I’ve been here way too long. I saw someone eating a deep-fried mars bar the other day and it didn’t even seem weird. These people, man, these people. They eat all sorts of stuff. Mostly I stay in my cupboard, but I did come out to look at the cobbles. They’re even rougher than ever this year, and my wimpy host still won’t ride on them.
He won’t let me talk often enough, either. I had some thoughts on the Vuelta… no, you’re never going to believe that, but I could have told you all about Binck-Bank if Andrew would have let me. Anyway, with opening weekend coming up, I figured I’d be allowed to write all about it, but it turns out he’s only letting me do a little bit. So I’m going to show you my special skill – for every team he lists, I’m going to tell you which beer they are. That’ll be more informative than any of the usual rubbish.
Anyway, I’m sure I’m going to be leaving Scotland soon. Hopefully before I have to eat a stonner kebab. I don’t know where I’ll be posted, but my heart belongs in Flanders. Bring on the Omloop!
Well, there you have it. We continue to share our flat with an ill-tempered piece of archaic Flandrian road-cladding, and he continues to hijack my attempts to summarise the spring cycling season. Below, I’m going to rank the World Tour teams by the quality of their cobbles sqauds coming into the 2018 classics, with a quick look at their last ranking, the changes, and what we can expect from each of them in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Cuddles is going to make some tenuous links to beer. Strap in.
The Top Ten
1 – Bora
Last ranking – 1
Key squad members – Sagan
Changes – Not many changes, but Daniel Oss comes in and is a big one-man upgrade in the support available to Sagan. This might be the best squad the Fastvakian has had working for him.
Outlook – Only one member of the squad who is a likely winner of any race, but he could win every race from Omloop to Flanders (and Roubaix isn’t impossible, actually). Somehow, he only won once last year but he looked dominant and will want to improve on that this year. Hard to see him not managing that.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Tempest’s Farmhouse Ale. Look, this is going to hurt. I’ve been in the USA, Ireland and Scotland for some time now, and I have a confession to make. There is some good beer that isn’t Belgian. The best of it tastes like it could be from the homeland. This Scottish beer is really good and I think it would even sell in Oudenaarde. Interestingly, there aren’t any Belgians in this Bora squad, but they sure do act like Flandrians.
2 – Quickstep
Last ranking – 2
Key squad members – Terpstra, Stybar, Lampaert, Gaviria
Changes – Boonen has retired, and also leaving are Trentin and Kittel, with Senechal and Viviani among the new arrivals who’ll probably take part in the cobbled races.
Outlook – This is the only team where I’ve named four key squad members, and I could have gone deeper. Even without Boonen, this is a team with an absurd number of cards to play in any given race, and they could easily pick up any or all of the spring classics.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Duvel. Ubiquitous, high quality, strong and unmistakably Belgian.
3 – BMC
Last ranking – 3
Key squad members – van Avermaet
Changes – Jurgen Roelandts comes in and will join Kung as a key lieutenant for GVA, with Dillier and Oss having moved on.
Outlook – There’s still some decent help in addition to the two above, but this is a shallower squad than it was last year. For all that, Greg joins Sagan on the two-man list of “favourite in every race” and will be looking to add a second monument, hopefully at his beloved Flanders. He could do it.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Straffe Hendrick. This is the team you match to your favourite Belgian beer, which is a bit like picking your favourite Helling, or the most boring Grand Tour rider. I pick this beer which, like Greg, is part of what makes Belgium special.
4 – AG2R
Last ranking – 6
Key squad members – Naesen
Changes – Dillier and Gallopin come in, and the cobbles squad hasn’t lost too much.
Outlook – There’s support in depth for Naesen now, and this squad will get stronger through development as well as through bringing guys in. Naesen had his coming out party in 2017 and will be watched much more closely in 2018. If he can back up 2017 and pick up his first spring victory, this will be a good year.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Duchesse de Bourgogne. Weirdly French name, undeniably Belgian, great, and Andrew goes on about it a bit too much. I’m still talking about the beer, by the way.
5 – Trek-Segafredo
Last ranking – 3
Key squad members – Degenkolb, Stuyven
Changes – Theuns would have been a key squad member but he’s swapped pinstripes for, um, stripes and is at Sunweb.
Outlook – I’ve talked about Degz at length but he could still be among the favourites, whilst Stuyven had a superb 2017 and could put himself among the bigs with a good spring. Either could win a race or two, but lack of depth is a concern. I’ve also said “could” three times, so they are far from certain to be relevant. Some good engines came in but nobody to replace Theuns.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Jupiler. Underrated Belgian beer, from the corner next to Germany. You’ve got an underrated Belgian in this squad, and a German influence. That’s good enough for me.
6 – Lotto Soudal
Last ranking – 9
Key squad members – Keukeleire, Benoot
Changes – Bringing in Keukeleire from Orica/Mitchelton has given the squad a huge boost. Gallopin and Roelandts are big losses, though.
Outlook – This is a squad with two big names and a lack of depth. The two names in question are young enough, experienced enough and Belgian enough to go well, but consistency has not been a strength, and Benoot appears to be shifting focus towards hillier races. It’d be great to see them up there this spring but I’ve been guilty of over-hyping this squad before. I’ll take more of a wait-and-see approach this year.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Chimay red. What we have here is a Belgian double (act). Oh, shut up. I’ve been left in a box since last April and I’m doing my best.
7 – UAE
Last ranking – not ranked
Key squad members – Kristoff
Changes – They’ve added Kristoff, which changes everything. He brings Bystrom along for comfort and support.
Cuddles speaks! - Comfort and support. Like a favourite pair of pants.
You see, this is why we have to limit him to talking about beer.
Outlook – This squad were of little relevance on the cobbles last year, but Kristoff has won Flanders and is a consistent and solid performer on cobbles. If we see a group sprint after a hard race, there aren’t many who can beat him. He won’t get huge support at UAE, though they aren’t total slobs – and he didn’t get masses of help at Katusha either.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Allagash White. Do you guys know they don’t have a tradition of drinking or cycling in the Middle East? Or that this team doesn’t have a Belgian on it? Yet people talk about them as though they’re relevant. In the same way, this is an American brewery that has only been around for 23 years and yet somehow makes really decent beer. Not going to win any awards in Belgium, but I suppose it might have some impact. Send both of them to San Remo is my advice.
8 – Team Sky
Last ranking – 7
Key squad members – van Baarle, Moscon, Stannard
Changes – Dylan van Baarle comes in after a stellar 2017. Gone is Viviani. All quite stable.
Outlook – This is the same old Team Sky story – it depends on who turns up ready to race. Geraint Thomas is saying he’ll drop in for Roubaix. Kwiatkowski might be around. Luke Rowe is coming back from a horror injury but can’t be expected to be at his best – that’s a great team core that we won’t see much of.
Yogi didn’t do much in 2017 but is as tough as they come, whilst Moscon (on the bike) is a big talent who picked up some great results for a youngster last year. Most exciting of all is Dylan van Baarle who left Canondale with his reputation burnished by the spring of 2017, and should be a serious contender this year. There’s multiple guys here who could win races, but Sky and cobbles have never been a perfect match.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Stella Artois. Just because you can get it everywhere in the world and Brits love it doesn’t mean it is the best that Belgium has to offer, so stop telling me how great it is. Man, I hate these guys.
9 – Education First - Drapac
Last ranking – 11
Key squad members – Vanmarcke, Langeveld
Changes – van Baarle out, and no matching replacement. Breschel, Modolo and McLay may offer something.
Outlook – We shouldn’t be surprised by a Vaughters squad in spring, but they surprised me again, as even with Sep injured Langeveld picked up a podium in Roubaix and DvB was excellent. They’ve risen in the rankings more because other teams have fallen than because they’ve improved, but it’d be a mistake to rule them out completely. If Sep stays healthy he’s a podium threat, and the harder the race the better he’ll like it.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Kwak. This stuff comes in a ridiculous package (what is argyle, if not the wooden glass-holder of team kits?) and doesn’t seem particularly strong. Until you stand up and your legs don’t work. Boom! You’ve been Flanders-ed.
10 – Sunweb
Last ranking – not ranked
Key squad members – Theuns, Matthews
Changes – Bling is effectively a cobbles hiring as he didn’t ride last year (except Dwars and Gent-Wevelgem) but is committed to the full cobbled programme this season. Edward Theuns comes in from Trek and adds some class.
Outlook – The surprise package for most of 2017, Sunweb didn’t have a particularly successful cobbles season. Well, the two names above given them a chance to change that, and nobody will want to tow either of them to the finish. If they can hang around until the end, they’ll make some noise. That’s a big ask, but not impossible. Support looks solid enough but not spectacular and there’s lots of young talent.
Cuddles speaks! – If this squad was a beer, they’d be – Brusseleir. You know what makes me sad? I’ve been away from home so long there are new breweries making beers that people rave about. I’ve never tried this stuff, but it is truly Belgian and seems to be here to stay. I gotta get me some.
The next five:
Key riders – Colbrelli
Quick summary – Colbrelli quietly had a very impressive cobbles season in 2017, even if you don’t count Brabantse as a cobbled classic (and you shouldn’t). On decent form so far this year and, with experience, could go better this year. Support is sparse.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Birrifico Toccalmatto. Andrew made me try this. It tasted surprisingly like Belgian beer, even though it was Italian, so I assumed it’d be rubbish. I think you can see the link.
Key riders – Trentin
Quick summary – Lots of change, with key performers Keukeleire and Cort Nielsen out, Trentin coming in to join Durbridge et al. Had a surprisingly good 2017 but will be hard-pressed to repeat, though some top fives are possible.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Little Creatures Pale Ale. Andrew reckons this is the among the best beers he drank in Australia. Sounds like faint praise to me, but it’ll do for a middling squad of mostly Aussies.
Key riders – Demare
Quick summary – Sinkeldam is a new helper, and Demare has a half-decent chance of a good spring but needs to improve to show he’s a real star on cobbles.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Kronenberg. Fine beer, and sounds like a helling, which I like. Still, overrated and frustratingly French.
Key riders – Boassen Hagen
Quick summary – Some good helpers, but this is the Boss-Hog’s squad, and he’s never turned into the cobbles star we hoped for. Had a good 2017 and could build on that.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Hansa. Norwegian and it has been around forever. People in Flanders don’t care. Yup, sounds about right.
Lotto – NL Jumbo
Key riders – Boom
Quick summary – This squad have been disappointing in the spring for some years and Boom is the likeliest to turn things around. Worth noting that he’s 32 now, has never been on a classics podium, and hasn’t been in the top ten of a monument since Paris-Roubaix in 2015.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Bavaria alcohol free. Dutch. Lacks a kick. (Do you see what I did there?).
The last three:
Key riders – Cort Nielsen
Quick summary – This is a climber’s squad, and there’s little strength or depth in the cobbles team. Outlook is bleak and much depends on a few young Danes. Cort Nielsen is the likeliest to make noise.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Tuborg. Because I didn’t want to say Carlsberg, and I have only heard of two Danish beers. I’m Flemish, what do you expect?
Key riders – Kittel
Quick summary – Kittel will have a real chance in Scheldeprijs but that isn’t of great significance. Elsewhere, Tony Martin will have an outsider’s chance and keep an eye on talented youngster Nils Pollitt. That’s it, though – the loss of Kristoff has sent this squad tumbling out of the rankings.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Holsten Pils. Three German names above, and nothing very special. There are some special German beers, and Holsten is not one of them.
Key riders – nope
Quick summary – This is the problem with the World Tour. Teams have to send a race squad to races that they clearly have no commercial or sporting interest in. Positives? Well, Nelson Oliveira was 18th in Flanders last year and has a big engine, and Andrey Amador has flashed cobbles-talent in the past. There won’t be a Movistar win on cobbles.
Cuddle’s beer pick – Fosters. Because these guys are just awful.