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Pre-Flanders Power Ranking

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A postcard from Cuddles, and a few scribblings from me

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

A postcard from Cuddles:

Dear Café,

Hope you’re all doing well. Things here are fine. I’m still waiting to be posted on somewhere else, but for now this is nice enough. After some very unpleasant sunshine, we’re back to rain, which makes me feel right at home. There are plenty of beers for me to choose from and I’m watching the cycling. I do keep hearing about cricket but I’m sure I’ll be gone before that starts. The funny thing is, the guy I’m staying with doesn’t ride a bike. Like, at all. I was coping with that okay until I went outside, and what did I see?

Photo by Andrew

COBBLES! Like, literally, a cobbled climb. Where I’m staying. Some people with bikes need to sort this guy out. Anyway, it is a fun place to be. Enjoy Sunday, and go Tommeke!

Cuddles out.

Not too sure I’ve got much to add to Cuddles’ intro, really. I’m a dead loss. Anyway, since I don’t get out on my bike, I’ve taken some time to fashion our latest rankings, with help from your favourite cobblestone, obviously. The twist this time – as you’ve heard in our latest podcast, team rankings are, like, so 2016. This time around, we’re ranking one man per team* – the ten guys who have the best chance of leading their squads on the most important day of the season, and their chances.

*Except QuickStep. They still get a team ranking. Obviously.

1 Greg van Avermaet and BMC

The Story So Far

You might have read about it. He’s parlayed a wildly impressive 2016 into an extraordinary 2017, winning Omloop, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, collectively the three most significant cobbled races so far this season.

What a good Flanders looks like

The best news of all for GVA fans is a good Flanders, from his perspective, looks basically like every edition of the race we’ve seen on this course. He’s proved he’s got the strength to go with any attack, and to launch devastating ones of his own when needed, the nous to get into the right break, and the speed to outsprint the guys at the pointy end with him. In any small group likely to be off the front, he’s favourite.

Team support

As we said on the podcast, he’s been a one-man band, but he’s got some big engines and experienced helpers with him. Oss is rounding into good form just in time, whilst Kung, Drucker and Dillier (who despite their name aren’t London’s most prominent firm of German-speaking solicitors, but are every bit as serious) have all been prominent at the front when needed.

Cuddles speaks!

Such a shame he crashed so last year. Like I always say, don’t trust a smooth surface in Belgium. You didn’t see him fall on the cobbles, did you? Five years is too long to wait for a Belgian winner. Bring it home, son.

1a Peter Sagan and Bora

The Story So Far

He’s been making the race everywhere he’s been, but not winning as much as his strength and versatility would suggest he should. Again, you’ve probably read about it. Won in Kuurne, with podiums in MSR, Gent-Wevelgem and Omloop. Oh, and he is the defending champion and wearing rainbow stripes, so there’s that.

What a good Flanders looks like

A good Flanders for Sagan looks pretty similar to the GVA picture, just with the other guy winning the sprint. He’s 1a, not two, because whoever you support it is pretty hard to separate them. Either is capable of beating the other, but he’s done it less often than his rival this year.

Team support

Ordinary at best. Bodnar is a beast and Burghardt is strong, but it won’t be a surprise to see him isolated fairly early in the hellingen once the peloton starts to break down.

Cuddles speaks!

I know I’m supposed to be unbiased here, but he’s a long-haired, cooker-advertising, mountain-biking non-Belgian. Bah. If I knew or cared about hashtags, I think I’d be hashtag teamGreg.

3 Going Mental and Quickstep

The Story So Far

We’ve probably spent more time on our podcasts talking about Quickstep than any other subject. The good news is, that time has birthed Conor’s great tactical innovation: just go mental. JGM gives Quickstep representation in every break and animates the race so as to blunt the singular talents of GVA and Sagan, granting the win to… to whom? Gilbert looks to be in the best form, animating Dwars and E3 (2nd in each) and winning with an attack over the Muur in the Queen stage of Three Dogs. Boonen is coming into form and would presumably follow a victory at RvV by turning water into Kwaremont and giving everyone in Belgium something (additional) to drink. Lampaert won Dwars and has a sprint. Stybar and Terpstra have been showing some signs of form and were the consensus best candidates coming into the season. So their best card is probably Trentin, because who the hell knows with this lot any more.

What a good Flanders looks like

Mental. Okay, I’m probably overselling this, but they really are working a bunch of Kings against two Aces. They need to tilt the deck. An active, chaotic and fast race with early splintering of the peloton and no concerted efforts to bring back breaks probably maximises their chances. Whether they have the bravery and ability to pull it off is a very different question.

Team support

Doesn’t really apply. This is a team ranking.

Cuddles speaks!

Active, chaotic, and fast? Sounds like Belgian cycling in a nutshell. We’ll all have had a good time if one of these boys wins it. I just hope it is Tommeke again.

4 John Degenkob and Trek

The Story So Far

Coming into form at the right time, with big rides in MSR, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. Hasn’t always been in the right breaks but was perfectly positioned in G-W when GVA kicked, and he juuuuuust stayed close enough to be in the break.

What a good Flanders looks like

If he can show that strength over the longer hellingen he’ll be a tough nut to crack in the finish. His Roubaix win in 2015 shows that he doesn’t need a lot of flat road to close breaks, and he’s a multiple monument winner for a reason. Needs it to stay reasonably compact, and would benefit from some co-operation from other teams with sprinters.

Team support

Other than the QuickStep team, this is arguably the strongest Classics unit in the field. Theuns and Felline are an enviable engine room, and Jasper Stuyven has been even stronger than we expected and is a very useful lieutenant that nobody will want to see in a break.

Cuddles speaks!

John Degenkolb’s team? Think again, little Englishman, check the results this season. Trek will go as far as Stuyven takes them – and that will be a long way.

5 Alexander Kristoff and Katusha

The Story So Far

Impressive everywhere except Belgium, so far, with wins in Oman and Besseges, podiums in Paris-Nice and winning the bunch sprint in MSR. A fairly anonymous Classics season until I sat down to write this, when he popped up and won stage 2 of Three Dogs. A man who takes a while to hit top form, he might be getting there.

What a good Flanders looks like

He is my pick to win the race, but I’ve ranked him fifth. That’s partly because I like picking against favourites, and partly because I think his ideal race shape is what we’ll see. I think he’s got the best sprint of the guys with a chance to make it back into the front group. He hasn’t been able to stick with the savage attacks, and I don’t think he will on Sunday, but he’s in with a chance if we see a larger number at the front, or if the final attacks are brought back. Could be the one to benefit from other teams’ largesse.

Team support

Probably not what it has been, he’s certainly missing Paolini from teams of yore, but Tony Martin gives him a useful foil and he’s they’ve got some engines they can burn for the first couple of hundred kms. Decent but not extraordinary.

Cuddles speaks!

Kristoff to win again? You’re on your own with that prediction.

6 Olivier Naesen and AG2R

The Story So Far

Naesen has been the revelation of the cobbled season so far, with top tens in every big Belgian race except Gent-Wevelgem, highlighted by a podium finish in E3. Up there with the likes of Gilbert and Stuyven on the short list of “strongest guys so far who aren’t either GVA or Sagan”.

What a good Flanders looks like

He needs to keep doing what he’s doing, which is following the big attacks and grinding out great results. Couldn’t win the sprint last Friday but did everything right and really wasn’t far away from holding them off. He, and his team, would be ecstatic with another podium finish.

Team support

We haven’t seen as much of Vandenberg as we might have excepted, but the team have shown an enviable knack of getting useful helpers into the break, and Naesen hasn’t been totally isolated. That said, he won’t be getting much support in the last few kms on Sunday unless something extraordinary happens

Cuddles speaks!

I like my riders like I like my beer – strong and Belgian. It has been a good season for me. On both counts.

7 Tiesj Benoot and Lotto Soudal

The Story So Far

He’s picked up some decent results without ever looking like he’s going to pick up that first win, and his form appears to be trending downwards, if anything. 4th in KBK and 7th in Dwars are the highlights. Needs to be in the right place and have the strength to stick in elite groups if he’s going to meet expectations.

What a good Flanders looks like

It probably looks a bit like the 2015 Flanders, or the 2016 Omloop – a race where Lotto Soudal actually get a man in the right group, in other words. I maintain the faith that Benoot is strong enough and smart enough to ride to a podium, at least, but it is getting difficult to see that happening this season.

Team support

The problem with the internet is that people can go back and read what you wrote. I’ve said plenty of stupid things, but I really do regret writing about Lotto’s tactical nous. I don’t think they’ve been in a break, or controlling a peloton since I was daft enough to say that. This is a strong squad and they really should be able to have a say in how the race works, but they haven’t managed it yet.

Cuddles speaks!

More Belgian riders with a chance… but these chances are getting pretty small. You and I might be feeling a little lonely in the Benoot overseas fanclub, but my old buddy Jens is still the Chairman, right?

8 Luke Rowe and Team Sky

The Story So Far

Hey, remember Team Sky? Blue and black kits, expensive bus… you see them in France in July. Yeah, that’s them. Rowe looked decent in Opening Weekend, 6th in Omloop and 3rd (and in the lead group) at KBK, but he’s been invisible since.

What a good Flanders looks like

Honestly, it looks like a Flanders where Kwiatkowski and Thomas line up, but even I’m getting bored of me writing that. For the guys who are here, it is conceivable that Stannard and/or Rowe, back to form, would make an elite group, but unless things are so tough that Stannard can diesel off the front, it is hard to see them winning a sprint.

Team support

Neither Stannard nor Moscon have lived up to expectations thus far this season, and Rowe won’t be able to rely on them as we might have expected. Plenty of promising motors and experienced heads, but not the brilliant support the leaders will see in the mountains of summer.

Cuddles speaks!

Bwahahahaha! I told you not to make an enemy of me, Sky. I told you. You’re getting exactly what you deserve.

9 Luke Durbridge and Orica Scott

The Story So Far

If you aren’t surprised by the Naesenaissance (you’re welcome) then the revelation of the season must be Durbridge. Carried his flying form from Italy (6th in Strade Bianche) to Belgium and has been 4th in Dwars and E3, and second to Gilbert in that tough Three Dogs stage.

What a good Flanders looks like

If he can keep this form going, he’s got enough TT power to be an absolute nuisance to tired riders in the finale. His job will just be to hang about at the front for as long as he possibly can, and see what happens. Hard to remember he’s only 25.

Team support

He’ll get some help. Hayman did some damage from the break in Roubaix last year and is a canny road captain, whilst Keukeleire is in impressive form of his own and can help, or have a chance in a biggish group. Mitchell Docker is another useful helper.

Cuddles speaks!

Who let this bunch of Aussies come to the party? At least Keukeleire has ridden his way into a QuickStep contract for next year. You know that’s happening. I mean, you know it.

10 Sep Vanmarcke and Canondale

The Story So Far

Sep looked superb in Omloop, forming the selection that took him clear with GVA and Sagan, and staying with them to the end. Predictably dispatched into third on that occasion, he suffered a rib injury in Strade Bianche, has had stomach problems since, and hasn’t troubled the top twenty at any point in March.

What a good Flanders looks like

It looks more like February than March, when Sep was animating the race and making it into selections. Seems like a long time ago. If he’s back on that form, he’ll be hard to keep off the podium as he really is as strong as riders get. I won’t hold my breath for his form, though.

Team support

You know what? Better than it has any right to be. I was all set to write something jokey here, but there’s nothing wrong with a core of Phinney (if he’s anything in his legs), Langeveld and van Baarle.

Cuddles speaks!

I hate it when you’re right. Anyway, we need to stay in form for Sunday. Beer me!