So. Er. It’s me. Back for another power rankings. Let’s see how the last ones went.
Ah, there they are now. Anyway, it’s time for another go, with a bit more data and a lot more “Andrew gave it a go so now I have a point of reference.” Anyway, we at the café know I couldn’t possibly do this alone so helping me tonight, yes, you guessed it. The one, the only, Carol Vorder-
The door bursts open. Joyous music plays. Heavy panting as a stony figure crashes into the room.
Cuddles? What are you doing here? I thought you were in Edinburgh, and that you hadn’t forgiven me to boot!
“That. Damned. Seal.”
“I can’t live with that godforsaken thing.”
Hate to say it, but you have some notable similarities.
“Don’t care. All I wanted to do was drink Andrew’s secret stash of beer but there’s that seal, honking around with a plastic ball.”
Hmm. What did you-
“Yer yer this, Bob Jungels that. Bet the thing is secretly from Luxembourg. That’d explain everything.”
So you’ve come crawling back?
“Even temperance is better than dealing with that thing. Not that I wouldn’t say no to something to drink. Something...from a monastery perhaps? Oi, what’s that?”
You weren’t asking to be sprinkled with holy water?
Let’s talk cycling, shall we? Or would you rather talk to the seal?
1. Deceuninck-Quickstep (1)
Was Andrew right? Obviously. Giving Quickstep the top spot is the safe and correct pick. Stybar has come into his own, maybe a year or two later than we were all expecting, but he’s done it nonetheless and been rewarded with another victory in a yet more prestigious race with the grote kahuna yet to come.
What have we learned? Jungels and Stybar are, if anything, even better than we thought and they have convinced, at least, Tom Boonen. The most important thing we’ve learned though is that, for the first time in a long time, I’m pretty sure I know roughly what they’re going to do. Jungels will, pretty clearly, be sent away in the long-range, low-percentage moves alongside one of Lampaert and a clearly not-on-top-form Gilbert while Stybar waits until the presumed business end of the race to move. It’s been a phenomenon in recent years that the winning move, especially in cobbled races but throughout the season, has gone a bit earlier. Take Gilbert in Flanders, Sagan and Dillier in Roubaix, even crosswind or mountain stages in week-long races seem to support the pattern. We know from Kuurne and Liège last year that Jungels has the engine to get away and win solo and we know from E3 and Omloop that Stybar will make the final split and can win a sprint against even some of the best. I would argue even Sagan might struggle against him at the end of a long race.
Who should lead? Can he win? Stybar will be the leader, in the sense that ceteris paribus, if he and Jungels are in a six-man group after the Paterberg, Jungels will work for him. We all know however that with Deceuninck, it doesn’t always work like that. Stybar is deservedly the bookies’ favourite, having won the two races that are most similar to De Ronde so yes, he can win but I have to agree with Tom Boonen when I say that I find Jungels more likely. The announced Quickstep favourite seems almost to be a cursed position, as they often find themselves marking moves in the second group on the road as their equally accomplished team mate charges ahead.
What does Cuddles think? Aaargh! Will no one rid me of this turbulent Luxembourger? And you’re right, he does have a big engine. That should be useful for him because his sprint suuucks. That’s not to mention the sacrilege of there being no Belgian Quickstep topfavoriets. Komaan Yves!
2. Bora-Hansgrohe (2)
Was Andrew right? That’s to be determined, but in placing Bora this highly I am clearly agreeing with him in saying that Sagan will be ready for the monuments. He has been un-Saganlike in every way this classics season, presumably owing to illness. However, he has won everything he cares about winning in years past so it’s not hard to believe it’s just the next few weeks that concern him.
What have we learned? I suppose we’ve learned that he still has a way to go to get onto top form. Or that he’s sandbagging like a master so he won’t have to pull whatever group he gets into, something that I think is a remote but not insignificant possibility. 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.
Now, this isn’t all about Peter Sagan, but his team had been about as visible as an electron through a stained-glass window, at least until Pösti turned up in Dwars. His performances in every other cobbled race, however, do not inspire confidence, nor do those of Daniel Oss.
Who should lead? Can he win? Uh, Leopold König? Yes, Sagan can win. These posts have their limits when you’re talking about guys like Sagan who don’t need a team but again — never write him off.
What does Cuddles think? So, what you’re saying is that an off-form Sagan, with no team and a sprint that might not be as good as Stybar’s, is essentially second favourite to win the Ronde. You’ve changed man.
3. Jumbo-Visma (6)
Was Andrew right? Andrew was wrong only in that he may not have been effusive enough in his praise of Wout van Aert, hitherto my favourite ’crosser and, if only because I never pick him in VDS, someone I find it hard to support on the road. Van Aert had a wonderful E3, not being overly aggressive, picking his moments and finishing a respectable second in the sprint, ahead of Van Avermaet before a Gent-Wevelgem performance after which the Belgian press hailed him as “the strongest man in the race.”
What have we learned? That Van Aert made the transition to the road as smoothly as Cuddles makes the transition from beer to spirits after midnight. He’s ridden even very long races with aplomb, and had at least a little juice (think a Capri-Sun, not a gallon of Tropicana) in his legs for the sprint. He’s earning praise from all corners of the cycling world and none of it is undeserved. His team are also getting plaudits with Mike Teunissen, Amund Grøndahl Jansen and Danny van Poppel living up to their potential. Van Poppel has especially impressed me ever since Omloop, when he absolutely tore the race to shreds on the Molenberg. He’s lived up to this ever since with high placings in Waregem and Wevelgem. And since this is a team piece, he’s instrumental in pushing Jumbo up the rankings.
Who should lead? Can he win? Van Aert, and maybe. Gent-Wevelgem (29th) ruined his average race finish a bit, but he’s clearly a more complete bike racer than you could ever expect such a new convert from ’cross to be. Even long races seem to be no problem for him, if his sixth at Sanremo is to be any guide. The problem will be finishing ahead of Stybar, who has shown he’s better in a sprint.
What does Cuddles think? Do my eyes deceive me or did you just mention a Belgian? To win the Tour of Flanders.
4. CCC (4)
Was Andrew right? Well they’re still in the position he left them in, which when I’m talking about Andrew is fourth, and when I’m talking about Davide Rebellin is depressing. I had CCC first to begin with because I thought their team (containing Wisniowski and Van Keirsbulck, both of whom could have been excellent helpers. The fact that they’ve been invisible, well that’s regrettable) was not great but good enough to help one of the three outstanding classics specialists of the last five years put it all together to ride a swashbuckling campaign. I was nearly, but not quite, right. He’s lost out in the final kilometre in Omloop and E3. There’s still time for him to put it together.
What have we learned? Greg’s campaign has been swashbuckling all right. Too swashbuckling. He has not ridden judiciously, instead conducting himself like a thirty-three year old Belgian who hasn’t won as much as his talent would dictate. I wonder why. Greg was without a doubt the strongest guy in Omloop but he was determined to win alone, which maybe he would have if he hadn’t attacked a dozen times before giving it another go on the Paterberg. He could have won E3 as well, but took too much of the strain in the run-in, allowing Stybar to beat him handily in the sprint, which he will do again, all being equal, should he get the chance.
Who should lead? Can he win? Greg, of course and he too can win. His problem will be how badly he wants to. Van Aert is young and, I would imagine, has already exceeded his own expectations. Sagan has already won it. Quickstep’s riders can afford to attack out of raw ambition, there are always more of them. But CCC have got all their legs in one basket — Greg. He’ll have to ride smart.
What does Cuddles think? True Flandriens don’t ride smart! They ride hard! Yeah! Oh no I’m starting to sound like that flipping seal.
5. AG2R La Mondiale (3)
Was Andrew right? Only too right. Full disclosure, I had AG2R second in this list when I went to bed on Wednesday night, only to wake up on Thursday to find Naesen had bronchitis and was a doubt to start Flanders. I’ve put them fifth to signify that if Naesen is miraculously fully fit, they’ve a good shot at winning, while if they ride without him, or with him diminished, they’re out of the top ten.
What have we learned? Uh...wear a raincoat and don’t spray champagne? Naesen has said that being showered in the stuff on the Gent-Wevelgem podium is what gave him the illness, and I’ve certainly learned that that’s a thing that’s possible. I assumed originally that it was a joke, as Naesen is not the most media-trained cyclist in the peloton, but everyone seems to be taking it seriously. The fact that Naesen was on that podium in the first place was a huge reason to call him a favourite for Flanders, coming third in a thirty-man sprint. This is a huge improvement on his performance in, say, E3 in 2017 when he came third in a three-man sprint.
Who should lead? Can he win? Naesen. And if not Naesen, they can all stay home for all I care. Sorry Stijn. Analysing how he’ll ride seems pointless when he is unlikely to though I will say that he has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as Van Aert.
What does Cuddles think? What is wrong with the bloody Belgians this term? This is the worst classics season ever. [sulks]
Did you just say “square bracket, sulks, square bracket” out loud?
I’m in a bad place, okay?
6. Corendon-Circus (19)
Was Andrew right? I think it’s best to quote him: “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.”
Well, now they do. Dwars, in case you hadn’t noticed, is now a World Tour race and Van der Poel won with great merit.
What have we learned? That Van der Poel is the third most likely cyclocross world champion to win Flanders. Sorry, Lars.
Van der Poel hasn’t got the same level of road racing in his legs as Van Aert, but he makes up for some of that with his undoubtedly greater talent and higher ceiling. The sky is the limit, but you can only rise so far so fast. He’s the favourite with some bookies for Sunday and we all know how that goes. I’ll take now to talk about the betting market. Essentially, they have the top six favourites (Stybar, GVA, Van Aert, Van der Poel, Sagan and Jungels) on the same odds. I don’t remember a Tour of Flanders, nay, I don’t remember a cycling race with a market like that, which shows the confusion that still reigns over this classics season. Andrew will give you more detail in a short while.
Who should lead? Can he win? Corendon-Circus is not exactly a pantheon of greats. That being said, of all the teams in all the world, this is the one with Stijn Devolder in it. Van der Poel shouldn’t count too much on having team mates in the finale but yes, he can win. He’s one of the quickest in a sprint, as he showed in Dwars. Experience counts in Monuments however, and even Van Aert’s three will stand to him. This will be Mathieu’s first, but if anyone can do it...
What does Cuddles think? If there’s an honorary Belgian in this crowd, here he is.
7. UAE-Emirates (14)
Was Andrew right? Well, he was right in moving them up, though I think I’d have a hard time arguing that he didn’t underestimate them. Then again, given that I ranked their Kristoffless lite version at seventeen, he may have kept them out of the top ten for fear of giving them whiplash.
What have we learned? That...Alexander Kristoff can sprint at the end of a hard race? Well, not quite. That Alexander Kristoff can still sprint very well at the end of a hard race. And that Gaviria is happy to work for him.
Who should lead? Can he win? Kristoff should lead, though it will be difficult for you to find somebody who will tell you he’s riding as well as he was in 2015, when of course he won it all. Van Avermaet, a fit Naesen, Van Aert, Van der Poel and two-thirds of Quickstep will probably be better able to get into the moves, but if the attacking is somewhat neutralised (which it won’t be) or if he builds his form over the week (which he could) he may be well positioned to take advantage of what is still underdog status.
What does Cuddles think? I wasn’t feeling great, but wishy-washy statements make things better. Aaaah, thanks for that.
8. Trek-Segafredo (5)
Was Andrew right? TBA, but they’re eighth, so clearly I’m not convinced.
What have we learned? That Degenkolb might be their best prospect? The Puppy Pack have yapped and begged for treats but they haven’t gone out and taken any (I’m aware this is a good quality in a puppy, shut up). Degenkolb’s second place at Gent-Wevelgem is more impressive by far than anything achieved by the others and to say that Stuyven’s threatening presence in a dangerous group going into the last kilometre means he looks more likely to win Flanders than Charles Michel is to give the same credit to Jack Bauer.
Who should lead? Can he win? Still Stuyven. Degenkolb won’t win Flanders, and here’s why: he’s not as good as he was, and when he was, he never looked like winning Flanders. He won’t make the final group and even if he does, so will Kristoff who, as he showed at Gent-Wevelgem, is better at pretty much everything than him. Therefore, they’re better off taking a punt on Stuyven who also probably won’t win, but the set of circumstances in which he could (such as him miraculously finding form) are easier to map out.
What does Cuddles think? So...this is a hit piece on Degenkolb? [Shrug] Whatever.
9. Lotto-Soudal (8)
Was Andrew right? He was extremely prescient, in fact: “winning might be a problem, prominence won’t.” And so we had the prominent Tiesj Benoot (one of the most recognisable riders in the peloton, I find. I think it’s the way he holds his arms) attacking to drive the winning group clear in Dwars before being absolutely punked in the sprint.
What have we learned? Nothing. Tiesj Benoot attacking to drive the winning group clear before being absolutely punked in the sprint is practically a given in a Belgian classic. And nothing’s going to change.
Who should lead? Can he win? I mean, Benoot. And no. Unless he does something he’s never done in Belgium as a pro, which is drop everyone.
What does Cuddles think? A good way of getting me to drop is deny me beer. Maybe he should try that.
10. Sky (10)
Was Andrew right? I’ll quote the seal: Yeah yeah yeah!
What have we learned? Since Andrew’s piece, not a lot. Luke Rowe is still a beast, Gianni Moscon is still at the back, using the reduced speed to increase his accuracy at, I don’t know, focusing a magnifying glass on ants or something, Dylan van Baarle still only performs at the Ronde and Owain Doull is still a step below this level.
Who should lead? Can he win? Rowe, and if his should-have-been chasse patate effort from the weekend is put to better use, he’ll put people in serious trouble. He’s never won anything of note though.
What does Cuddles think? About Sky? I try my very best not to.
Now, time to list the rest of the teams, of which I’ve chosen the order but any comments will be from Cuddles.
11. EF Education First (11)
I know for a fact that Conor regrets sarcastically saying that they’d win races while also having Bettiol on his VDS team.
12. Direct-Energie (12)
Niki, oh Niki. How the mighty have fallen. Was it worth leaving Quickstep for this?
13. Michelton-Scott (7)
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.
14. Sunweb (9)
The bit of tarmacadam that gave Bling that concussion was a friend of mine. Shocked to see him up and about.
15. Katusha-Alpecin (18)
Let’s not get bogged down in Polittical issues.
16. Groupama-FDJ (16)
Bored now, beer please.
17. Astana (13)
Like, even a nice Leffe.
18. Bahrain-Merida (15)
They ban beer in Bahrain.
19. Dimension Data (17)
Ah, my favourite advert for relegation.
20. Movistar (20)
Okay, Movistar? That’s enough. Where’s my beer?
And I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for.
Thanks Cuddles, thanks to stupid jokes, my favourite crutch as always, and good luck to the riders. I’ll leave you with my pick to win: it has to be Bob.