clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Editors’ Roundtable: Clearing the Classics Air

Can DQS be stopped? Will the puppies grow up in time?

Getty Images

[Minimally edited to preserve the awkwardness of written conversation as well as our individual shortcomings. A couple races have passed since the convo started but there’s no harm in seeing how brilliant we were ahead of time.]

Jens: I guess the obvious starting point is whether we think Deceuninck can continue their dominance? Or will they be exposed as weakened from last year when the other expected bigs really come into their planned form for the big races. Guys like Sagan, Terpstra, GvA, Naessen, Stuyven (and the other not-so-merry underachievers at Trek) (Sep) etc. Were Stybar and Jungels too good too soon perhaps?

Seemsez: The issue with Deceuninck and the reason their system works is that they’ve got contingency plan after contingency plan and they don’t seem outwardly hierarchical. Every other contender on that list has at most two ways to win, and if things don’t go to plan then that’s it. If things don’t go according to DQS’s plan, then they just move to the next plan on the list. That makes it hard for us as purveyors of fantasy cycling to pick the right wolf, but its great for them.

Counter-intuitively, Trek’s three ponged attack, albeit dull, is kind of a baby wolf pack. A puppy pack. [Editors’ note: This might stick.]

Couple of pups
Getty Images

Andrew: First of all, Seems, love the “puppy pack.” Anything that combines insight with dismissal will always get my vote.

Second, you’re right that DQS have a massive advantage in depth, obviously, and in the ability to cover moves and still attack, which is basically the same thing expressed as tactics rather than strategy. The question is, what are their weaknesses. The big one, that we have talked about, is that they don’t necessarily have the biggest names out there. Sagan, GvA, and arguably Stuyven, Terps and Naesen are at a level above anything that DQS can manage. If they are on form, and in the right places, they might be unbeatable, as Sagz proved en route to a fairly straightforward Roubaix win last year.

The other weakness, which we’ve talked about less, is around finishing kick. This is of diminishing importance given the new Flanders course and the general trend towards longer range attacks and smaller groups at the finish.

However, in any likely group of, say, ten, at the finish, who do they have who you’d back to win? I can’t see any of their guys beating Sagan, GvA or Stuyven. I can’t see them beating Kristoff, Trentin, Degenkolb or Kwiat (if he rides) either. If Matthews was here that’d be another one... ultimately, a lot of the guys against DQS at the moment have killer finishes. DQS, plus Sep, Wout and (arguably) Tjesj will have to fight to get to the line without them. Is that their disadvantage in forming strategy?

Seemsez: If it comes down to a group of ten, what team is mostly likely to have 3 or 4 riders? DQS. In any group of 10, any one rider is going to have a hard time knocking off the best finisher anyway. And if any one team has the best chance at that it’s got to be the team with 3 or 4 riders. If that’s their weakness, they’ve done a pretty tremendous job mitigating it.

Andrew: Whilst it would give everyone a big laugh if I tried to explain sample sizes to you, Seems, I’m going to resist the urge. I will say, though, that throughout last year’s historic run of success, none of the big wins came in a sprint finish. Only Lampaert’s win at Dwars involved a late attack - and that ended up looking pretty cozy. At Ronde, E3, Le Samyn they won in glorious isolation. You have to get down to Scheldeprijs, Ham Sandwich, Nokere and Three Dogs to find them troubling to sprint - and at that level, they have the sprinters. I’d be fascinated to know what the average finishing group is at Ronde, Roubaix, E3 and Dwars (the four toughest, IMHO) but it ain’t 1.00, that’s for sure. At some point they’ll have to actually sprint with someone who can get to the sharp end of a tough race.

Getty Images

Seemsez: Perhaps then their real strength is not the knock-out punch as much as it’s staying off the ropes, not letting themselves get into a spot where they are disadvantaged. I think we can all agree that you can’t beat DQS if you let them decide how the race is going to go.

Andrew: Yeah, they’re clever, no doubt. They’re also helped by the fact that, despite the way I’m talking, the teams aren’t “DQS” and “Other” - riders like GvA and Sagz are, clearly, not going to ride for each other. Since I knew nobody else would do my dirty work for me, I’ve done a table [attach] and since 2014, the answer to my “average finishing size group” question is 3.75, with a bunch in 2016 Dwars skewing that number. Against that, I’ve been ruthless in group sizes - anyone not getting the same time as the winner was excluded, however close they came. Conclusion: solo finishes aren’t unusual, especially in Flanders, but 2018 was still unusually “solo” and you’d expect at least a couple of small-group finishes.

Year, E3, Dwars, Ronde, Roubaix, Average

2018, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1.25

2017,3, 1, 1, 5, 2.50

2016, 1, 34, 1, 4, 10.00

2015, 1, 1, 2, 6, 2.50

2014, 4, 1, 4, 1, 2.50

Average, 2.00, 7.60, 1.80, 3.60, 3.75

Jens: A few seasons ago they also had tremendous advantage in numbers but didn’t win very many classics. They were caught in the trap where they always had many good riders but never the best. I’m going to argue that that is still the case but the reason they have overcome the problem is they are always aggressive, shaping the races. If they have a guy in the lead group but don’t love his chances they keep pressuring from behind, either to reshuffle the deck or to force opponents up front to work and give their guy an easier ride. (edited)

We saw that exact problem for women’s equivalent Boels in Drenthe. A handful of their top riders in the front group but not the fastest finisher and they let the opponents dictate the action, leaving them to respond rather than attack to shape the race and force the others into unpleasant choices.

This said, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the big races to come will be “disappointing” for Deceuninck (by their current standard). I think they only have Lampaert and maybe Gilbert on an upward trajectory while many other teams are improving, and neither of them can match peak-Sagan or peak-GvA. I fear Stybar will be back to being the guy who can’t quite hit the front group but is forever in limbo-chasegroups and the pure power drives of Jungels won’t be as effective against bigger guns. Potentially he is their Terpstra roleplayer this year though.

Conor: I agree with Seems. Deceuninck have learned how to play with the enviable hand that they hold. I said a few years ago that they should (yes) Just Go Mental and while they haven’t followed that advice to the letter, they’ve followed the spirit. They never ride for one guy and it’s rare the move that lacks a Quick Stepper. This is great for the lower level guys on the team and, of course, us as fans. The presence of Jungels turned KBK from predictable to breathtaking.

Chris: I’m more with Jens, they can’t keep this up, can they? DQS are great at ambushing everything under 210km, but without Terpstra and with Gilbert getting on in years, I don’t see someone who can dominate the final couple climbs the way Sagan and Kristoff did a couple years back, and the way I did on Rouvy last week.

Seemsez: And now they have Alaphilippe for the bunch sprints, too.

Chris: Yeah I can’t wait for new sprinter Iljo Keisse to take the bunch gallop at E3.

Conor: That’d be a wildly popular one...

Chris: Well I think it’s going to come down to good coaching, whereby teams don’t become resigned to losing to DQS every time they get to the finale of a race and see a couple of them there. I don’t know who has it worse, the Benoot/Stuyven/Vanmarcke generation who have only known Quick Step dominance, or the younger kids who’ve merely been reading about it for a couple years. I suppose you have some former Steppers like Terpstra who won’t be cowed, which is helpful, and maybe someone from the Lutsenko/Pedersen/Van Aert career phase will just be too young to know any better. The Crossers, Wout and Mathieu, are interesting cases because they will bring a certain “fuck it” confidence from their dominant CX experiences that will serve them well, if and when they have the legs.

Andrew: Yeah, I think I’m basically in the Jens/Chris camp. DQS aren’t going to come away empty-handed, but I don’t think they’ll be able to dominate the “big four” races, and anyone who stays with them as far as the end is likely to win in a sprint. I will say, though, there is one talented DQS cobbles rider with a wicked finish... Flo.

Shawnm747: I think y’all said what could be said about DQS. I’ll just throw in that even though Andrew’s right about them not having anyone currently on their main cobbles squad with a finishing kick that can beat some of the other bigs (Not yet, anyway. How long before they take Jakobsen or Hodge to the big leagues?), I think that it’s a positive feature, and not a flaw. I think that having Boonen in their team toward the end of his career made them too complacent, even though with his fading powers he wasn’t going to beat the likes of Sagan in a sprint. Lacking any particularly fast hardman makes them have to fight as a pack. And that team approach just happens to be the strategy that can defeat Sagan or GVA, whose immense talents and commensurate salaries ensure that they will not have nearly as strong as support and therefore can be taken advantage of by a team that has talent spread across it’s eight riders.

Stybar attacks at E3
Getty Images

Seemsez: Well, I think you’ll see now that DQS are doing it out of boredom. They had the fastest sprinter in the field at MSR and they still weren’t satisfied.

Just some numbers for you (defining finishing group as 10 seconds or less to the winner):The average group size of a DQS win in the spring classics since 2017 has been 8.777. This includes two bunch sprints in Schelderprijs (group sizes of 30 and 34). The average group size of a non-DQS win across that span is 17.Out of 12 races over that span that have gone to line with a group of 5 or less, DQS has won 7 of them, and were runners-up in an additional 2.

Out of the 18 races on my list, DQS has won half. If you assume the probability of any WT team to win one of these races is equal (ha, right) then the likelihood of this happening by chance broke my dang calculator: < 0.000001.

And based on that stretch, the probability of Marcel Kittel winning is 0.0556.

Chris: Yeah, I’d agree it’s that high since van der Poel isn’t starting

Or at least I’d give him that in Eendag De Panne anyway. MSR, guys like Kittel are maybe not going to win that for a while. The classics guys are too interested, so they’ll break things up enough to lose the temperamental sprinters.

Or to put it another way, on a generational level it feels a bit like the classics guys at MSR have decided that the sprinters can all go fuck themselves, and they won’t be leaving it to a bunch gallop anytime soon. I’m sure Alaphilippe and Viviani get along just fine, but on Saturday there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of focus on Viv sprinting for the win, despite being the best sprinter (for now) and being in the Tricolore on home soil. Chicken and egg, of course, maybe once Viv started cracking on the Cipressa they wrote him off, but in the past teams have worked harder to drag guys like that back.

Long story short, it’s a good time to be a classics specialist.

OK, who do we like in the next five days? Eendag De Panne is pretty stripped down from its old format so I think a sprint is in order. Fair weather is predicted across Belgium through the weekend. Maybe everything I just said about sprinters going to hell will be nicely contradicted for a few days?

Seemsez: If we’re predicting a sprinter friendly Eendag, DQS on paper have the best sprinter. Is he their best chance to win? Probably not. If, like you say, MSR revealed some form problems, Groenewegen and Ackermann are on the upswing. Do they take their chances towing some serious competition to the line, or do they try to blow it up? How bored are they? How much say do they have? It’s not the Wolf-packiest pack of wolves they’ve ever assembled.

Chris: Quick roundup, the top sprinters are Groenewegen, Viviani, Ackermann, Kittel and Gaviria, a studly group. But Ackermann, Kittel and Gaviria need a sprint to sort of fall into their laps, whereas Groany and Viv can count on DQS and Jumbo-Visma to make their own luck. Put Mike Teunissen in a small group and that’s threatening... unless Fabio Jakobsen is there too.

Conor: Jakobsen for me. Seems to be a bit tougher than Viviani. He bitterly disappointed me on Saturday anyway, so I’m petulantly responding by not picking him for Quickstep leadership.

Chris: Petulance is as good a system as any, particularly if you are betting.

Andrew: I think the “down time for sprinters” narrative makes sense and DQS are, depending on perspective, beneficiaries or the reason for that. The numbers support both and is suggest that it is indeed a bit of both. Seems, any evidence that groups are shrinking over time?All that said, it really is unfair that they also have the best sprinter for the lone dog race, but I guess that’s what being ruthless looks like. If my theory about Groany as the dominant sprinter is to come through, this is the sort of race he should be winning. I think he will and I’d like Halvorsen to go well but he probably isn’t good enough yet.

Seemsez: Actually, since the inception of the Wolf Pack (2017), the average finishing group at the races in my analysis has been 13.64, and 35% finished with groups of 6 or more. The two years prior to that, the average finishing group was 13.87, and 40% finished with groups of 6 or more. So, based on these small sample sizes, no it doesn’t seem like things are getting outwardly less sprint-y.

The races I’ve included were confined to the big ones in the North though: Omloop, KBK, E3, Dwars, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, Schelderprijs and PR. So there may be/is definitely a sampling bias present, especially when considering MSR and The Lonely Puppy Bike Festival.

Shawnm747: Speaking of lonely puppies, what does everyone think of the puppy pack’s chances at turning things around? 98% of us had Stuyven winning Roubaix this year in the prediction thread. That group consensus now seems like mass hysteria. Mads Pedersen looked okay in Tirreno. Degs looked okay in MSR until he dropped his chain and started taking it out on his bike. My theory is that when they signed Porte, his curse infected the whole team. It’d be nice to see them get it together, because on paper they have one of the stronger teams....

Stuyven on the loose
Getty Images

Conor: That’s a great question Shawn, to which I will answer: Don’t look at me, I didn’t pick him.

Chris: I may have mixed the Stuyven Kool-aid, which may have been a consequence of the Editors’ League draft, where he was my top pick. But I’m not backing down! Funny story, I was on the phone when I absent-mindedly clicked on Sporza only to see an article that gnomed itself into a headline of “Teammate Stuyven Teuns have broken collarbone.” Things went pretty badly for a few minutes, until I realized that the article was about Fumy Beppu, a teammate OF Stuyven and Teuns, who sadly broke his sleutebeen.Anyway, Pedersen will be supported this weekend by Asbjorn Kragh Andersen, a/k/a AKA. So he has that going for him.

Seemsez: This was before I had the opportunity to embarrass myself by publicly coronating King Stuyven, but I too spent the winter drinking the Stuyven Kool-aid. That being said, I think he’ll have a pretty great summer in Belgian B races.

Jens: I wouldn’t give up on the Trek Puppy Pack yet. I’m getting a whiff of “team of lots of guys who think they’re bigs and aim for E3/RvV/Roubaix, not any of the small stuff before”. Now that could be ill advised, maybe a guy like Pedersen should aim for smaller stuff before he puts on his big boy trousers, but I think it’s kind of justified and I fully assume them to come into this week all guns blazing. Will it mean success, seeing as they have a lot of bigs and need to get that team-synch working, I dunno. I suspect it will. (edited)

Andrew: Yeah, my first draft of the second power rankings (coming soon!) quotes Chris from last year, saying that at this time of the year it looks like we have meaningful data, but we really don’t. I think it is reasonable to worry about Stuyven’s form, and his season is unlike the GTs where you can change targets by a couple of months; you just _can’t_ be off form in April as a classics rider. However, I think that it is too soon to write off the team, and there’s still sixteen days, as I write this, before Paris-Roubaix. He could be fine, and if not, they still have plenty of doodz. (edited)

Jens: Frankly form wise I think we have all signs that Trek are on track. So if they don’t win anything in the coming two weeks I’m going to blame poor management and DSing. Fairly or not.

I just noticed Chris has as much trouble as the rest of us telling the red kits apart. AKA will in fact not support his red-jersied compatriot because AKA’s red jersey is slightly redder than Pedersen’s and has no coffee promotion on it. On the other hand AKA might support Pedersen but in that case it will be Casper Pedersen, who is in fact on Sunweb. There’s a lot of Pedersens in the world. Most of them are speedway drivers.)

Getty Images

Andrew: Thanks, Jens. That’s much clearer now.

Chris: If there is anything more confusing in cycling than Danes, it’s red kits. And the worst are red kits with a white stripe down the middle or across the chest. Basically Trek and Sunweb could merge into one giant Danish product (and probably kick some ass).

Mads on the loose in 2018
Getty Images

Conor: Alright, time to talk GVA. Does he want to win too much?

Seemsez: Something something something willing to lose something.

Chris: The only thing resembling meaningful data is considering whether Classics Stud XYZ is having a spring season that resembles the one he had last year and the year before and so on. Basically, these guys are creatures of habit, and if it wasn’t broke in 2017 when he won Dwars or E3 or whatever (or in Sep’s case, was about to win until his chain fell off), then don’t fix it.

Van Avermaet’s results look pretty similar to most of his spring campaigns. He was close at the Omloop, which he got fit for in the Valenciana and Oman tours, and puttered around for most of March waiting for the action to begin. I’m sure he’s where he needs to be, except in one respect, he’s 34, and the only cure for aging is... well, we don’t need to talk about PEDs right now.

Stuyven, on the other hand, got pretty well ripped up in the Algarve; it was only a month ago that CN wrote a headline about how his collarbone was intact. Good news! Unless you start wondering why they felt the need to pass that along. Anyway, that crash undoubtedly set him back a bit, but it probably just explains his lack of early results. It shouldn’t stop him from being fit now.

Tiesj and GVA
Getty Images

Shawnm747: DQS vs. GVA is the perfect microcosm of the team and individual dichotomy that makes cycling so interesting. DQS is greater than the sum of its riders, while GVA can only rely on his own legs. I think we were all distracted by Bevin’s performance in the TdU, but the CCC team is really as bad as everyone thought they were. GVA won’t have any help shutting down moves, so feeling like he must respond to all the attacks himself is just going to be natural for him. But if he responds to all the attacks, he’s going to lose. So, really, even though his strategy at Omloop was not successful-- trying to attack was [and is] really his only option. DQS won’t let him wait for the sprint as he’s faster than all of them (save for their sprint star Alaphilippe of course). So, I think GVA wants to win just enough and being aggressive gives him a better shot than waiting for a bunch sprint that may never arrive.

Chris: It’s crazy, Quick Step got owned a few times in the later Boonen years but seemed to get better as he faded. Terpstra was instrumental to a lot of what they had done before, though, and I don’t think he’s been replaced. So unless Lampaert is hugely strong, I would say the annual QS Team Strength-vs.-individual strongmen fight tilts toward the latter. I expect them to clean up the 200km stuff where they can throw their weight around, but when you get out to 260, those helper dudes have nothing to offer. For years, Terpstra and Gilbert have saved their bacon, but Niki is gone and Phil is pretty old. I don’t think they have a strong chance at De Ronde.

Seemsez: In fairness to CCC, what team has the manpower to keep helpers around at the pointy ends of these races? Obviously DQS. Bora has Oss. The Puppy Pack if they’ve had their puppy treats. But that’s about it.

Chris: Jumbo should have Wout and Teunissen. Couple other maybes like Keukeleire hanging with Tiesj. Sep could have Langeveld around to help him when some part of his bike spontaneously combusts on the Oude Kwaremont. And then someone will surprise us. But yeah, it’s a very high bar.

Conor: Mini-Boo isn’t getting any love then.

Shawnm747: Most teams at least have several options (on paper). Besides the others mentioned above, Sky have Moscon, Van Baarle, Rowe and perhaps Stannard and Doull. Sunweb has Matthews and SKA. Even DiDa has both Eddy Boss and Valgren. Even most of the PCT teams have better support than what CCC can offer GVA. I’d take the support at Direct Energie, Cofidis, Correndon, Roompot, and Wanty over what CCC have. Perhaps I’m wrong, and mini-Boo is instrumental during the race in parts that we can’t see, but I’m sure Greg is missing the likes of Roelandts, Drucker, Bettiol, Kung, Dillier, and Oss.

Chris: Is Bettiol a super-domestique now? I got a bit too high on him when he first showed up and banged out a bunch of impressive results. Bit of a letdown since then, but super-domestique is an honorable profession.

Jens: I don’t think so. Think he has a lot of freedom on EF.

Chris: Good idea. Someone has to be ready to try something when Sep’s rear wheel mysteriously dissolves in water approaching the final climb of the Paterberg.

Andrew: In all seriousness, Vaughters’ willingness to let all his guys freelance is a big advantage. Bettiol and Langeveld can’t match DQS or Trek as help but might steal a surprise podium. It makes sense, even if it doesn’t aid Sep.

Conor: Yeah, because Slipstream are going to win everything.

Slipstream winning everything
AFP/Getty Images