Sorry seems to be the hardest word to say.
When Elton John and Bernie Taupin sat down to write that particular tear jerker, they’d never heard me attempt Maxime Farazijn, Rik Van Ijzendoorn or Karnemelkbeekstraat. In many ways, a period without podcasts whilst the races go through Flanders and the Basque Country is probably a good thing. I don’t want to further damage my country’s reputation in Europe.
Anyway, I might struggle when it comes to pronouncing Flemish words, but I have no problem saying sorry. I did some writing before Omloop, and a bunch of it was wrong. Sorry. Elton John was wrong, but you know who was right? Static Major and Timothy Mosley, that’s who! (Thanks, google. Thanks for everything). They gave words to Aaliyah, and they gave us our theme tune for today’s rehash of the cobbles team ranking.
Meanwhile, Cuddles seems to still be in Edinburgh. There were mutterings regarding the Pacific Northwest and some kind of unresolved insult, whilst Conor’s continued fascination with Spanish stage racing has ruled out a trip to the Emerald Isle. So he’s once again in the peanut gallery, and he isn’t pleased with my work to date. Let’s hope I can do better once I pick myself up and try again.
How wrong have I been, though, really? Well, the overwhelming message of this ranking is patience. Yes, after a few races we can see trends developing we didn’t expect, we can see riders (and teams) emerging, and we can get some idea about form. Still, to borrow an aphorism from horse racing, form is temporary, class is permanent. There was logic to the initial rankings, and good or bad returns from Le Samyn or even Omloop need to be taken with a pinch of salt in predicting what happens ‘txixt now and Roubaix.
The Big Three
1 – QuickStep (initial ranking in parentheses – 2)
Story so far: Opening weekend was solid (Gilbert 5th at Omloop, Lampaert 12th at KBK) rather than spectacular, and they’ve lost Gaviria for the spring. That’s the bad news. The good news is everything else. Utter dominance of the smaller Belgian one-days – wins in Le Samyn, Handzame, Nokere Koerse, and as I write this they have the strong favourite for 3 dogs. Plus they’re winning around Europe, too. Their biggest problem will be getting down to seven guys for each of the races.
What I got wrong: Well, I ranked them behind Bora. That could still prove right (see below) but it looks pretty stupid at the moment.
What I got right: I talked about depth and winning lots of races. They’ve already done that.
What needs to happen next: The competition is a heck of a lot stiffer at the biggest races, and they won’t be able to dominate. That doesn’t mean they can’t win – and more wins are expected. A monument must be the goal here.
Cuddles speaks: Wow, if only you had someone to point out to you that a team full of strong riders totally focused on the most important races of the season would do well. Pretty embarrassing start, to be honest. This mob are looking unstoppable.
2 – Bora (1)
Story so far: The only fair grade on the season so far is “incomplete” as Sagan skipped Opening Weekend. Burghardt picked up 10th in Omloop and Ackermann has looked good in some of the smaller races, but we haven’t seen the fireworks yet.
What I got wrong: We’ll see.
What I got right: We’ll see.
What needs to happen next: Sagan needs to come back to Belgium and win some races. He’s slated to start that process on Friday at E3 and it’d be a big surprise if he’s not among the leading riders.
Cuddles speaks: Get back below the Belgians! Is that fair? No, but then, how often did you see Eddy prioritise training camps over Het Volk?
3 – BMC (3)
Story so far: Hmm. I’m preaching patience, so it is waaay too soon to say that GVA is snake-bitten this year, but given his form in Oman I’m surprised we didn’t see more of him in Opening Weekend or MSR. This is a bit of a one-man team and nobody is panicking yet, but a good start to the cobbled season proper would be a relief.
What I got wrong: I thought we’d see more of Greg early on, but these are the Classics – luck and positioning happen and he could bounce back to his best.
What I got right: I said Roelandts would be helpful, and he looked good in MSR.
What needs to happen next: Some big results on Belgian soil. Golden Greg needs to assert himself and I think he will.
Cuddles speaks: You are writing off a big Flandrian way too soon, Englishman. Way too soon.
I’m really not.
Cuddles speaks: See that you don’t.
Rounding Out the Top ten
4 - AG2R (4)
Story so far: Naesen has looked good to start the year, though an 11th in KBK is the best result so far. The support hasn’t always been spectacular, but Bagdonas was extremely strong in Le Samyn and Duval rode nicely on French cobbles at Denain.
What I got wrong: No, I’m happy enough.
What I got right: We’ll wait and see. Naesen’s yet to shine but he’s got time. I’m keeping them in 4th more on expectation than production.
What needs to happen next: Like the three teams above them, they need to put their best foot forward. It is business time.
Cuddles speaks: Again. Don’t overreact. Strong Belgian riders on cobbles. This formula will work.
5 – Lotto Soudal (6)
Story so far: We begin with a question for the philosophers – should I count Strade Bianche as a cobbled race? My view is that I shouldn’t, but I’m very happy to improve the ranking of a talented cobbles squad because of a ride in Italy’s most Belgian race. We all knew Tjesj Benoot was capable of a ride like, that but what a joy to see him step forward. It proves he can win big if he gets the right conditions.
What I got wrong: In the preseason ranking? Nah, not too much. In loudly jumping from the Benoot bandwagon? I probably made a tiny error. Sigh.
What I got right: I recognised talent and the need to wait and see. They were ranked high, but not among the elite. That’s still okay.
What needs to happen next: It isn’t Jens Keukeleire’s fault that I expect a lot of him, but I do, and thus far he’s been anonymous [and, as I proofread, he is falling of the back in 3-dogs]. If he can show top form this is a one-two punch to be reckoned with. Benoot needs to bring his grinta back from the white roads to the hellingen.
Cuddles speaks: Have you noticed that the Belgian riders are trending upwards, and the non-Belgian riders are trending downwards? If you’d listened to me last month, this whole thing would be a lot less painful.
6 – Trek-Segafredo (5)
Story so far: Stuyven has looked good (4th in Omloop, 10th in MSR) whilst Degenkolb has thus far eschewed the classics in favour of tune-ups in Portugal and France. Something of a live question who’ll be their number one rider for the classics season.
What I got wrong: Happy enough with the preview here.
What I got right: There was a conversation about the depth of this squad. Thus far, I’m happy that I questioned it, though there’s still time for Pedersen et al to prove me wrong.
What needs to happen next: Stuyven is doing things right, and needs to keep putting himself in the right place for success. Degenkolb joins him and it should be a good one-two punch, but he needs to prove he’s on the right sort of form.
Cuddles speaks: If I’m not careful, I’m going to start to sound like a Nationalist. Go Jasper go!
7 – Team Sky (8)
Story so far: Wisniowski was the surprise package of opening weekend, backing up 2nd in Omloop with 8th in KBK. They bring the expected “strong but could be stronger” squad to E3, headed by Stannard who’s shown little form so far (having been too good too soon in earlier years, perhaps?). Little of note from big signing van Baarle, but time for that to change.
What I got wrong: I thought Luke Rowe would be an irrelevance until much later this year. I don’t like how strong he looked in MSR, and that is as much as I’m prepared to say about that.
What I got right: Like everyone else, I knew they had talent all over their roster, and I didn’t know who would show results, but I figured they’d get some.
What needs to happen next: They’re doing fine, and the big guns will fire now. They need to keep getting people in the right moves and keep picking up results.
Cuddles speaks: Lukasz Wisniowski. Not a Stablinski-esque cobbles native, but he rode like he belonged. Bit of grit from the millionaire’s stable, nice to see.
8 – Astana (16)
Story so far: I ranked them in the bottom three, and they blew the doors of Omloop, setting up Valgren for the win. I’m pretty sure it was in direct response to my snub, and the comments below my article proved, if proof were needed, that you should always listen to Broerie instead of me.
What I got wrong: I mean… wow. In retrospect, 16 was probably too low for these guys, amirite?
What I got right: In my defense, I did recognise that it was a lowball ranking between posting the first version and the Omloop starting. So there’s that. Moving on.
What needs to happen next: I suspect some will think 8th is still too low. On acheivements so far, no doubt. My question is, who else would you move below them? They need to keep going as they did in the first weekend, and that won’t be easy. I was massively impressed, and I recognise they have a number of emerging talents, but this still isn’t a squad with an obviously elite leader. I think they’ll be solid, prominent… but probably not as successful as they were early on.
Cuddles speaks: I guess I was wrong too! What’s not to like about these guys? Strong, smart, aggressive… they rode that race the way it should be ridden. I like ‘em. Stupid costumes and all.
9 – UAE (7)
Story so far: Like Bora, this is a one-man team who didn’t send their one man to Opening Weekend. Kristoff sort of repaid their patience by grabbing 4th in MSR. In his absence, evergreen Marco Marcato picked up a couple of top-25s at Omloop and KBK. Solid, but not very interesting. Incomplete grade.
What I got wrong: We’ll have to see.
What I got right: We’ll have to see.
What needs to happen next: Kristoff brings his post-MSR legs to Belgium and he’s scheduled to start E3 and all the big races through to Paris-Roubaix. He’ll need to pick up the results himself, because the squad depth looks a problem. He can do it, though.
Cuddles speaks: I used to spend time with a Norwegian. Or was he Danish? One of that lot, anyway. He was okay. That Thor Hushovd was okay. Kristoff seems okay. Feels like a long time since he won Flanders, though. About time for him to impress me again. I get bored, you see.
10 – EF Drapac (9)
Story so far: Sep did what he does, grabbing third in Omloop with a display of pure strength. Not much else to shout about so far and after getting involved in just about every crash in MSR, they’ll be pleased to have a healthy supporting cast for him.
What I got wrong: I said we’d have Sep’s strength and possible surprises. So far, no surprises, but it is early days.
What I got right: I’m happy enough with this projection. They’re a big team, not a huge team, and they’ve got some talented enough riders.
What needs to happen next: Sep needs tough races and help in the break when he attacks. He wouldn’t say no to the awful weather continuing, either. His teammates need to get the right breaks and stay lucky.
Cuddles speaks: This feels dangerously close to being mean about Sep and the fact he doesn’t win. I’ve had to warn you about this before. Tripping over me in the dark is much worse than stepping on a bit of lego.
The next five
11 – FDJ (12)
Story so far: Arnaud Demare is having a great start to the season, and that includes cobbles (9th in Omloop, 2nd in KBK). He’s one of a long list of legit sprinters who the hardmen will have to drop if they’re going to win the biggest races, and he’s proving hard to drop. The team’s confidence in MSR was compelling, too.
What I got wrong: I took a wait and see approach on Demare, but thought he could be good. Maybe I could have been more bullish, but I’m happy enough.
What I got right: Yeah, this was reasonable.
What needs to happen next: Demare needs to keep performing the way he is, and hopefully add a win. Roubaix will be a major target. New sponsors Groupama must be feeling that they got in at just the right time.
Cuddles speaks: I’ve seen the rest of your list, and it is sprinty. This guy is French and sprinty. At least he’s a big guy who loves the cobbles. That’s better than it might have been. I don’t like all these fast men.
12 – Bahrain Merida (11)
Story so far: Sonny Colbrelli is the story so far – 8th in Omloop and 3rd in KBK. He showed in MSR that he’s still in form and I think he’s now proved that he’s a decent cobbles rider.
What I got wrong: Nope. Bang on, so far.
What I got right: I think I nailed this one. Not that it was an outlandish prediction.
What needs to happen next: The team will be flying after Nibali’s heroics on Via Roma, and their cobbles squad is good enough to continue the momentum. Nobody is putting Colbrelli atop their list of favourites for the cobbles, but he was good last year and good so far this year, so if he isn’t on your long-list of possible winners, you’re doing it wrong.
Cuddles speaks: I mean, praise for an Italian riding for a Bahrain-sponsored team? Are you trying to upset me? I’m not saying I’d rather be listening to drivel about the “Volta” but this isn’t great.
13 – Lotto-NL (14)
Story so far: Dylan Groenewegen picked up a win in KBK with a dominant sprint, looking like he’s taken a big step forward, before he skipped MSR to aim at Gent-Wevelgem and all the cobbled races that follow. On the downside, Lars Boom won’t ride until at least the end of the classics season – we wish him nothing but the best.
What I got wrong: I missed Groany’s apparent improvement in form, and his focus on the classics. He’s looking like a bit of a one-man team, but he’s a serious force whenever he can stay with the group.
What I got right: Well, I said it’d be a one man team, I just thought it’d be Boom.
What needs to happen next: The Ronde is probably tilting at windows, but Groany needs to stay in the lead group to the end of as many races as possible. Good weather and defensive riding will help him, but based on what he showed in Kuurne, he’ll be tough to beat if he’s there at the end. He’ll be a favourite for Scheldeprijs but don’t sleep on him in G-W. The rest need to show…. Something.
Cuddles speaks: Dutch sprinters? Not in my races, sonny. Race hard, attack often, and shell them early, that’s what we want to see. He won’t like all this rain and snow, that’s good.
14 – Sunweb (10)
Story so far: The “Michael Matthews, cobbles rider” narrative didn’t get particularly far after he took a tumble in Omloop and picked up a hairline fracture. Looked in shockingly good form when returning to riding at MSR and will be back for more cobbled fun soon. Theuns’ 6th at Omloop the team’s highlight so far.
What I got wrong: Well, I pushed the Matthews narrative a little hard, but crashes and bad luck happen.
What I got right: I think this team need races that finish with big groups, rather like Lotto-NL, and thus far they haven’t quite had the right man in the right place. They still could.
What needs to happen next: Dropping them four slots feels harsh, but it is more about the teams above them than any reflection on their performance. They need to see Matthews and/or Theuns in the front group a few more times and taking the chances when they come along. It could happen. The supporting cast still looks decent enough, with SKA in sparkly form.
Cuddles speaks: If these guys are winning, I’m probably not enjoying the races. Glad to see you dropping a team in the rankings who bring sprinters instead of tough riders to my turf.
15 – Mitchelton Scott (15)
Story so far: I notice them because I don’t like their jerseys, but 45th (Omloop) and 16th (KBK) was the best they had to show for opening weekend. They’ve been off being great in stage races and MSR since then, so the form is there, but they need to show something on cobbles.
What I got wrong: No, I’m happy enough here.
What I got right: I didn’t say much, and they haven’t done much. This is a team with potential but it won’t be a surprise if they go missing for a few races, and then pop up somewhere.
What needs to happen next: They need to pop up somewhere. Plenty of riders could do it, none are certain to. Someone with good legs in the right break is probably the best scenario for them.
Cuddles speaks: Australians. Meh.
The last three
16 – Dimension Data (13)
Story so far: They popped up with a couple of strong results, Thwaites grabbing 13th in Omloop and Vermote 9th in KBK. Not a bad start.
What I got wrong: I only really mentioned Boss-Hog, and that isn’t totally fair on a stronger-than-you-might-think supporting cast.
What I got right: I didn’t see them spending much time on podiums, and so far, they haven’t.
What needs to happen next: EBH didn’t finish either race in Opening Weekend, he needs to step up and show something. The rest of the team need to keep on fighting.
Cuddles speaks: This squad has two Belgians, and yet only one is turning up for the spring races? Serge Pauwels, give your passport to Scott Thwaites, effective immediately. Turncoat.
17 – Katusha (17)
Story so far: Pretty anonymous from the team missing Alexander Kristoff. They knew that in rearranging their team they’d be punting on the cobbles, and so it has thus far proved. Planckaert looked lively in picking up 6th at Handzame.
What I got wrong: I’m pretty happy with this.
What I got right: I said there was a decent chance for Pollitt to impress, and he looked good at KBK before he got involved in the Sisteron controversy in Paris-Nice. Quite pleased with that.
What needs to happen next: Kittel needs to win Scheldeprijs, because it is hard to see where else success is coming from in the next fortnight of Belgian races. Planckaert needs to carry his form through until at least Flanders
Cuddles speaks: Scheldeprijs sounds Belgian, sure, but it isn’t really a cobbled race. These guys are lightweights.
18 – Movistar (18)
Story so far: *crickets*
What I got wrong: Nope. I said they’d be irrelevant, and they haven’t ridden in Belgium yet this year.
What I got right: 100%.
What needs to happen next: Well, they’re scheduled to start the race at E3, and a few races after that. So, y’know… that’s something.
Snark aside, they’re intending to bring some talented young riders for whom this will be an entirely new experience. It’d be great if one of them showed an aptitude for cobbles, and not a total stunner.
Cuddles speaks: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Fuck. These. Guys.