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One last cobbles hit parade!

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The last rankings of the cobbled season, before Cuddles gets put away for his own safety, and ours

2016 Paris - Roubaix Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Well, we saw a heck of a race on Sunday. Quickstep did (sort of) go mental, with a blocking tactic allowing a very long-range attack and an extraordinary win. A jacket notwithstanding, we also saw the guys we expected, with a couple of notable exceptions (Sep, Tiesj) up towards the top, alongside a couple of unexpected or semi-unexpected names. Sasha Modolo, cobbles demon. Who knew?

Anyway, next Sunday sees the last of the cobbled races, and the replacement of almost-inhumane cobbles on almost-inhumane slopes with inhumane cobbles on a flattish landsape. Yes, we’re in Northern France, and the power rankings need tweaking, to reflect different conditions and all the lessons we learned on the greatest day of the cycling year. Overall, this seems like a race with a larger number of potential contenders, and we should be in for another atmospheric and thrilling day in Hell. Just a shame about the spring sunshine, really.

Also, somebody wanted to make one last scamper through our collective lives before he gets back in the trench for another summer.

What a race! What a RACE! We got a Belgian winner, too. I mean, he’s a Waloon, but we’ll take it. If you didn’t appreciate what we have to offer before, I hope you’re all Flandrian now. Speaking of honorary Flandrians, what the hell am I doing being stuck in Scotland when half of the bloody internet is in my homeland? I mean, there are Americans there. There’s a Dane. A Dane! They get altitude sickness walking over bridges, how will he cope with proper, hard, cobbly hills?

Anyway – I’m here and watching on TV, so I’ve got to make the most of it. Sunday is a last day to relish proper cyclists with muscle and bravery, and a last day to demolish any remaining proper beer. Enjoy it, and raise a glass to your old pal Cuddles. Go Tommeke!

1. Peter Sagan and Bora

Last ranking – 1a

Tale of the Tape

It is really the tale of the jacket for Sagan, who created a counterfactual for the ages (would he, Naesen and GVA have caught Gilbert) had he not fallen? Looked in excellent form in Flanders until that tumble and was healthy enough to ride to the finish. Roubaix has been his stated goal this spring and expect him hungrier and angrier than ever. In a race that rewards pure strength, plus a bit of sprinting and bike-handling, he’s got to be the top favourite.

Expectations

Winning. He’s made headlines and races all spring, but this is his third chance for a monument this year and his last good one.

Cuddles speaks!

If he’d just ride on the cobbles, he’d probably have won. These cyclists, man. It’s like they don’t appreciate the surface we create.

2. Tom Boonen and Quickstep

Last ranking – 3

Tale of the Tape

Well, the report card is in for the first World Tour team – QuickStep scored 1/1. Yes, the team with the clearest singular objective, matched only by Sky and the Tour, have achieved it through Phillipe Gilbert’s heroics. For an encore, the team move onto Roubaix, a race that is peculiarly well suited to the talents of Terpstra (a podium cherry on the Gilbert cake), Stybar, and, of course… well, you know who else. Gilbert is expected to take a deserved break, but this team is stacked.

Expectations

Blaze of glory? Fairytale? As a guy who now writes a fair bit about cycling, there’s nothing that would make my life easier than a win for Boonen. He was looking good until his ill-timed mechanical on Sunday, and is in with a decent chance in his last ever race, on a course that suits him perhaps better than any other. Whether he’s the strongest man on his team is an entirely separate question. Quickstep would like another win and as ever there are lots of riders who could provide it.

Cuddles speaks!

I don’t like the French. I don’t like their cobbles. Still, they could usefully take out a bit of the competition and turn Roubaix Belgian if our favourite son can get the win. Can’t tell you how much I resent this ranking. He should be number one, even after he retires.

3. John Degenkolb and Trek

Last ranking – 4

Tale of the Tape

Well, of all the things I thought we’d be saying about Degenkolb, “beaten in a sprint by Modolo” wasn’t one of them. Still, 7th was a fair return and confirmed his spring so far – nearly, almost, and sort of. He just doesn’t seem to be quite the rider he was in 2015 but he’s close enough to be threatening. Stuyven looked good on Sunday but faded rapidly.

Expectations

For both Stuyven and Degenkolb, this is a more feasible race to compete in than Flanders, and either could make the podium on a good day. Degenkolb in 2015 was a favourite once he entered the velodrome in the lead group, what was shocking was his strength to regain that group in the closing kilometres. He’s got an outstanding chance in a sprint but making it there won’t be easy.

Cuddles speaks!

Meh.

I’d like to add more, but meh really is all I have to say here. Any chance of a beer?

4. Alexander Kristoff and Katusha

Last ranking – 5

Tale of the Tape

Once again Kristoff won the bunch gallop. In this case, his reward was fifth. Katusha were active all day and are giving him the support he deserves. It just seems like his form is lacking that final 1% that puts him in the right groups – or maybe it is bad luck?

Expectations

Kristoff doesn’t think of himself as suited to Roubaix, although I’ve never fully understood why. He’s had a 9th and a 10th in this and there’s no reason why he can’t improve. If he’s in the lead group he’s got the power and the kick to win – basically, he’s Jon Degenkolb in a different coloured jersey. Must be a question over his ability to stay in the right group but I’m much more optimistic than most.

Cuddles speaks!

Either there’s a different system of numbers in this funny country, or you’ve just ranked Kristoff higher than Greg. That’s a mistake, right? You’ll fix it before you publish?

Oh, for the love of Tommeke…

5. Greg van Avermaet and BMC

Last ranking – 1

Tale of the Tape

Alas, poor Greg. Came into the race having wrenched favouritism from Sagan with a stellar set of spring races, only to be brought down by his rival when the chase was on in earnest. Recovered effectively from the tumble to take second but must be wondering what he has to do to pick up the win he’d cherish most (now he has a gold medal).

Expectations

I suspect I’m ranking Greg lower than most would – he’s in the form of his life, is well supported, and has gone well in this race before. I just wonder about a few things – has his form begun to decline? Is he as effective without hills to launch sharp attacks? Will he really want this after last week’s disappointment? Will riding to the line over 250km plus have taken it out of him?

Cuddles speaks!

Fifth? I’m very glad this is the last time I write one of these columns with you, you twit.

6. Olivier Naesen and AG2R

Last ranking – 7

Tale of the Tape

AG2R looked a one-man team again on Sunday, but Naesen was again demonstrating what a strong rider he is when sticking with the bigs on the Oude Kwaremont. He stuck too close, of course, and his chances evaporated as his front wheel turned into a coat hanger. He’s looked very strong but not comfortable on steep slopes, so Roubaix should suit him.

Expectations

This is, of course, the French monument and team hopes will be high, and once again pinned on Olivier’s shoulders. 13th last year and if he can avoid bad luck he’ll be up there in a top selection. Probably lacks the sprint to take a very high place, but there are previous winners about whom the same might be said.

Cuddles speaks!

I’m not going to lie, there’ll be a void in my heart next year when the cobbles season start without Tom. Greg can fill some of that void, and maybe Oli can take a little bit more. I like this guy, I really do.

7. Luke Rowe and Sky

Last ranking – 8

Tale of the Tape

Rowe looked good on Sunday until he was brought down by Sep, which you probably have to file as “just one of those things”. Stannard still looks below form but Moscon continued to be impressive as a cobbled rider, finishing 15th. Still no fireworks from the richest team in cycling, but they aren’t putting their best guys in the race and without depth, you’re vulnerable to bad luck.

Expectations

Rowe could go very well – in fact, I’d say that all the teams this far down, and no further, contain potential winners who wouldn’t be surprises. He’ll want to see Yogi able to provide some kind of meaningful second weapon, but it’d be a Lazarus-esque performance if he does.

Cuddles speaks!

Sod these guys.

8. Luke Durbridge and Orica

Last ranking – 9

Tale of the Tape

Orica did a lot of things right on Sunday. They were among the most active teams once they missed the break over the Muur, and Durbridge was able to finish 12th in the large chasing group. Not quite what they’d have hoped for given a breakout spring, but not too shabby either.

Expectations

They won’t be expecting to repeat last year’s surprise victory, but they are among the teams who will go in thinking that you never know – on cobbles especially, there are rewards for the brave. Keukeleire was unfortunate to miss Flanders with sickness but is expected back and this is a squad that should enjoy the unique challenges of the pave. Durbridge is probably their best card but expect several riders to keep the Orica colours visible all day.

Cuddles speaks!

I really don’t want to like these guys. There are some silly haircuts and they are from entirely the wrong side of the planet – but they ride like Belgians and they’re fun to watch. Could be worse. At least they’re not Sky.

9. Tiesj Benoot and Lotto Soudal

Last ranking – 6

Tale of the Tape

Another race, another failure from Lotto Soudal to make the selection, or even to take part in the efforts to bring the chase back. Andre Greipel’s annual demonstration of his extraordinary super-domestique skills were in evidence, but Benoot was one of six who failed to finish and Gallopin’s 17th was simply not good enough for this team in this race.

Expectations

Patience must be running out for Lotto Soudal and they need to start getting the right people in the right groups. Unfortunately, it is hard to see this race suiting them. Benoot won’t start and hopes may lie with Sieberg, who was top 10 last year.

Cuddles speaks!

Oy oy oy. What happened to our Tiesj? What happened to Jurgen? All those lovely Belgies on a lovely Belgian team, and nothing to show for it. Five wins in Iberia and none in Belgium is unacceptable at this time of year.

10. Florian Senechal and Cofidis

Last ranking – N/R

Tale of the Tape

Didn’t do a great deal in Flanders, to say the least. Senechal finished 40th as their best performer and one of only two riders to cross the finishing line. It has not been the spring that I hoped for, although 4th in Le Samyn and 10th in Dwars aren’t too bad.

Expectations

Whose expectations? For everyone else, he’s a dark horse and a possible top ten. I love his chances and think he’ll make the podium (I’m also financially invested in that outcome). We’ll see how he goes.

Cuddles speaks!

I don’t like being in the same room as you when you talk about Florian. Still, as French cyclists go he’s almost one of us.

11. Sep Vanmarcke, Canondale, and all the bad luck going

Last ranking – 8

Tale of the Tape

Sep made the elite selection and was going very well as the race progressed towards the sharp end, but he caught his back wheel between two concrete slabs on a descent and hit the deck, breaking his little finger in the process and ending his race. Earlier, Taylor Phinney had a nasty fall of his own, continuing his run of bad luck and giving his head the kind of bashing that makes fans grateful for compulsory helmets.

Expectations

Heavily reduced, with Phinney and Vanmarcke not certain to take the startline (for Phinney, the fact they’re apparently even considering him taking part speaks to a worrying indifference to concussion symptoms). Van Baarle and Langeveld aren’t without chances, but this is not going to be the race the team hoped for.

Cuddles speaks!

*Rocking silently back and forth*

Woe, woe and thrice woe. I mean, how much heartache can one man put a nation through? This has been the lowlight of an otherwise awesome spring.

Last thoughts

On a dry day and without much wind forecast, the riders will need to make the race, but they will. Strength will out, and if the bigs avoid the sort of luck this race create, I think we’ll see three QuickStep riders (Tom, Niki and Zdenyk) up at the front with a few others. Who? Well, Sagan, and probably Rowe, Naesen, GVA and Degs. Maybe Kristoff, maybe Durbridge, and doubtless some surprise packages. I’d love to see Senechal up there, and I think he might be.

I need three beers now. One to celebrate Gilbert, one to acknowledge Sep’s bad luck, and one to wish Tom well before Sunday. What a spring we’ve had, and what a career he’s had. Cheers!

Until 2018, Cuddles out.