I started writing for PdC in the New Year, and it has been a pleasure. Until yesterday, it has been a purely internet-based experience, but I got a parcel yesterday.
Irish postmark, bulky… heavier than it looked… also, um… talking? With a Flemish accent?
Yup, Cuddles has arrived in Edinburgh, and he has some thoughts on the cobbles season. If he lets me get a word in edgeways, I’ll add some structure and some of my own thoughts on the lie of the land as the cobbles season proper begins.
I don’t know who you are, or where I am, but I’ve been here ten minutes and you haven’t mentioned Spanish stage racing yet, so I’m prepared to stick around. Also, I see you have two fridges and one of them is “the beer fridge.” It appears to be in some sort of a booze cupboard. If you need me, you know where I’ll be.
Previous Ranking 2
Well, Conor got this one right, he just didn’t go quite high enough in the rankings. Yeah, they’re a one-man team and this is supposed to be a team ranking, but that man has made a mockery of my pre-season doubts, and the notion of team-based assessments more generally. Dominant over Opening Weekend and at Milan San-Remo, he might not have picked up three wins but he is the dominant cyclist of the classics crop and we can expect him to be involved in the finish of every race he starts until Flanders.
Did I ever tell you about the trip I took to Slovakia with Eddy, Roger, and Francesco back in 1989? Feels like at least one of those boys might have some explaining to do. Anyway, I’ve found the Kwak and obviously I don’t need a bottle opener. As you were.
Previous Ranking 3
Not a great deal, but Golden Greg has looked like he’s carried last year’s form into 2017, going well in Italy at Tirenno-Adriatico and Strade Bianche, but more importantly, beating Sagan in the Omloop sprint. He’s also getting more support than his rival, with Kung and Dillier in particular exceeding my expectations.
This is much more like it. Good to see a Flandrian charging up the rankings. It almost makes up for you not having one of those hilarious Kwak glasses. They’re tricky to use with a stone mouth and little arms, mind you.
Previous Ranking 1
So far, I haven’t seen evidence that they can overcome our fears from the start of the year; lots of number two guys and no clear and dominant leader. Flashes of excellence from plenty of them, most notably Trentin and Stybar, but the team are yet to have a win in a one-day stage race, and we’re in the latter part of March. Need to see something more from the juggernaut of Classics racing
If you think we’re moving on before I mention Tommeke, you’re mistaken. He was unlucky in the Omloop and his time will come. You’d better start agreeing or you’ll be paying my postage, and I ain’t cheap.
Previous Ranking 4
Not much, except they’ve closed the gap on the three teams ahead of them. The lieutenants (Stuyven, Felline and Theuns) were hugely impressive in the absence of Degenkolb over opening weekend, and the four of them are as strong a group as we’ll see this season. Degs has looked good enough in Paris-Nice and MSR. I’d expect this team to be at their absolute best in Roubaix.
Jasper Stuyven, there’s a kid who rides the way I like to see a cyclist ride. Nothing of the waif about him. Speaking of full-bodied, do you mind if I try that Straffe Hendrik? Excellent.
Also, aren’t this mob run by Americans? I’d better see something Belgian next, my lad.
Previous Ranking 7
Well, I’ve been twice threatened by a sentient cobble, that’s one thing that’s changed (and not for the better). Also, they’ve been impressive, and deserve their leap up the rankings. Benoot may not have won a professional race yet (counter: he’s, like, 11 years old) but his time is coming, and they have riders for a range of races with the likes of Debusschere, Wellens, Roelandts and Greipel swapping in and out. Shown more tactical acumen than most squads in the limited action so far.
I knew we’d get along. This team are registered in the right place, and they’ve got some promising young Belgians too. There’s a lot to like.
Previous Ranking 6
Another team that have done very little to alter their ranking. Kristoff isn’t built to stay with the puncheurs over the Poggio but he took fourth and will find Flanders far more to his liking. Assuming Martin has recovered from an impressive faceplant in Omloop, the support looks good, too, with Planckaert catching the eye in particular.
Sure, I guess that’s about right. I heard you had some Vedett? Don’t say you drank that before I got here? That’s just cruel.
Previous Ranking 5
Their start list, that’s what’s changed. You could make a really good cobbles team out of the guys who aren’t here. We knew G would be missing, but monument-winning Kwiatkowski apparently won’t be taking part in any of the Flandrian races (you know, the guy who won E3 last year, just about the best tune-up going for the Ronde, and is built for this sort of racing). Stannard, Rowe and Moscon are a good trio, but this feels like a missed opportunity.
A Sky preview comment? Yeah, I’ll be with you in a jiffy. Sorry, I didn’t want to be the only one who hadn’t made a weak Sky joke. This team don’t take Flandrian racing as seriously as they should. I am a better friend than an enemy.
Previous Ranking 8
Sep has been… Sep-like. I guess your view on this ranking depends on your view of Sep. Mine is similar to Conor’s. It’d be great to see Sep’s attacking rewarded, but for now, this is where he belongs. No evidence of any substantial support, but you should join me on the Taylor Phinney bandwagon while there’s still plenty of room.
You’re not just being rude about Flemish riders now, you’re being rude about the Flemish style of riding. You might want to think twice about that. Mind you, the boy should have won more races, there’s no denying it.
Previous Ranking N/R
Uh… Corky stopped ranking after 8? I can see why, because there really are 8 teams that are head and shoulders above the rest. Still, I was impressed with the French squad’s efforts to strengthen their classics squad, and the early returns have been mildly encouraging. Naesen looks their best card, he had two top 10s in opening weekend and a decent Paris-Nice, whilst they’ll want to see more from Vandenbergh and Gougeard. Barbier and Enger are both the type of tough sprinters who could chip in for some of the semi-classics but are yet to show form this year.
A French World Tour team? In a cobbles ranking? Why not just switch to drinking white wine and be done with it?
10. [position vacant]
Previous Ranking N/R
Nothing’s changed. There are, depending on how you view it, two to four teams with the top-level talent and depth to determine races. There are another four or five who join them with realistic chances of winning some races. Then there’s the rest. Stopping at eight teams says something about the concentration of talent in the top teams in today’s peloton.
On the other hand… this is the cobbles. It isn’t like the rest of the year. Surprises happen, unexpected riders can excel, and you don’t need multiple domestiques or an expensive team bus to excel. So, I’m hanging up a vacant sign, and announcing one of the sub-plots of the next week or so of prep races; can anyone show enough to give us a full top ten? LottoNL-Jumbo (Boom and Groenewegen)? Cofidis (Senechal)? Wanty and the resurgent Mini-Boo? There are riders on lots of teams who could make some noise, but none of them are certainties, and none come from teams with options.
You know, if we stop this nonsense, we can do some damage to that pile of bottles in the corner… you and I don’t agree on some of these rankings, but we do agree on Duchesse de Bourgogne. One last thought… I’m glad you haven’t made me give an opinion on Boasson Hagen, Breschel or Farrar. That was starting to get embarrassing.