Some words of wisdom from the boss, in the comments when I ran the equivalent piece last year:
This is always the toughest column to write: it looks like you have relevant data, but only if you don’t look too closely. We still won’t know much about who is really strong until it’s nearly over. But it’s fun to try a guess at it, with or without a surly lump of granite in tow.
This is, I fear, all too true. We’ve got some data, and it is of some help. In attempting to set the rankings before the run of E3, Dwars, Flanders and Roubaix (yes, there are other races, but that’s the key four) we’ll look at what Conor thought coming into preseason – and where I agree and disagree with him – plus what we’ve learnt so far this season. That’ll leave us with an updated ranking, and a few questions we still want answers to.
Oh, and the “surly lump of granite” is indeed in tow. Obviously he wasn’t going to stay in a place with only Carlsberg on offer, so he’s back in Edinburgh, enjoying customs-free travel while it is still available, and drinking my beer cupboard dry (though, with the preponderence of Belgians at the top of the ranks, he’s less surly than usual). He’s also joined by the Seal, my in-house rival and taunter, fresh from her glorious Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and convinced that she’s picked the best cobbles team known to FSA-DS history. This, my friends, could be a long column. Let’s get into it.
1. Deceuninck-Quick Step (previously ranked 2)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think that, apart from the ranking, I basically agree with Conor – this is a ranking based on depth and tactical excellence rather than one dominant ranking. I still don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of losing Terpstra, but Gilbert, Stybar, Jungels, Lampaert and Senechal is a heck of a quintet, with Declercq and Keisse riding as well as we’ve seen in support and a host of young and fast men able to sub in for the semi-classics.
What we’ve learned since then: Well, winning the first three Belgian races of the year was a pretty good start. Alaphilippe isn’t riding the cobbles, but in annexing Strade-Bianche and Milan-San Remo he prevented anyone else coming in with much momentum. They’re picking up where they left off in 2018, which is ominous to say the least.
Seal says: Kuurne Brussels Kuurne was brilliant. #points. Quick Step, Quick Step, yeah yeah yeah! Seal loves them all but she loves Styby the most. And Bojangles. And Bignose.
[Yes, Seal prefers saying Quick Step to Deceuninck. Well, she’s a Seal, it seems fair enough. She also calls Viviani Big Nose. That’s harder to defend.]
Cuddles says: I don’t know what the number sign is doing in a discussion about cobbles, or what any of this Seal nonsense is. I do know that this is a proper Belgian team doing Belgian races properly. It takes me back to the good old days when I was under the wheels of the hardest men on the road.
2. Bora-Hansgrohe (3)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think that, once again, I agree with m’colleague. They’ll go as far as Sagan takes them, but Oss and Drucker give useful support and the sprint options for semi-classics are superb.
What we’ve learned since then: Sagan has struggled with illness since skipping Omloop, KBK and Strade, but is rounding into form nicely. Fourth in Milan-San Remo will have been disappointing but he was the only rider who made catching Ala’s wheel on the Poggio look in any way straightforward, and that’s the sort of explosiveness he’ll need. I think he’ll be ready for the monuments.
Seal says: Andrew is Seal’s rival and he has Saggy. So he needs to be bad. Quick Step are much better.
Cuddles says: I told you last time, if you disrespect Opening Weekend there are consequences. Let’s hope he’s learned his lesson.
3. AG2R (7)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think this was a bit of an under-ranking, but part of that is about timing. I agree that Naesen’s support isn’t all that I thought it would be at the start of 2018 or 2017. I also, reluctantly, agree that he should be winning more races.
What we’ve learned since then: Naesen has been on fire recently and that shoots his team up the leaderboard. Second to Alaphilippe in a sprint on the Via Roma was a great result (even as the win continues to elude him). Coupled with some stellar climbing in Paris-Nice it shows an impressive broadening of his skillset and must see him coming into the heart of the classics season full of confidence.
Cuddles says: Olly Naesen. There’s a man I can get behind. His wins will come. Keep the faith.
Seal says: Sorry, Seal was distracted. Thinking about fish ice cream. Seal likes mackerel flurries.
4. CCC (1)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think Conor’s love of Greg may exceed my own, but he’s right that he’s one of the star classics riders, and also right that his support at CCC is better than many feared.
What we’ve learned since then: I’d probably have put CCC second in the preseason rankings, so most of this drop is about relative form and not disagreement. Van Avermaet isn’t riding badly by any stretch (second in Omloop, sixth in Strade) but he was unable to kick in Milan-San Remo and of the three biggest “non-DQS” riders, I have him behind Sagan and Naesen. For now.
Cuddles says: Well, the beer’s better here, but the company stinks. That funny Irishman had the right idea about my boy Greg. Fourth!? This insolence won’t end well.
Seal says: Not a single CCC rider on my team. Seal thought they’d be fourth or worse. Greg doesn’t win.
5. Trek-Segafredo (4)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think I would have written basically the same thing. I was also hugely excited about Stuyven, to say nothing of Pederson, Degenkolb or Theuns.
What we’ve learned since then: Well, you know things haven’t started in line with expectations when the team issue a public apology after their first cobbles run. Stuyven has looked surprisingly off the pace but Degenkolb was unlucky rather than poor in having his MSR challenge derailed. There’s more to come from your friendly editors on this squad, but for now I’m keeping them in the top five because of Chris’ wise words at the top, not because they’ve done anything on the road to deserve it. Stuyven’s continued recovery from a crash may help.
Seal says: Everyone got too excited. Seal knew. Rubbish.
Cuddles says: Trust the big Belgian. He’ll be back.
Seal says: No no no.
6. Jumbo-Visma (6)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think he more or less nailed this. Van Aert has been excellent and he was also right to talk up Groenewegen, although he’ll be less of a presence for the tougher races. After being stymied by DQS in Kuurne, he’ll have another go in Wevelgem, presumably.
What we’ve learned since then: We’ve only seen Wout van Aert three times on the road this year. 13th in Omloop, 3rd in Strade and 6th in Milan-San Remo. I mean… blimey. I thought he’d be good but I didn’t think he’d be this good this quickly. Moving Jumbo into tier 2b (see below) in my mental rankings is the biggest change of the early season. Meanwhile, as I drafted this, Groany just made ThreeDogs look very easy indeed.
Cuddles says: I’m pretty sure there’s nobody more Belgian in the world than Wout van Aert. His name, a cyclocross background and a hard as nails ride in the most Belgian race in Italy… I love him more than any rider to come along since I left Flanders. So riddle me this, Englishman. What in the name of the Koppenberg is he doing riding for a Dutch team?!
Seal says: Not interested. Not good enough to get on my team. Can you get Seal a clam or something?
7. Mitchelton-Scott (5)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think he was just about right. We have another one-man team (a theme of this year’s rankings) and a bunch of us have talked about Matteo Trentin before. He’s looking more like a leader this year than he did in his first year away from Quick-Step (as was).
What we’ve learned since then: Some solid results that backed up his early-season promise. Ninth in Omloop, 10th (with a late attack) in Milan San-Remo, and a busy Paris-Nice show that he’s still on form. A small drop as the harder races may not be ideal for him, but he’s not without chances. Limited team support in later stages could be an issue.
Seal says: Andrew has Trentin, I have Hepburn. Trackies for the win!
Cuddles says: An Italian and an Aussie? Get down the list. I know what’s coming next and these two are in the wrong order. Fosters-swilling, Peroni-drinking fools.
8. Lotto Soudal (8)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think he underestimated Tim Wellens for Omloop, but that’s in the past. I think he had Benoot and the underrated (by others) Keukeleire just about right. As m’colleague said, winning might be a problem, prominence won’t.
What we’ve learned since then: Not much. 5th in Strade Bianche soon after an injury (he was cut up crashing in Omloop, where he didn’t finish) showed he wasn’t far off his form of 2018, and he rode well on a Tirenno-Adriatico course that suited him. He and the Keuky monster will be happy with their form so far. Lawrence “wrong Naesen” Naesen has looked much better than expected in support.
Seal says: I don’t have any of these riders, so they can’t be very good. No no no.
Cuddles says: This Seal is taking my schtick and doing it wrong. Benoot and Keukeleire are tough Belgians so they must be very good. Beer me!
9. Sunweb (11)
What I think about what Conor thought: I think they were rightly ignored in the preseason rankings, with team form in the doldrums.
What we’ve learned since then: Matthews grabbed 12th at Omloop before picking up a nasty head injury at Paris-Nice in the cross-winds. We’ve since learned that Bling is fully recovered from what looked a very nasty injury, which is great. He just about made contact with the lead group at Milan-San Remo and has been excellent in Catalunya with a win and a fourth in the first two stages. Increasingly looks an Ardennes rider but will take in Flanders. I’m talking a lot about him because I have far less to say about the remainder. Casper Pedersen and the Kragh Andersens are fine, but don’t deserve to be much higher than this. Form still a worry.
Cuddles says: Enough of this. I don’t care about this team, and I’ve been living on Carlsberg and Guinness for too long. Take me to the cellar, Englishman.
Seal says: Blingy! Seal loves him. Member of #teamseal. Glad he’s back. Pederson is great and Andrew is mean about him. Roubaix last year, Seal’s favourite race. Yeah yeah yeah.
10. Sky (12)
What I think about what Conor thought: He (rightly) dinged them for the absence of Rowe and Moscon for the preliminary skirmishes.
What we’ve learned since then: Moscon, allegedly leading my Ed’s league team, has been poor to start the season. Rowe was extraordinary in the flat days at the start of Paris-Nice and looks a true beast for the cobbles. He’ll be a waking nightmare for everyone if he has that form in Roubaix, especially if granted bad weather. Dylan van Baarle has been sent to Coppi e Bartali, presumably to get some extra kilometres in and try and improve his weakfish early form. The likes of Kwiatkowski (who is in great form) and Thomas (who isn’t) are still not taking part, to my enduring frustration. Oh, and Owain Doull…
Seal says: Owain Doull, yeah yeah yeah! One point and a star. Yeah!
…Okay, Doull looked great in Kuurne and is one to keep a bit of an eye on. This team will still be Rowe, plus Moscon and van Baarle if they improve, however. I hate ranking Sky on cobbles, they should be top five but never are, and the question is how far you drop them. This feels about right.
Cuddles says: Not good enough, Englishman. You’re biased. This team don’t take these roads seriously and don’t earn success in these races.
Seal says: No no no. They’re good at cobbles. I should know, I have van Baarle, Stannard and Doull. Yeah yeah yeah!
A rattle through the last ten
11. EF Education First (10) Because I’m still not getting back on the Sep bandwagon. Sorry.
12. Direct Energie (14) Because Terpstra is good enough that you simply can’t ignore them. The supporting cast has looked good so far but the tougher races might well find them out.
13. Astana (13) Because they appear to be on fire and I don’t want to underestimate them. Still, I’d be happier if their main guys were riding more of the major classics.
14. UAE Team Emirates (17) Because Kristoff is back, as Conor foretold, so they need to move up.
15. Bahrain-Merida (15) Because this is about right for a team with Colbrelli but not much else.
16. Groupama-FDJ (20) Because I’m still a believer in Stefan Kung and because Arnaud Demare needs to win a race on cobbles one of these days, right? Right?
17. Dimension Data (9) Because I’m not smoking whatever Conor was when he put them in the top ten. Yeah, they’ve got some good guys on paper, but
18. Katusha (16) Because things might improve with Politt as the races get harder, but I’m not convinced.
19. Corendon Circus (not ranked) Because now Van der Poel is racing (and winning cobbled semi-classics) they need to replace Sport-Vlaanderen in the rankings, but don’t, yet, deserve a move up against the bigger teams.
They held off Roompot, Cofidis, Vital Concept, Wanty and Sport-Vlaanderen, though, which isn’t nothing. Oh, and of course they come in ahead of…
20. Movistar (19). Because they should never get higher than the lowest ranking, Roelandts or no Roelandts. Also, because I’m not ready to think about Valverde doing cobbles again.
A word on tiers
As regular readers will know, I am far from set in stone on my rankings. As ever, I think there are tiers – you can move within the tiers fairly freely, but I’d have to see something remarkable to move teams between tiers. Such remarkable acts can and do occur, but not too many in any given season. For now, my tiers
Tier One – A surprise if they’re not all over the race, with some wins and many top-fives. DQS.
Tier Two A – A favourite for every big race, and only a mechanical or bad luck stops him/them mattering. Bora.
Tier Two B – A favourite or fancied rider for every race, and no surprise at all if they grab a win or two. AG2R, CCC, Trek, Jumbo.
Tier Three – Some races will suit better than others, could be relevant but will probably have periods of irrelevance. Unlikely to be a big-race favourite but could grab a win without it being totally startling. Mitchelton, Lotto, Sunweb, Sky, EF, Direct Energie.
Tier Four – Winning one of the big classics would be a surprise bordering on a shock. Realistic hope is for prominence and the odd top-five, or maybe a semi-classic. Astana, UAE, Bah-Meh, FDJ.
Tier Five – Hoping for some luck somewhere. It happens. Di-da, Katusha, Corendon, and the unranked teams.
Tier Six – God, I hope Valverde doesn’t make it work. He’s going to, isn’t he? Ugh. Movistar.
Cuddles says: Two tiers. Flandriens and non-Flandriens. Stybar is Flandrien. Sagan might be.
Seal says: Two tiers. My riders and others. My riders dominate the cobbles. Sealy sealy yeah yeah yeah. #points. Seal’s team for Flanders: Bojangles, Styby, Florian, Terps, Yogi, DvB, Owain, Eddy Boss-Hog (no no no), Bling, Pedersen, Baeur, Hepburn and Philipsen. Yeah yeah yeah!