Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations. You have made it. We have all made it. We have braved the offseason, the 4am Tour Down Under, piecing together tweets to form a picture of what happened in Oman and watching Amaro Antunes having his annual peak in the Algarve to arrive here, bare days before the joy of Omloop het Nieuwsblad.
[The box on Conor’s desk wrapped in four whole rolls of packaging tape, hitherto motionless like all good packages, begins to move, almost imperceptibly]
Ahem, anyway, as is customary here at the Café, before clip meets pedal and wheel meets cobble, it’s time to look at where all the teams stand ahead of the Omloop. Ah, the Omloop-
[Tape rips suddenly. A mighty groan emerges from the box as it bursts open, revealing...]
Ta flippin’ da, bitchez.
Cuddles! How have you been?
You bastard, I’ve been in Edinburgh for nearly two years. The other guy cut off my Kwak supply after Roubaix last year and I was dormant until you started talking about Omloop. Now tell me, how much Belgian beer can I get at your local supermarket?
(Reader, I don’t have the heart to tell him). Anyway, Cuddles, are you cool to help me out with previewing the upcoming cobbles season?
Well...[takes a long drag of a cigarette] it’s been a while and I’m an old stone. What’s in it for me?
[I produce a bag. It clinks notably]
I’m on board!
Brilliant. Let’s get looking at the teams that will rule the cobbles this year. First a little note — in general these rankings are for the cobbles season as a whole. Omloop and Kuurne, however, have a bit more pull owing to nothing but proximity. What this basically means is that Sagan’s absence for Omloop prevents Bora for being in the conversation for first place on the list, but doesn’t relegate them too far.
Leader: Greg Van Avermaet, without question. As the Olympic champion, recent Roubaix winner and one of the most popular Flandriens around, Golden Greg leads his team into another classics season. At thirty-three, he cannot have too many years left to lead a classics season, but there is no reason to think he’s slowed down. He’s sounded bullish when interviewed and the form book shows a good start ti the season, having performed well in reduced sprints especially.
Support: Here is where I really get on the CCC bandwagon. Despite the budget uncertainty last season, followed by certainty that the budget wouldn’t be great, I reckon CCC have recruited very well, taking Łukasz Wiśniowski (second at Omloop last year, remember) from Sky and Guillaume van Keirsbulck from the pro-conti ranks. These are allied to the pre-installed Michael Schär, Fran Ventoso and Nathan van Hooydonck to form a pretty cohesive setup based completely around Van Avermaet. This isn’t anything like Quickstep’s situation, which I’ll get to soon where nobody knows who they’re riding for on a day to day basis but is instead a team with a clear focus, clear aims and clear ability to deliver.
Outlook: Well, I’ve placed them first so I must think the outlook is good. I just really like the structure of the team and I think Van Avermaet will have as successful a classics campaign as ever in his legs. His predilection for winning Omloop shifts him to the front as well. I can very easily picture him taking off on the Muur.
Cuddles’ comments: CCC, eh? Has too much time passed for me to ask why Davide Rebellin isn’t riding? Still, you’ve picked a proper Belgian, so you won’t hear me complaining.
2. Deceuninck-Quick Step
Leader: Whoo, boy. Yeah, let’s just pick Quick Step’s leader, that should be a hoot. I reckon it’s...Gilbert? No? Actually, this seems like a good place to stop and say that Quick Step’s classics outfit is in a much different place to where I think we all reckoned it would be not that long ago. I certainly wasn’t expecting Gaviria to take off until not-that-long before he did so, and I remember vividly all the time that was taken to discuss him as the unbeatable classics star of the future. Now it seems that there’s a void to be filled at the head of Quick Step. I have championed Yves Lampaert for a couple of years now and I reckon this is his shot, but until he takes it the more established Gilbert must go into these races as the protected rider. It is, after all, contract year and the Walloon sniper has already opened his account for the season. His 2017 classics season was mesmeric and he has another go left in him.
Support: As Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder will tell you, at Quick Step the idea of a support rider is a little different to everywhere else. It would be very generous of me to call Zdeněk Štybar a team leader, but that doesn’t mean he’s any sort of a domestique. In fact I expect to see him off the front at some point this very weekend. However, his years of promise and years of close-but-no-cigar definitely relegate him to the paragraph he now occupies. So does (this sentence is the only one in which I can promise that I’ll be more sensible than Andrew) Florian Sénéchal, who’s a wildcard option but I lamentably expect him to be labouring on the front. Bob Jungels is also here, somewhat randomly. He’s never ridden the classics before and I’m not sure how this fits into GT prep, but each to his own. Fabio Jakobsen would be a big shout for Kuurne if his immune system hadn’t deserted him like Lefevre deserted common decency.
Outlook: My second-ranked team is the polar opposite of my first. Non-cohesive, very recognisable and with an unpredictable strategy. The Just Go Mental approach must at least be contemplated. For newcomers, this is a term I came up with to describe what I think is Quick Step’s best option in the classics — use their six or seven extremely good riders to overwhelm the opposition with constant attacks rather than ride for one guy, or ride on the front at all in fact. Quick Step should be in every move and have the tactical acumen to finish it off once there. Should.
Cuddles’ Comments: Ahah, more Belgians. This is classics season as it’s supposed to be. Funny you mention the Just Go Mental approach; Just Go Mental was the theme of my birthday party. Don’t tell the other bloke though, I didn’t invite him.
Leader: Peter Sagan, obviously, and I’ve already mentioned the caveat that they would be higher on this list if he were riding Omloop. I felt it was improper to release a power poll on the eve of Omloop with the top team there on foot of a rider currently doing altitude training. Sagan is of course the defending Roubaix champion, with a Flanders to his name to boot. As I’ve said however, he’ll be absent on openingsweekend. Pascal Ackermann will take his place. He’s a pretty good shout for Kuurne, especially.
Support: Daniel Oss has been mentioned umpteen times on this site as an excellent signing for Bora’s purposes, but I’m doing it again because that’s exactly what he was and is. The experienced Jempy Drucker is of the same ilk. This is becoming a good classics unit, rather than the one-man show Sagan has been forced to play for much of his career.
Outlook: The theme of this Bora bit has been “great, once Sagan turns up.” That’s the story here. Ackermann is a good outside shot for the weekend but this is Sagan’s team. When he gets here the only thing standing in the way of his cobbles success is his appetite: he lacks a Milano-Sanremo, so that will be a huge target, as will the new Liège-Bastogne-Liège. If he isn’t stretching himself too thin, he will be the favourite to win every cobbled race he enters, and deservedly so.
Cuddles’ Comments: Bah. I automatically don’t trust anyone who skips Omloop. And I’ve never heard of those two other races you mentioned, so I can only assume Sagan’s gone as insane as you have in placing Bora third.
Leader: That would probably have to be Jasper Stuyven, who is a really interesting case. Since 2017, his VDS price has risen from ten points to twenty to twenty-six, as he moves into his prime while showing a little bit more promise than results. You may remember the glowing endorsement he got from the Podium Cafe team at the start of the year — the idea will be to deliver on that. Since his 2016 Kuurne victory, he’s had an awful lot of high placings and an awful dearth of important wins.
Support: Mads Pedersen continues the Trek-Segafredo hypetrain, next stop Omloop, terminates at glory. Second in Flanders is enough to elevate anyone to next-big-thing status, and he’ll be protected in this impressively deep Trek lineup, no doubt about it. Edward Theuns will play a big part as well; it’s been a long time since his breakout season with Topsport which may relegate him to domestique. A very, very strong domestique. Ryan Mullen and Alex Kirsch provide plenty of power. Then there’s the wildcard of John Degenkolb. Winner of the cobbled stage of the Tour de France and owner of a Roubaix shower cubicle, if he turns up as his old self, he can instantly assume leadership, but I’ll have to see it with my own eyes before I move Stuyven down a paragraph.
Outlook: This is a very, very strong Trek team, more likely to win big races than any from this stable that have not included Cancellara.
Cuddles’ Comments: Don’t think I didn’t notice the Irish reference, Conor, and you’d been doing so well. Then again, you kind of have to stop the Irish references during classics season, don’t you?
Leader: Matteo Trentin, and I’m surprising even myself by placing him and his team this highly, but I really think the form of Trentin warrants it. He’s already outstripped his 2018 win total, but his best performance might not even be included in his three wins. I was really impressed by his two top-ten finishes in the Vuelta a Murcia, a very hilly race in which he showed his proficiency on the climbs and general strength. This will stand to him in Flanders this weekend. If there’s a guy who is going to win both races this weekend, that guy is Trentin. If he makes the front group in Omloop, he will win. If he makes the front group in Kuurne, he might win.
Support: I fully expect this to be the highest ranking Michelton achieve this cobbles season, and their depth is the main reason why. Luke Durbridge is their pretty-much-undisputed second-in-command, and while he had a pretty impressive Dwars two years ago, he’s shown nothing to make us believe that he’s going to rip it up this classics season. That said, he’s a very strong rider and can fulfil pretty much all of the duties required of a cobbles domestique. Hepburn, Juul-Jensen and a cast of others provide any necessary grunt work.
Outlook: Absolutely great for the weekend. I think Trentin will win Kuurne and the bookies fancy him for Omloop as well. For the rest of the classics season, not so great. Flanders and E3 are probably beyond the talents of any of their riders, but for now they have their chance to be on top of the world.
Cuddles’ Comments: Ah, I remember when I was on top of the world, by which I mean in my rightful place, bedded in beside my friends at the top of the Koppenberg, the highest point known to stone.
Leader: On Sunday it’s Dylan Groenewegen, but for the rest of the spring that’ll be Wout van Aert, freed from contract struggles and ready to race for his new team. I’ve been a supporter of his in cyclocross ever since he came onto the scene and I’m not demoralised by his comparatively poor season in the field. It’s quite clear that road season is a huge target of his this year and after he proved his ability to compete with the best last year, he’ll be a marked man. I fully expect him to be an active presence in Omloop. Groenewegen meanwhile defends his Kuurne title and will be a favourite for Scheldeprijs. He’s got a very good chance on Sunday but after that, it’s pretty much all Van Aert at Lotto.
Support: Mike Teunissen never lacked for potential. He’s a former espoirs ’cross world champion and he nearly won Dwars last term. A very capable lieutenant. So will be Pascal Eenkhoorn, great white hope of thirty-one VDS users, yours truly included.
Outlook: This is not a bulletproof setup and will in all probability be quite hit-and-miss. The hits, however, should be very powerful. If Kuurne goes exactly to script, Groenewegen walks away from it and if Wout van Aert’s career goes to script, this is the year he becomes a serious force in the classics.
Cuddles’ Comments: Boy, I wonder why Van Aert stopped focusing on cyclocross. Riding for a conti team in the dead of winter for no money is so much better than a big contract and someone writing about you when the temperature is above freezing.
7. AG2R La Mondiale
Leader: Oliver Naesen, an ever-present over the last couple of years who, and I feel like I’m repeating myself, has struggled to come away with wins. I suppose that tends to happen when you’re playing the world’s hardest game of musical chairs, where there are only seven chairs which are two hundred kilometres away against two hundred people all as desperate as you are to grab one. What’s held Naesen back in the past hasn’t been his strength or his tactics, but his sprint, or rather, the fact that he’s a proficient sprinter made to face a specialist, in the case of Sagan, and an expert at sprinting at the end of a long day, in Van Avermaet. He did finish ahead of Colbrelli in a bunch kick in Oman, so small victories. A Naesen classics win would be immensely popular and at twenty-eight, he should be close to the peak of his powers.
Support: I always loved watching Stijn Vandenbergh when he was riding for Quick Step, on top form and performing in the classics. Mainly because you knew he had absolutely no chance in a sprint and he was almost always the most unknown rider in whatever lead group he had forced his way into through sheer force of stubbornness on the day in question. When he left the Steppers for AG2R I was very optimistic, for his first season. However, he’s faded away completely as far as leadership is concerned, which is not to say that he can’t put in a valuable shift to help Naesen. Alexis Gougeard had better do the same or better if the cachet he built up at the start of his career is to stand a chance of persisting.
Outlook: If I’m going to slide into partisanship at any point in this long, long article, it’s here. I hope Naesen can get a win in a big race this spring. I’ll be supporting him, and I don’t even have any VDS points on the line. I am hit with the problem however, that I don’t believe he’s going to be the strongest rider in any race he enters, and most of the people that can stick with him can outsprint him.
Cuddles’ Comments: Sagan isn’t here this weekend, remember. Mark my words. Oh, and Conor...I’m getting thirsty.
8. Lotto Soudal
Leader: Tiesj Benoot, pretty undisputedly at this point but he’s four years removed from his stunning Flanders finish at twenty-one, and Belgium is an impatient country when it comes to results. How patient Marc Sergeant is may be determined this year. I am pretty confident
about Naesen and the stories of the two riders are very similar despite Benoot’s youth. I can’t help but feel he has a point to prove, and he’ll want to prove it as soon as possible.
Support: Tim Wellens is here for Omloop, anyway. He’s even being called the co-leader, but I’m not really buying it. Jens Keukeleire will remain as underrated as ever, presumably playing the more traditional lieutenant’s role but with, if not carte blanche, then carte off-blanche to play his own game. Depth is not a word I associate with this Lotto team, lamentably.
Outlook: I don’t see a big win for Benoot this year, I’ll be brutally honest. Really, he suffers all of Naesen’s problems, just to a slightly bigger extent. They’re this high because I don’t see a win for a lot of riders, this is the team I reckon I have the highest probability of being wrong about.
Cuddles’ Comments: You and I both know this is contrived logic.
No, it makes sense. There’s not that many races, and I reckon the wins will come from the teams above them.
Whatever you say. Where’s my beer?
[I open my bag. Green bottles spill out. Carlsberg.]
Okay, traditionally these rankings incorporate ten teams, but this article is literally three thousand words long so I’m going to give you a list of the teams that didn’t make it followed by a couple of comments.
9. Team Dimension Data
10. EF Education First
14. Direct Energie
17. UAE Team Emirates
18. Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise
Wow. Instant, instant regret for having done that. When Daniel Hoelgaard wins Omloop, he’ll know who to thank. Groupama are last because Démare has the flu, otherwise they’d have a good shout for Kuurne and genuinely, because this year has a really strong lineup of classics teams. Quickfire roundup starting from the top: I admit it’s harsh to leave out the defending champion, but Valgren will be a marked man and he has joined the weakest team in the World Tour. Sep could have been higher, if he delivers EF will shoot up the rankings. Sky are twelfth, and with no Rowe or Moscon to begin with I don’t think that’s controversial. I’m not confident of how they’ll go at all. Astana’s position is elevated due to the brute strength of Lutsenko, Direct Energie are de-escalated because winning Flanders as team leader is a different beast to winning anything in spring as a member of a Mental Quick Step. Colbrelli could surprise for Bahrain and Politt could do the same for Katusha, I am both surprised at the strength of these teams and may regret placing them so low, but as I say — seriously strong field. UAE will rise from seventeenth but for the nonce they lack Kristoff and as such lack a high placing. Movistar are saved from last by the presence of Jurgen Roelandts.
Sigh. So that’s done. Your pre-season power rankings. Tune in to Omloop to see them torn apart.