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Thursday Thoughts – Three Cobbled Breakout stars

Three riders to make strides in the year’s most exciting races

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You guys know the score by now. Thursday, and a trio of riders at differing stages of ability, all of whom I expect to see improving on their 2018 performances during 2019. We’ve looked at general classification, and we’ve looked at hilly classics. Today, we look at specialists on the cobbles. By their nature, these are capricious races, and the chance of mishap is high enough to make most predictions look silly. Moreover, riders tend to emerge gradually, with few very clear breakouts in any given year. This list, then, will be made up of a couple of familiar names who I see taking that step up to “truly elite”, and one name from a long way off your radar who might do something.

Jasper Stuyven

What has he done so far? Established himself among the pick of the cobbled riders. Boasts two top fives in Roubaix, with a top ten in Flanders (and in Milan – San Remo). He’s won five races as a pro, with the first two (a stage of the Vuelta in 2015 and a solo win in Kuurne in 2016) the most prestigious. Rode very well through the second half of 2018, seemingly showing improved climbing (third from a break in stage 14 of the Tour, 3rd in Quebec, winning in Wallonie) and sprinting (second in Brussels, winning a stage of Binck Bank).

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What does a breakout look like? He’s so close to the top that nothing less than establishing himself in the upper elite will do it. Currently, I have Sagan and GVA at the very top, with Naesen, Gilbert and Terpstra (move and age permitting, more on this in later columns) in the next tier, then a very crowded third tier. To move up, Stuyven needs to be very visible all spring, win a race or two, and get a podium, at least, in one of the monuments. A big ask, but you can’t break through from “very good” to “excellent” without being, uh, excellent. Aren’t you glad I’m here to explain this stuff?

What makes me think a breakout is coming? If you’d asked me to define him at the end of the last cobbled season, I’d have said he was very strong, but struggling to win races. A bit like Sep – excellent but lacking the ability to finish races off. His signature cobbles win (like Sep, early career, perhaps when a little less watched by the bigs) came solo in Kuurne.

Something seems to have changed mid year. Maybe it was the form of the competition, but I don’t think so. I think he’s simply got better. Form, development, tactical nous, simple self-belief – whatever has changed, it is allowing him to get better results from his undoubted skill. If he can reproduce that in the Belgian spring (and perhaps more specifically, in the northern French April) he will be able to take a huge step up the mountain.

Nils Politt

What has he done so far? Whilst it was entirely right for Shawn to knock my 2018 preview of Katusha, I’d credit myself with having seen a chance of success for Nils. Indeed, I’d like to think that if I’d written this column last year, he’d have featured. He was impressive on the cobbles, grabbing 17th in Flanders and 7th in Roubaix and confirming the impression that the longest, toughest races suit him best. His later season showed he’s still practicing on his TT rig (11th in California, 20th in the Tour) and is improving as a sprinter (3rd in Munsterland) whilst he impressed at home in grabbing a stage and second overall in Germany. A year of continued progress.

What does a breakout look like? He’s in with a chance of joining that third or fourth tier of guys that I see Stuyven graduating from; not a favourite, but someone to take seriously in all the tough races. A podium or two, or top five in one of the monuments would be another step forward.

What makes me think a breakout is coming? Steady progress to date, a good age profile, growing experience, and a team where he’ll be given every opportunity. Jens Debusschere comes in (this article means I have to spell his name again, despite Shawn doing that capsule) so he won’t be on his own, but he’ll still be able to ride for himself. I like his moxy and I like his talent.

Jonas Rickaert

What has he done so far? Okay, so you guessed the first two on this list. Didn’t see Jonas coming, did you? Look, he hasn’t done much to date. He’s a decent track rider without breaking into the formidable Belgian national team (but has performed with credit in events like the Ghent six) and over a few years has built up some meaningful experience on the road. His 2018 season included top tens in Scheldeprijs and Tro Bro, among several others. He really caught my eye finishing fifth in elite company in Eurometropole.

What does a breakout look like? He won’t have to do much to take a step forward, but a good year would see him grabbing a couple of top tens, riding in some big groups, and supporting team leaders to great success. Outside of Flanders, he isn’t a name that cycling fans have heard, I don’t think. If he changes that, he’s had a good year.

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What makes me think a breakout is coming? This is a classic example of opportunity. Rickaert’s leaving Sport Vlaanderen where he’s spent his entire career to date, and joining new Pro-conti outfit Corendon. Yes, the Mathieu van der Poel outfit. They’ve also got Roy Jans on board, plus Stjin Devolder (and Devolder’s care givers and nurses, presumably. He’s old, guys, that’s the joke). So the wildcards are coming, and whilst he’ll be a helper, I think he’ll have chances to make some noise for himself. There’s signs he’s growing into a talented rider and on wet and dififcult days, he’s the sort of tough Belgian who could be a real nuisance for more established names.

Fourth breakout star: Florian Senechal. Ssssh.