It’s time to leave the cobbles behind and wrap things up with a final entry in our series of power polls of the cobbles season. People are always looking for narratives in the cycling season and for me the classics campaign, the cobbles bit in particular, is the most obvious example of a natural narrative there is. No one in Aigle ever sat down to set rules and jerseys etc. for it, but the logic and progression from Omloop to Roubaix is undeniable and riveting to follow. For me even more so than a Grand Tour which has too many distractions and sideplots, plus it goes by too fast to really allow you to enjoy it to the full. Cobbles season is like following a good TV series with an episode every week and anticipation in between. Grand Tours is like binge watching the whole thing in one sleepless night, fun but also not as satisfying.
This spring has been one with some huge negative surprises team-wise and one that was not surprising in the least when it comes to the number one spot. That has really never been in doubt for a single day. We’ve come to learn that in cycling you can never count on the one guy you know has always won to keep winning like clockwork and there is also rarely something as simple as linear career progression in a sport as chaotic as cycling thankfully is.
1. Deceuninck-Quickstep (previous ranking: 1)
Conor’s reasoning? Conor saw the overall picture. A lot of the riders were actually even better than we had thought. His idea of what Flanders would look like was probably derailed by ill-timed illness for Stybar and Gilbert. But just in general there was no way to rank them anywhere else.
And then what happened? The season ends with two big monuments, they got second in the first and won the second. Put 4 riders in the top 8 in Roubaix. Their performance this cobbles season makes Team Sky’s Tour de France record look like chickenshit. When your second place and breakthrough performance by Asgreen in Flanders is looked upon as the disappointing lowpoint in your season you know it was one for the ages. Roubaix crowned off the achievement perfectly in classic Team Lef style (ok they only got 2 out of 3 on the podium this time but you know what I mean)
The overall picture. So let’s establish that the power referred to in this ranking is most of all a snapshot of where these guys are at this moment in time, not so much an overall grade of their full cobbles run. But just to add to the full picture, lets add a short section for a full season grading.
In the case of Deceuninck there isn’t much of a distinction to be made of course. If we’d make an actual ranking the reality they’d be first and then nothing, nothing, nothing and then a group of others in the far distance, mainly because they were like the ultimate tag-team wrestling outfit. One guy pounded on the opposition and when he tired another tagged in and continued pounding and so on and so on. Lampaert and Gilbert appeared at the end and tagged in just when we thought maybe the machine was tiring. Personally I can’t recall a better team performance in my time as a cycling fan.
What does Cuddles think? The biggest win was finally getting a good solid name like Deceuninck that rolls smoothly off the tongue and everyone can pronounce, I could never get the hang of that “Quick Step” business myself.
2. EF Education First (11)
Conor’s reasoning? Conor let Cuddles do the talking on EF since they were out of the top 10 and he had this to say: “I know for a fact that Conor regrets sarcastically saying that they’d win races while also having Bettiol on his VDS team.” Let’s just keep that here as a solid reminder not to leave the analysis to possibly inebriated sock-puppet characters.
And then what happened? They just went and won the big one with Alberto Bettiol, well supported by Vanmarcke and Langeveld. And then Sep shook off his dodgy knee to produce another memorable but ultimately frustrating result in Roubaix, with Langeveld once again solidly in the top 10. Those are big numbers on the board for a team that often promises a lot in the classics but rarely hit the really high notes. It should be said that the rankings in the places behind DQS are really tight and could pretty much be drawn out of a hat. I’m giving the edge to EF because Flanders. How do you get around a win in the actual big one?
The overall picture. The full story is a little less shiny. They really need a guy like Sep healthy and active in the full run to, let’s say, get out of the bottom half of the top 10. Until Flanders they were anonymous and Phinney got lost on the way to Roubaix so they didn’t get the full value out of anyone but Bettiol really. But for a team like this (or any team) a win in Oudenaarde makes the whole spring anyway .
What does Cuddles think? I’m so stoked with EF I’ve already pre-ordered Vaughters’ upcoming literary masterpiece. I heard it may be every bit as thrilling as the time I worked for 73 years in the Paddestraat seeing carts of dung rolling over me on their way to Zottegem.
3. Katusha-Alpecin (15)
Conor’s reasoning? Another one left to Cuddles who said “Let’s not get bogged down in Polittical issues.” And that seemed a reasonable albeit not very forward looking perspective. Maybe our rocky friend should have raised an eyebrow (he has them!) at the 6th place Politt got in E3. Maybe we all should have? (we kinda did)
And then what happened? Politt went and did it again, among the best of the rest in Oudenaarde gave him 5th. And then he made the race in Roubaix, drawing out Gilbert who in the end was the only one who could match him. A brilliant breakthrough run for the 25 year old German. Alongside him Haller worked like a crazed man, in Roubaix most of all, and it’s the best we’ve seen Katusha in quite a while.
The overall picture. Well, it was a late one-man run and they didn’t actually win anything. If you add in the sad sight of Marcel Kittel dropped like an empty musette in Scheldeprijs the picture isn’t exactly shining but you really shouldn’t include anything from the Scheldeprijs in a cobbles conversation. Still, in a time when a great many teams that looked good on paper failed on the road, a team that actually rose above expectations when it really mattered should be applauded for it.
What does Cuddles think? Dirk Demol actually made a team better? They’re gonna have to make a Flemish national holiday to commemorate this historic occasion. February 29th should do well.
4. UAE-Emirates (7)
Conor’s reasoning? If things really went Kristoff’s way in terms of form and how the races developed he could benefit from the relative underdog status.
And then what happened? Things did and they didn’t. Form wise things went perfect and Kristoff got a podium in Flanders. With ever so slight a difference in the late tactics and chase dynamics it could just as well have been a second win. Then things went south as usual in Roubaix and Gaviria completely failed to deliver on the hype of his classics-potential. In a year when things weren’t so all about Deceuninck that record probably wouldn’t merit a climb in the rankings. But when crumbs falling off the rich man’s table is all there is to be had then massive crumb-eating is rewarded.
The overall picture. A win in Gent-Wevelgem and a monument podium is a strong haul. They would have liked to see more of Philipsen who faded a bit but then it wasn’t a very sprinter-friendly year and the kid is just starting out so he gets a better than passing grade. More troublesome is Gaviria if they brought him in assuming he would be a classics ace besides his Grand Tour sprinting. That was a complete bust this time around and it might leave the team with a team-building headache for 2020?
What does Cuddles think? The Norwegian guy is really back? I got so drunk after E3 I just assumed it was a bad hangover dream. Well if it’s true there’s no reason to keep that vow of abstinence I took in a moment of angst and regret.
5. Corendon-Circus (6)
Conor’s reasoning? Even without experience Conor pegged Van der Poel as someone with a chance to win Flanders. That wasn’t really too controversial though, half of Belgium seemed to be high on the idea at the time.
And then what happened? He really could have won Flanders. The hype was real. He made a stupid error and had to spend much of his flamboyant energy in a spirited chase back to the front but with solid team help he was still in the running as much as anyone on the Kwaremont and Pater. Without the chase, would he have been the one man who could have followed Bettiol or the one man to bridge up to him later? Only middle aged men in smelly Flemish bars know for sure but it’s not unlikely at least.
The overall picture. Corendon is a minor Pro Conti with a limited scope and built around one spectacular cross-discipline talent. They had a bloody brilliant run. Winning Dwars was the perfect stepping stone. And while it of course all comes down to the one man, Mathieu was as well supported as many WT team leaders in these races.
What does Cuddles think? Wearing white shorts so his coach could recognize him on TV? Are you kidding me? When I used to coach riders I could tell them apart from looking at their asses from 800 meters. In the fog! Go back to dirtbiking you clogwearing cheese-monger!
6. Jumbo-Visma (3)
Conor’s reasoning? Wout is already an even more complete bike race than we gave him credit for, including in long races, and the supporting roles have been filled admirably by the likes of Teunissen, Van Poppel and Grøndahl Jansen.
And then what happened? The run of good fortune kind of petered out while Wout still looks massively impressive in many respects. But, Flanders was a fairly anonymous affair where Van Aert wasn’t the main protagonist many had hoped. And at Roubaix the wheels came off the wagon a bit. Wout was in the same role as Van der Poel a week before as probably the strongest man in the race but too much of it was wasted at the back of the race. To make matters worse the team actions looked problematic in a way we hadn’t seen up until now. If it works as a learning experience for Wout & Co it could lay the foundation for many big wins in the future. If it was not and it was a taste of what is to come then Wout-fans should strap themselves in for some frustrating years ahead.
The overall picture. Jumbo-Visma came with a completely new classics crew and with that in mind they had a brilliant spring. The big win eluded them but with the run of DQS there weren’t many to be had for anyone else so they should celebrate what they did get. Pretty much the whole team came out looking great at times aven if Teunissen kind of zubeldiaed the classics season a bit.
What does Cuddles think? Rabobank used to represent all I liked about Holland, drunken incompetence rolling in cash. Now I don’t know what to make of all this “cohesive functioning unit” bullshit. At least they’re relying on a cyclocross dummy, that should guarantee some comedy at least.
7. Bora-Hansgrohe (2)
Conor’s reasoning? “It’s very clear that he’s built up a lot of credit over the years — I’m not writing him off, ever. But Peter? Show me something, man.”
And then what happened? He didn’t.
Basically that’s the story. Of course we’re still talking about Sagan here. He was in the favorites group in Flanders and he made the race in Roubaix after Politt and Gilbert took off. If it weren’t for him (and a last explosion by Van Aert) we might actually remember that Trek, Naessen and Van Avermaet were in the race at all. So of course we’re talking about grading in relation to potential. And Sagan never arrived this year. His lights went out far away from the finishline even in the two big ones and when that happens, nothing much can save Bora’s days.
The overall picture. Bora got unlucky and lost their big support signings to crashes but there wasn’t much to make up for Sagan’s lackluster campaign. Oss fizzled out earlier than usual in a lot of the races so Pöstlberger’s fourth in Dwars stands as their best result along with Sagan’s fifth in Roubaix. Not very impressive but it is also the likely outcome when you have an “all eggs in one basket”-strategy. and that basket fails.
What does Cuddles think? I see a lot of Peter in myself, the gentle eloquence, the aura of sophistication and the always thoughtful race analysis.
8. CCC (4)
Conor’s reasoning? Greg van Avermaet had been too swashbuckling but he looked strong enough that he could win one of the big ones if he rode smart.
And then what happened? This was another campaign that fizzled out rather than explode in the final crescendo. Greg looked fine enough in Flanders and he was right there where you’d expect on the Kwaremont but then it didn’t really happen. The whole team was attentive and where they should be in Roubaix right up until Gilbert and then Sagan rode away and then again Greg sat there and nothing much really happened. It wasn’t that he looked bad or anything, he admitted he couldn’t follow Bettiol but neither could anyone else. It just looked like a guy lacking those last few percent. And this is another team where there really isn’t anyone else to pick up the slack when that happens.
The overall picture. This is rather bleak. Not because it was a terrible spring but CCC is rather thin in the result-getting department and really needed Van Avermaet, their one big star, to put some more impressive numbers on the board for the team to be happy. The pressure is now on to make it up in other parts of the calendar that are not as perfect opportunities for him.
What does Cuddles think? I once had a nightmare that Ochowitz was chasing me trying to sell me a pair of Polish shoes and then fell in a ditch and couldn’t get out. That’s what I get for mixing rock cocaine with Omer I suppose.
9. AG2R La Mondiale (5)
Conor’s reasoning? Conor was as high on Naesen’s chances as we all were until he got the sniffles and then he adjusted their ranking downwards quite a bit.
And then what happened? Turns out he was right, the trajectory was downward. 7th and 13th in the monuments is nothing to sneeze at but this was the year we looked for him to win one and he ended up in the chase groups and not really ever looking like a factor. Most visible was good ol’ workhorse Stijn who looked very useful being useless in Roubaix since neither Naesen or Dilier could do anything in the end.
The overall picture. Ultimately a frustrating spring of lost opportunities. Naesen looked so good at one point that it almost seemed inevitable he would win something. And the illness derailed it I suppose. Meanwhile none of the teammates really stepped up, perhaps sucked into the all-for-one spirit that comes from having a leader who looks as promising as Naesen did?
What does Cuddles think? People laugh at Oliver but I once caught stone lung from a farting horse. Science, it’s crazy I’m telling you.
10. Lotto-Soudal (9)
Conor’s reasoning? Like Andrew before him Conor assumed that they’d be prominent but not win because essentially Benoot does not have that tool in his repertoire.
And then what happened? Keukeleire looked great and Benoot looked benootish in Flanders and then they...... didn’t win. But placed admirably! They do that so well. And then it was more of the same in Roubaix until Tiesj parked himself permanently in the back windshield of a Jumbo car. Turns out that was not a winning move either.
The overall picture. Some say that where they went wrong was in not bringing Wellens for more of these races. How much is truth in that probably lies with how much that was Wellens own wishes in the matter. He clearly would have been a spice in the mix if he really wanted to do it but otherwise he’s best saved for other jobs. My analysis is that they desperately need a fast finisher threat in their arsenal to make themselves relevant and also make the most out of Benoot. If they hadn’t already picked up Ewan I would have urged them to spend all their money on Kristoff and make themselves a powerhouse for 2020 but he won’t want to go where another guy already has his name on the GT sprints. As it is they seem eternally stuck in this mediocre limbo.
What does Cuddles think? If you wanna talk about mediocre limbo you should have seen me in the 1977 lambada championships in Diksmuide. I fell backward and landed on Marc Demeyer’s foot. He never won a big race again after that! And they say his wife divorced him, couldn’t stand to look at him naked with his toes pointing in all different directions. True story.
11. Sunweb (14)
Conor’s reasoning? “The bit of tarmacadam that gave Bling that concussion was a friend of mine. Shocked to see him up and about.” That might have been Cuddles come to think of it?
And then what happened? Michael Matthews got a perfectly respectable sixth place in Flanders which is very promising for his future chances. It’s not exactly setting the world on fire though and when their best placed guy in Roubaix is 44th it is troublesome for a WT team. Søren Kragh got sick as usual and his spring record is looking more and more boassonish, all promise and nothing but injury and illness when he is needed the most.
The overall picture. We knew they were lacking in depth before the season and we got confirmation. Beyond the fantastic E3 from neo Marc Hirschi, no real standout rides that went above and beyond means a spring to forget for a team that may need to rethink their approach to these races. Whatever their halfassed approach is now, it’s not really doing much for them. But let’s talk more about Hirschi. And soon.
What does Cuddles think? #KeepMakingHashtags.
12. Trek-Segafredo (8)
Conor’s reasoning? That Degenkolb was their best prospect but since he wasn’t good enough to win anyway they should gamble on Stuyven as a sudden return to form from him would be their best bet.
And then what happened? The way they missed the train in Flanders looked remarkably like the way they missed the train in Roubaix. Stuyven was indeed their best man in Oudenaarde but it was in group 3 so it didn’t matter much. In Roubaix they were really active early on with Theuns and Pedersen but were nowhere when it mattered. Stuyven was 27th. 27th. How on earth does this happen to the team that looked most likely to challenge Deceuninck when we started out in February? I would not want to be around for the team’s post-cobbles debrief here.
The overall picture. I think I just painted it. Degenkolb got second after a good Gent-Wevelgem for the team. That is the grand total for what on paper was the second best cobbles outfit this spring. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I want to be around for the Podiumcafe predictors debriefing either
What does Cuddles think? Isn’t there a TV show called Star Trek about a crew that wanders aimlessly through the universe and whose prime directive is to not interfere with or make any mark on the places they visit? I dunno what made me think of that.
13. Sky (10)
Conor’s reasoning? Rowe is a beast and Van Baarle is good in Flanders
And then what happened? Dylan van Baarle was active in Flanders but didn’t quite have the stuff to back up his actions in the end. Perhaps with an injury free spring he might have. At least he showed unusual initiative for a Sky man. Rowe failed to make a mark in Roubaix despite promising signs so maybe he is the perfect superdomestique but not the man to lead a team afterall? With Moscon completely under the ice they did as OK as one could expect but we’re still waiting for more from Van Baarle.
The overall picture. Same as it always was in the classics for Sky. They have names that should make them a factor, but they almost never are. Maybe Ineos will bring a whole new vibe to their spring efforts?
What does Cuddles think? How the hell do you manage to keep a team alive for ten years when you can never get your shit together in the most important race in cycling? It’s like black magic.
14. Movistar (20)
Conor’s reasoning? * Incoherent Cuddles mumbling *
And then what happened? You bring the World Champ to make his Flanders debut at age 69 and he scores a top 10 - you get a mention. Thems the rules. Could Valverde have won Flanders? Sure as much (or more) as anyone in that group behind Bettiol and he certainly looked menacingly comfortable for most of the day. And he had excellent backup.
The overall picture. Terrible. Well, not really but home boy/uncle Roelandts did nothing for them and while Sütterlin had a strong run it was really mostly about Valverde parachuting in.
What does Cuddles think? The only Spanish I know is “Dos cervezas por favor”. Not sure where I picked up that bit of higher learning, probably at the University of San Miguel?
15. Mitchelton-Scott (13)
Conor’s reasoning? “Trentin suffers from what I’ll call Kristoff-Degenkolb syndrome, with the added problem that he gets too tired at the pointy end of races” is what Cuddles said. I’m putting them in here in 15th spot just to highlight the one time in a decade that Cuddles actually made sense.
And then what happened? Trentin spent way too much effort way too early too really factor in the end when it mattered. I think we’ve seen enough to start assuming that he has a problem with race-/leadership-instincts. It feels like he is trying to employ the “race actively” dogma from his QuickStep days but he’s getting the finer points wrong. Or forgetting it only works when you have 5 riders who can win the race.
The overall picture. Durbridge crashing might have been their undoing really. Without him it was an awful lonely struggle for Trentin and he probably could use a wingman at least to be effective. He looked to have the form to get better results than he actually got this spring.
What does Cuddles think? Are we done? I’m ready for vacation and to sit in a deck chair by the pool drinking Pina Coladas. There’s a great little motel with a pool that doesn’t smell so much behind the Skoda-dealership in Kortrijk. On days when it’s not raining you’ve got a great view of the trucks on the 8-lane highway to Lille.