The cobbled season ended in the Roubaix velodrome, as ever. You might think it finished in Overije when Tim Wellens won Brabantse Pijl, to which I’d point out that Tim Wellens won, so we won’t be calling that a cobbled race. What’s that? Tro-bro? Oh, c’mon. It’s a great race, but we have to draw the line somewhere, and I’d like to end with a cracking edition of a fabled monument, thank you very much.
Let’s try again. The cobbled season is over. Time, then, to brace myself, put on my heavy gloves and ear defenders, and give Cuddles one last chance to make himself heard. Apart from his comments, which could go anywhere, I’m going to try and shift the focus a little bit towards next year, and look at reasons to be hopeful, and less hopeful, for each team’s 2019 chances. Obviously, all of that will look pretty stupid once transfers get sorted, but I’ve had a lifetime to get used to looking pretty stupid.
Rankings, and highlights, are purely on the Belgian races (and Roubaix) between Omloop and Roubaix.
Cuddles speaks: It’s been a good spring. Not a great spring, but a good spring. We’ve had lots of winners from Belgium’s finest team, and lots of tough races. I’ve enjoyed that. The weather has been just bad enough to be interesting. The beer has flowed.
You know what I didn’t like? We’ve had winners from Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Colombia, Italy and France. Just one from Belgium. One! Take a bow, Yves Lampaert, for saving your country’s blushes.
The Monument winners
1 – QuickStep (previous ranking in parentheses – 1)
Season Highlight: Basically, everything that happened between Le Samyn and Flanders. Let’s go with a 1-3 for Terpstra and Gilbert in the Ronde, by far the biggest race of the year for these guys.
Season Lowlight: I mean, I guess it was Roubaix? Basically, they didn’t have anyone in the right place and with the right legs to follow the world champion on a good day, and they grabbed third. They missed both podiums in opening weekend, too. That’s as bad as it gets. A dominant spring.
Hope for 2019: This is silly. Not only do they have a rock-solid team of elder statesmen, but the kids are mightily impressive, too. Jakobsen, Cavagna and Hodeg all picked up wins. Throw in Senechal, Asgreen, and Gaviria and you have plenty to look forward to.
Concern for 2019: There isn’t much to worry about. If you want to nitpick, Terpstra is out of contract and will presumably be more expensive to renew now, for a team without oodles of financial security. Meanwhile, he’s 33, Gilbert 35 and Stybar 32. None of them are reaching pensionable ages, but it is good news that there’s a youth movement going on too.
Cuddles speaks: My boys. My lovely boys in blue. Look at you, with all your wins. Nine wins in Belgium. I don’t even mind that you call yourself the wolf pack, even though that’s pretty stupid. You can do no wrong in my eyes.
2 – Bora (2)
Season Highlight: They won the second cobbled monument, with Sagan picking up Roubaix to go alongside his 2016 Flanders and his three World Champs. He looked good doing it, too, putting to bed any rumours of a drop in form.
Season Lowlight: They grabbed two wins including a monument, and will be happy enough, but away from those races, Sagan’s unwillingness to tow others late in races is starting to look like a problem. Nobody is saying game theory at the end of brutal races is easy, but I’m not convinced he’s got it optimised yet.
Hope for 2019: Pascal Ackermann is more sprinter than classics rider, but he’s done nicely in some of the semi-classics and is looking like a more significant member of the squad, aged 24 and in his second year with the team.
Concern for 2019: They’ll be happy enough, so long as Sagan is healthy and riding well. Oss’ support was less consistent than I imagined, but there’s no reason to worry about that. They’ll want a replacement for Burghardt sooner rather than later.
Cuddles speaks: I’d make Peter Sagan a Belgian citizen in a heartbeat. Though I’d get him to have a haircut first.
Enjoyed a good season
3 – Astana (8)
Season Highlight: Not many wins left to go around after Sagan and Quick Step scooped them all up, but Valgreen took Omloop, a highlight ahead of his solo fourth in Flanders.
Season Lowlight: This was a year of overperformance from the boys in Turquoise, and it feels a bit petty to go after them. Still, bad luck hit them harder than most on the pave leading to Roubaix, with Cort Neilsen unable to finish a race that may have suited him, and no finisher in the top 30.
Hope for 2019: The coming Danish hegemony! Valgren and Cort Neilsen both look like they have the stuff to compete for years to come in the spring races, and will give them a structure to build around. They may not scale the heights of 2018 next year, but they’ll be relevant.
Concern for 2019: Depth is still a concern, particularly for a team with a mountains focus and a need to keep a few riders from Kazakhstan who tend to disappear in the biggest races. A couple of shrewd signings this summer would go a long way to relieving the pressure.
Cuddles speaks: Danish hegemony? Wash your mouth out, Englishman. What we need is more young Belgians. They’ll be coming.
4 – Trek-Segafredo (6)
Season Highlight: My long-suffering wife has watched a lot of cycling this spring, and her favourite bit by far was Pedersen’s second in Flanders. Sure, he was helped by the group squabbling with Sagan, but he clung on bravely and it was, I’m afraid, more thrilling than Terpstra’s win. Stuyven was solid without ever being spectacular.
Season Lowlight: John Degenkolb’s continued absence from the big boy’s table is a tough thing to watch. It was always going to be a long recovery and we can hope that 2019 is his year, but I thought that about this year, too.
Hope for 2019: It’s a good core. Degenkolb will be a year further removed from his horror crash, at 26 Stuyven is moving towards his prime with tons of experience, and there’s support from youngsters like Pedersen and Mullen to be relied on. Lots to like.
Concern for 2019: The winner is… Stuyven? There’s the rub. Good core, strong riders, but I’m not sure they’ve got a winner for next year in their team. 2021ish, though, is looking golden, if nobody leaves.
Cuddles speaks: You see? Young Belgians. Admittedly, a younger Dane, but I’m going to focus on the Flandrian. I don’t want you damning another one just because he doesn’t win as much as you want. He’s a tough guy and he rides the right way in the right races.
5 - AG2R (4)
Season Highlight: Another team who left it until late, Dillier was brave, smart and strong and picked up a worthy second in the Roubaix velodrome, easily the team’s happiest moment of the spring, and in their home monument.
Season Lowlight: Oh, Olly Nose, how many mirrors did you break this offseason? Somehow came out with top tens in E3 and Dwars, and top 15s in Roubaix and Flanders, but didn’t get the chance to show us his best stuff.
Hope for 2019: The core of a good team remains, with Gallopin (another 2018 lowlight), Dillier et al in support of Naesen, who will hope for better things next year and has reason to expect them.
Concern for 2019: I’ve said before that I think this is a very well-run team, and I don’t know what would concern them. A few contracts to wrap up (Vandenbergh and Bagdonas have done some heavy lifting this spring) but that ought to be manageable.
Cuddles speaks: Not enough credit in here for my liking. Olivier wore the driekleur with pride in Flanders. When most riders would have cried enough, he kept fighting and was there in the end, finishing 11th with his head held high.
[In a rare moment of détente, I agree with my stony colleague on this one. It was a great ride.]
6 – BMC (3)
Season Highlight: Hmmm… by their lofty standards, not an obvious highlight. This ranking reflects consistency rather than occasional brilliance. Van Avermaet did pick up a podium finish in E3, so let’s go with that.
Season Lowlight: At the start of the season, I said that Sagan, GVA, and Quick Step were the favourites for every race. Greg didn’t pick up a win and, in truth, never looked like he was going to. In decent form this spring, and with a slew of high finishes, he’ll be frustrated that others looked just a hair stronger when it mattered most.
Hope for 2019: The margins at this level are razor-thin, and they’ll hope that Golden Greg is back to his very best, enjoys a little more luck, and picks up a second monument. No reason at all why that can’t happen.
Concern for 2019: Lots of off-bike stuff, with the team’s whole future in doubt. If they were financially secure, they’d be looking to build around their leader and Stefan Kung, but this is going to be a big story in the next few months, and a winless spring campaign for their biggest name can’t have helped.
Cuddles speaks: I’ll always be in Greg’s corner. He’s one of the good guys and he comes from the right place. Doesn’t feel like he can retire without a Flanders win. 2019 is going to be his year.
7 – Lotto-NL (13)
Season Highlight: This is easy – Groenewegen picked up Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, making them the lowest-ranked team with a win on the books.
Season Lowlight: With the notable exception of the above (Groany was DQ’ed in Scheldeprijs, which scuppered his excellent chances of adding a second win) we didn’t see much of their hideous jerseys in the main groups. Lars Boom suffered a lost spring, which was a blow, though his recovery matters far more.
Hope for 2019: Norway’s coming hegemony may not match Denmark’s, but Amud Grondahl Jansen quietly had a good spring, including a big 16th in Roubaix. He’s making huge strides in his second WT season and will come on a bundle for the experience. Keep an eye on him. Pascal Eenkhorn, too, is a name to remember.
Concern for 2019: The cupboard is pretty bare beyond the three I’ve mentioned. This is another team who could very usefully shore up the depth of their cobbled unit.
Cuddles speaks: I mean… seventh? Because some Dutchman fluked a win in a sprint race? This is just silly.
Let’s call this the beige group
8 – EF Drapac (10)
Season Highlight: Which is better, a podium in Dwars or in Omloop? Sep got both, and I’ll go with the former as it gave (false) hope for the season to come. An honourable mention for Taylor Phinney’s ride in Paris-Roubaix, loads of help for Sep and a top-ten. I think we’re all pleased about that.
Season Lowlight: No, not really. They were fine. Just never really better than fine.
Hope for 2019: There’s always hope with a Vaughters squad, but the youth movement is not happening on cobbles. They’ll return with old stagers Vanmarcke, Breschel, Langeveld et al and hope for a better day.
Concern for 2019: Lack of money and lack of young talent. I can’t imagine how much they’d like van Baarle back, even after a less-than-superb spring at Sky.
Cuddles speaks: Sep is going to be the dividing line in our friendship. I mean, I never really liked you, but I can tolerate you until you talk about Sep. Let’s move on before I start drinking again.
9 – Lotto Soudal (5)
Season Highlight: They won Strade-Bianche and Brabantse Pijl, neither of which counts, so this is pretty unfair. I dunno, probably Tjesj’s E3 performance. He only ended up fifth, but he rode bloody well.
Season Lowlight: New signing Jens Keukeleire has endured a combination of bad luck, bad form, and illness, and had a season that went rapidly downhill from 21st in Omloop. These things happen, but it is a pity for him, and Lotto.
Hope for 2019: This is still a young, Belgian, talented core. Building around Benoot and Keukeleire continues to make sense and they are another team who can essentially run the same plays and hope for a different outcome.
Concern for 2019: Nah, they’re okay. Jens Debusschere’s new contract will be moving up their to-do list after a strong spring, but that’s achievable.
Cuddles speaks: I don’t like it when you try and pronounce Debusschere or Keukeleire. Also, how many times are you going to have to google the spellings?
10 – Team Sky (7)
Season Highlight: Lukasz Wisniowski was let off the lead for opening weekend, and he repaid his team’s faith with 2nd in Omloop and 8th in KBK. That was a good start.
Season Lowlight: Missing the top ten in both monuments was pretty poor, even for a team who don’t prioritise this event. Geraint Thomas shocked the world when he failed to finish Roubaix.
Hope for 2019: The issue is, there’s just no way of knowing who’ll deign to turn up from one race to the next. Luke Rowe will have a proper offseason and could be valuable next year. I’ll ignore Chris Lawless’ Scheldeprijs 3rd given how bonkers that race was and how little he did in the other races.
Concern for 2019: Same old. There’s a very few riders who’ll be allowed to go for it on the cobbles. We all know there’s a cobbles juggernaut in there, and we all know it ain’t coming out. Ugh.
Cuddles speaks: You treat these races with disdain, that’s what you get back. I told you they weren’t good enough.
11 – FDJ (11)
Season Highlight: Arnaud Demare’s continued growth as a classics rider was obvious throughout, with his 9th in Omloop more impressive to me than his podium finishes in KBK and G-W (because we knew he could do that). 26 and with an improving team around him, he isn’t necessarily the finished article yet.
Season Lowlight: This will do nicely as a building year. I suppose they’d have liked a win, but such is life. Having been eyeballs out since MSR, in retrospect it is about right that Demare was tired, but his 61st in Roubaix (a race he should enjoy) was a bit of a pity.
Hope for 2019: Well, Demare is the big hope, as I’ve said. To add to that, Marc Sarreau has been sprinting well in lesser events this spring, and quietly added a 26th in Roubaix, finishing in the Theuns/Lampaert group. Yet another young man who could go further in these funny races.
Concern for 2019: It would be nice to think there will be some tactical improvements, no? I feel like they did a lot of unpaid labour for bigger teams in the middle stages of races, and Demare would be better suited by a fresher team at the sharp end. A change of DS-approach (as if) or a canny road captain would go a long way.
Cuddles speaks: There weren’t many teams who won races, huh? Oh, Quick Step, you are wonderful. Yeah, whatever, Demare and some Frenchies… I’m more interested in stealing your Delirium Tremens about now.
Results are getting thin on the ground now
12 – Sunweb (14)
Season Highlight: Mike Teunissen had himself a solid spring, with a clear highlight his second in Gent-Wevelgem. He was amongst those caught napping by Lampaert when he was utterly spent, but it was a good finish for the improving young German.
Season Lowlight: Theuns and Matthews were intended to be the big stars, but a combination of illness, injury and bad luck soon put paid to that. Theuns’ 6th in Omloop and Matthews’ 13ths in G-W and E3 were the best they could manage, and they’d have wanted more.
Hope for 2019: I think we can add Teunissen to the (long) list of riders with chances in the classics, if he wasn’t there already. Just like the rest of their squad, Sunweb’s cobbled team are starting to look young, deep and talented.
Concern for 2019: Hard to see where the wins are coming from, unless Theuns can keep himself in a lead group in a big race. There’s something of Trek about this line-up.
Cuddles speaks: Seriously? You’re still writing this stuff? Who remotely cares?
13 – Bahrain Merida (12)
Season Highlight: The winning break in Flanders contained Nibali! Okay, for about thirty seconds, before Terpstra dropped him like a bad habit. It was nice to see Nibbles, a cyclist’s cyclist, getting involved at the sharp end, even though he couldn’t quite make it count. On the results front, Colbrelli did snag a podium during opening weekend.
Season Lowlight: Coming off a big 2017, and with a third in KBK in the bag, I thought we’d see lots of Sonny Colbrelli in the biggest spring races. If we do, it’ll be in the Ardennes, as the cobbled season proper wasn’t great.
Hope for 2019: This isn’t a young squad, and the few youngsters within it aren’t classics types. They’ll be looking for more from Colbrelli and (G)HH, and hoping to bolster their team on the transfer market.
Concern for 2019: Depth and age, I’m afraid. Which is pretty fundamental. They might be okay for another year or two, if Colbrelli keeps his focus on these races.
Cuddles speaks: [drinking]
14 – Katusha (17)
Season Highlight: Pretty anonymous, as we expected. Nils Politt rode well and picked up some good results. Haller and Schmidt added some top tens, but the highlight must have been the 7th place Roubaix finish for Politt.
Season Lowlight: (I had a joke in here about Tony Martin and the tradition of German behaviour in Belgium, but it has been made before, more cleverly). Marcel Kittel only hit the classics to take part in Scheldeprijs. With the field vastly reduced by a mass-DQ that took out several rivals, and with a huge opportunity, he failed to ride back onto the group after an admittedly ill-timed mechanical. He was drafted into the Roubaix squad and didn’t finish. Not good enough for the team’s star, and he’ll need to turn it around in the Tour.
Hope for 2019: Nils Politt. I said he was good coming into the year, but he’s exceeded my expectations with some seriously big efforts in exalted company. He was good value for his 7th in Roubaix and is on his way to bigger things. Mads Wurtz Schmidt should be around as a lieutenant and part of the Danish hegemony.
Concern for 2019: As far as I can tell, none of their cobbled team are under contract for next year. That’s… less than ideal. Expect competition from teams with more interest in these races for their emerging names.
Cuddles speaks: [drinking more]
There’s always next year
15 – Mitchelton Scott (15)
Season Highlight: Not a whole heap to be excited about. Trentin grabbed 7th in G-W and 11th in E3. Which makes me think…
Season Lowlight: What to make of Matteo Trentin? In his first year away from Quick-Step, he didn’t reach the heights of his 2017 cobbles campaign, but he was there or thereabouts throughout. Not dreadful, but not what they paid for. He’s out for a while now, fracturing vertebrae in Paris-Roubaix. He’ll be hoping to return to form in good time to repeat his Vuelta heroics.
Hope for 2019: This team looks a bit like Trentin and some hopefuls. They need some combination of luck and good legs from a support rider, a better spring from Trentin, or a good signing or two. Any of those things could happen. Robert Stannard and his impeccable U23 credentials give hope in the longer-term.
Concern for 2019: If they don’t get lucky with an outsider, and Trentin doesn’t produce… well, they might be looking at another year a bit like this one. Which is below the standards this upwardly-mobile team hold themselves to.
Cuddles speaks: [snoring]
16– UAE (9)
Season Highlight: This is the point where I’m regretting this format. I honestly couldn’t think of a single thing that happened to this team this season before I started looking up results.
Season Lowlight: Having brought Kristoff on board, at some expense, that sentence above is pretty damning. He was in that entertaining but doomed trio at Gent-Wevelgem with the Astani, and took an anonymous 16th in the Ronde, but that’s about all, and that isn’t really good enough.
Hope for 2019: Beyond a bounce-back year from Kristoff, they’ll probably be hoping for more from Filippo Ganna. He hasn’t shown much in results but has looked good in some breaks after a very busy spring and a winter season that included an individual pursuit world championship. He’s 21 and will need more than a year’s further seasoning, but there’s lots to be hopeful about.
Concern for 2019: Hard to shake the feeling they bought at the top of the market for Kristoff, and there isn’t much depth around him. Anonymity again is a distinct possibility.
Cuddles speaks: [snorting. Waking.]
17 – Dimension Data (16)
Season Highlight: Probably Eddy Boss-Hog grabbing fourth in Gent-Wevelgem. Having got into a group with Pedersen, Lampaert, Teunissen and Vanmarcke, he really should have done better, but he rode well enough to be there.
Season Lowlight: They got some bad luck with a training crash for Scott Thwaites, who was rounding into some kind of form and would have given them a useful weapon. Beyond EBH, there wasn’t much going on this year.
Hope for 2019: With very few contracts rolling into 2019, an older-than-you-think squad and Eddy still flattering to deceive, there’s not much to be hopeful about, to be brutally honest.
Concern for 2019: They’ll need a good series of signings, renewals to match their performance from this year, which should be a minimum threshold. Plenty of pro-conti teams will have an eye on their WT spot, methinks.
Cuddles speaks: Nikki! What? No, I’m not interested. I’ll fight you!
Only here because we have to be
18 – Movistar (18)
Season Highlight: Marc Soler made the break in Paris-Roubaix. He didn’t finish, but he made the break and looked good for a while up there. Imanol Erviti’s 30th in the same race was a monument highlight. Alejandro Valverde made the elite group in Dwars and looked complacent doing it, though he finished 11th in the end. Despite flirting with the idea, he skipped Flanders. He’s the only man in the peloton more likely than Nibali to win in any race, any day.
Season Lowlight: This isn’t a season, it is a contractual obligation. Other than the Tour recon rides, the young, the cheap and the feckless were sent to Belgium.
Hope for 2019: A change in UCI policy that means they don’t have to turn up.
Concern for 2019: The only thing that would bother them would be a dramatic change in the cost of travel to and around Belgium.
Cuddles speaks: Right. For the last time this year. Fuck these guys. I’m going to sleep. Wake me for the Omloop. [More snoring]