyal lieutenant of Sagan's, but again he's hardly a superdomestique. At Kuurne, he has the famously well-positioned Sam Bennett as a leadout. Or to lead out, but even I won't believe that till I see it.

What are their chances? Sagan's? Good, always. He hasn't raced since showing off an appropriate amount of form at the Tour Down Under, but that's consistent with his 2016 opening in San Luis, after which he was one Van Avermaet away from taking victory. Whether or not he's on top form upon arriving at Omloop, he's likely to be there in the shake-up, even if I don't predict victory.

What does Cuddles say?

Small Cuddles

"It took you how many paragraphs to forget you were writing about teams?"

2017 Tour Down Under Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

3. BMC Racing

Who's the star? Illustrious Olympic gold medallist Greg Van Avermaet.

Who's the backup? BMC amassed a pretty good cobbles team while I wasn't looking. Jempy Drucker ought to be chief domestique for Greg, but Stefan Küng, Martin Elmiger and Michael Schar are all riders with big engines. That's not to mention Daniel Oss, achiever of numerous top ten finishes in cobbled classics. I have to say, it's a squad capable of helping Van Avermaet pretty far into the race on Saturday.

What are their chances? Very, very, very hard to say. Whether Van Avermaet is geared up to defend his title or he learned from last year that Omloop is a little too early to be taking home silverware is up for debate. The form might just be there — he sprinted to snag a third place finish on a stage of the Tour of Oman. That's obviously not an indication that he's going to be up for the win, it's just a sign that he might not be totally floundering. However, I will note that he was going better in the same race last year. I predict a high finish, not a victory. Drucker's another option in a pinch.

What does Cuddles say?

Small Cuddles

"Where in the hell is Oman?"

4. Trek-Segafredo

Who's the star? Belgian sensation Thuyven. John Degenkolb, absent this weekend.

Who's the backup? Belgian sensations Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns, themselves backed up by Matthias Brändle, Fabio Felline and Mads Pedersen.

What are their chances? For the rest of cobbles season, I don't know, but for Omloop you'd have to say they look pretty good. While Degenkolb isn't around for the opening weekend, he'll be a threat in the later classics, and their two leaders for Omloop and Kuurne are threats in any case. Both have the ability to win a sprint, we all remember Jasper Stuyven's solo Kuurne win and Theuns' 2015 season, and you wouldn't have considered Trek crazy not to add to their cobbles team at all for this season.

Neither Stuyven nor Theuns have shown a great amount of form so far this season. Fifth place in a sprint, Down Under in Theuns' case and in Algarve in Stuyven's, has been the best result either got. Neither looked on form going into Omloop last year however, and they scored a respectable eighth and ninth before Stuyven's Kuurne crusade. Write neither off.

What does Cuddles say?

Small Cuddles

"Jasper and the Topsports above Team Sky? What are you, mad?"

5. Team Sky

Who's the star? Geraint Thomas Michal Kwiatkowski Luke Rowe, because Sky can't prioritise. Well, not properly. Also, ask me again in a week.

Who's the backup? These may not be the backup, but Gianni Moscon (twelve-point conqueror of Norway and almost certainly Sky's most hyped-up rider since Edvald Boasson Hagen, so everything's going to work out perfectly there) is on the list, along with double Omloop winner Ian Stannard. The reason I call Rowe the star is this: I simply think Stannard has hit his ceiling. I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I don't think he's capable of winning a monument, while Rowe just might be.

What are their chances? Pretty good. Rowe was certainly up for Omloop last year, making the first group on the way to a fourth place finish, and a fifth place in De Ronde proves he can hold some form for decent stretches of time. Then you've got Stannard, whose qualifications for Omloop are pretty self-explanatory. In addition to that, there is almost nobody who should feel comfortable if they end up in a two-up sprint with him. He's outsprinted Van Avermaet and Terpstra to win this race, but in addition to that go and watch the end of E3 last year. Stannard jumps at more than three hundred metres out and holds his effort to the line for a podium finish. Moscon is a totally unknown quantity for the cobbles, with a twenty-third in Omloop his best result in a big classic.

What does Cuddles say?

Small Cuddles

"WHERE are Thomas and Kwiatkowski? Hold up, I'm off to burn a Sky jersey."

100th Tour of Flanders - Rowe - Thomas Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

6. Team Katusha

Who's the star? Alexander Kristoff, no debate there.

Who's the backup? Tony Martin, now at a team where he might get a shot at the cobbles, is the big new name at Katusha, but he's not the only assistance available to the Norwegian sprinter. He has compatriot Sven Erik Bystrom by his side and Belgian neo-pro Jens the Bierman Jenthe Biermans in front of him.

What are their chances? Almost nailed on in Kuurne, if you ask me, which is why they're above Lotto Soudal. I think Kristoff is pretty certain to take a sprint victory in the weekend's latter race, after showing such form in Oman and winning the bunch sprint for second last year. In Omloop, I expect much less. Kristoff has played down his chances in that race, he's never been in the final selection and let's face it: do you want it to be a sprint?

What does Cuddles say?

Cuddles right side small

"The fumes! What's in those Sky jerseys?"

7. Lotto-Soudal

Who's the star? Another Belgian sensation, by the name of Tiesj Benoot.

Who's the backup? Jens Debusschere, Dwars holder, is the second-in-command, but you can also find Jelle Wallays and the steady Jurgen Roelandts on the Lotto teamsheet. All-in-all, it's a team you wouldn't expect to be ranked seventh.

What are their chances? Okay, bear with me here. I've got the idea into my head that Benoot is not going to be up there on Saturday, based firmly and definitively on the fact that he has been riding too well. Climbing too well, to be totally specific. He finished in tenth position on a nine kilometre climb in the Volta ao Algarve. He was climbing altogether too well in the Mallorca challenge. That, coupled with all he says about not committing to the cobbles, makes me think that he's too light and unfocused. If he wins I'll be stunned. If he finishes highly I'll be surprised. If I'm wrong, don't be too mean. Debusschere might be a more profitable pick. While his ability on the bergs is questionable, it's not non-existent, and he'll be lethal from a reduced sprint.

What does Cuddles say?

Cuddles right side small

"Haven't you considered that he’s on such good form that he'd boss any race, anywhere? Or are you trying to justify placing them seventh?"

8. Cannondale-Drapac

Who's the star? Sep. Or as he's also known, SEP!

Who's the backup? Tom Van Asbroeck. Who still exists, and has found himself to Cannondale to rejuvenate his career. Like some coals heading to Newcastle to find a buyer or Thomas Voeckler having his tongue extended in case someone didn't notice it. Past him, there's Taylor Phinney, who I remember having a passable Omloop once, back when he didn't have a stupid moustache. There's also Sebastian Langeveld, who actually once won Omloop. Tragically, however, the shock was too much for him. Dylan van Baarle is also there. I have nothing to say about him, but I understand others do.

What are their chances? Slim, but I'm including them because I know that Vanmarcke genuinely can win. While punctures, mechanicals and bad form have assailed him at this race, even I, the least enthusiastic person about people wearing Argyle in the world, can say that he has a chance. I mean, he won't win. Gosh no. And in Kuurne, they may as well be eight offensively-green-clad mannequins, but Sep could win Omloop. Maybe.

What does Cuddles say?

Cuddles right side small

"You must be really scared of TGS."

Narrowly missing out are AG2R's triumvirate of Gougeard, Naesen and Vandenbergh, left out because they aren't going to win anything, FDJ because if I were taking Kuurne seriously, I'd have to pick Cofidis as well, and LottoNL-Jumbo, because I'm an idiot who considered donating his time to LottoNL-Jumbo. Missing out by a much wider margin are Orica, because anyone who brings Keukeleire to a classic with a one on his back don't deserve to do well.

Who do you think is going to sweep through the field on Saturday? Let us all know!