So, there I was, minding my own business on a quiet Thursday evening, when from the back of our darkest cupboard, I heard a knocking.
Reader, I wish I could tell you it was just a poltergeist. No such luck.
Hey.... Engelsman... Engelsman... Hey! ENGELSMAN. BEER AND CYCLING... SATURDAY IS GO TIME.
Just like that, my peaceful evening was wrecked. Here, then, is one man’s ranking of the top cobbles squads for the duration of the 2021 classics season, with some thoughts on their chances for opening weekend thrown in for good measure. Oh, and podium predictions.
I’m afraid I also couldn’t entirely silence everyone’s favourite cantankerous cobblestone. Yup, Cuddles is still taking up space in our flat.
Cobbles Power Ranking
1. Deceuninck Quick-Step
Stars: Julian Alaphilippe, Yves Lampaert, Kasper Asgreen, Florian Senechal, Zdenyk Stybar, etc, etc
Outlook: We know the formula with DQS over the last few years. Hit every attack, keep throwing guys at the races, and hope that one of your kings beats the aces elsewhere. Another exit from their A-team, with Bob Jungels leaving after 2020, following Gilbert and Terpstra from previous seasons. Still, with the development of Asgreen and perhaps Davide Ballerini they still have multiple guys who can win on any given day.
The bigger change is that, perhaps, they’ve found their own ace? Julian Alaphilippe looked to be matching van der Poel and van Aert until chance intervened in last year’s Flanders. He has another chance this year and has the best supporting cast in the business.
Opening Weekend Chances: As ever, they bring a loaded team. Omloop hasn’t always been the happiest of races for them but they won it in 2019. Won’t be a surprise if they win one or both races, would be stunning if they didn’t feature prominently at some stage.
Cuddles speaks: My boys, my lovely home road boys. I heard that you were saying they won’t win a monument this year. Just know that once we’re finished with this rubbish, I’m out of here. Just because I’m made of stone doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings.
Stars: Mathieu van der Poel
Outlook: There’s a reason I’ve only listed one name above. Tim Merlier and Sylvain Dillier are fine riders but don’t belong on the stars list. Still, if you only have one guy, better make it MvdP. Four times a cyclocross world champion, and twice a monument winner, he’ll be back to defend his title in Flanders. Whisper it, but the Roubaix parcours might suit him even better. The favourite for both races and a one-man entry in the power rankings.
Opening Weekend chances: Their chances got better when the team were sent home from the UAE after a Covid-positive. Mathieu picked up a win in the opening stage and looks in ominous form, and will bring that to the startline in Kuurne though he misses Omloop, where the team’s chances look bleak.
Cuddles speaks: I’m conflicted. He’s a big cyclocross guy but he’s Dutch! What am I supposed to do with this guy? Oh, right, root for his rival. On it. Boo boo boo Mathieu!
3. Jumbo Visma
Stars: Wout van Aert
Outlook: It is really hard to write about Wout without it immediately turning into a comparison piece with Mathieu. He was the only guy who could go with him in de Ronde and came so close to a win, but just couldn’t quite get it done. Difficult to separate the quality of their support team and was difficult to separate them on the roads to Oudenarde. What splits them for me is that this is a cobbles power ranking. Wout seems less likely to go well at Roubaix and may have more focus on his other targets (from Strade Bianche to the Tour) and, as such is once again beaten in a photo by the Flying Dutchman.
Opening Weekend chances: They’re not sending Wout to Omloop and their team looks solid but unspectacular. Which gives them a better chance than they’ll have on Sunday, when they aren’t sending a team at all.
Cuddles speaks: Oh, Anglo, you put the Belgian behind the Dutchman? You’ll be putting ketchup on your chips next. You’ve learned nothing from sharing a house with me, truly nothing.
4. Trek Segafredo
Stars: Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen
Outlook: I’m bullish on this likable double act, and I don’t think I’m the only one expecting great things from them. The support isn’t bad (Theuns, Kirsch, Mullen) but really this team will go as far as these two take them.
Opening Weekend chances: Stuyven won Omloop last year and is a former KBK winner, whilst Pedersen hasn’t shown much of anything in either race previously. On the other hand, Mads has started the season in good form (sprinting impressively in Besseges) whilst Stuyven makes his seasonal debut in Ghent. So it is hard to know how much to expect from either of them. I think they’ll feature, but I won’t panic (much) if we don’t.
Cuddles speaks: Yeah, I’ve always liked Jasper. He’s big, he rides with his heart and he comes from Leuven. There’s a lot to like. So his friend is Danish, what of it? I have a Swedish friend and that’s basically the same thing.
5. Lotto Soudal
Stars: Philippe Gilbert, Tim Wellens, John Degenkolb
Outlook: Another year, another time I buy the fool’s gold that is the Lotto classics squad. This year, though, they really do look promising. Gilbert is another year older but only a couple of seasons past his last monument win and looked good in early season races. Degenkolb brings experience, a great sprint and is tougher than he gets credit for, and then there’s Tim Wellens. Wellens hasn’t raced much on cobbles, but my goodness me he’s looked good when he’s done it. No reason at all he can’t add another podium at Omloop to his third in 2019 and he’s slated to race Flanders, too. I realise that I’m out on a limb predicting he’ll make it as a cobbles stud at this stage of his career but I saw enough in that 2019 Omloop to give me serious hope. He’s started the season very well, as always.
Opening weekend chances: If they’re going to have a “6th best team” sort of a season, it starts with a good run in the first two races, which should suit their trio well.
Cuddles speaks: Scary stuff, the Belgian lottery. At the end of it, you have to get twenty friends together and form a government. Or am I thinking of elections? Anyway, I support these Belgians. They ride the right way, even if it doesn’t always bring them much success.
6. AG2R Citroen
Stars: Greg van Avermaet, Olivier Naesen, Bob Jungels
Outlook: Naesen gets support in a vastly expanded AG2R classics unit that is clearly the new focus of the team. My wife The cycling seal’s favourite rider, Mr BoJangles, joins Golden Greg on this outfit. With three tough guys they will expect to be competitive and they certainly can be, but none had a great year among the disruption of 2020 and all will be hoping to turn the clock back a few years. They certainly still have the talent but the competition is fierce.
Opening weekend chances: Jungle Bob misses opening weekend but Oli Naesen and GVA will be there. Both will want hard days and ideally bad weather but don’t entirely discount them.
Cuddles speaks: Two stars from Belgium, one from Greater Belgium [there was a brief scuffle for control of the keyboard here. In the end I decided you can only edit Cuddles so much, and if Podium Café is going to have beef with a country, it might as well be Luxembourg.]. Wooooo! Belgium!
7. Bora Hansgrohe
Stars: Peter Sagan, Nils Pollitt
Outlook: If there’s a team that are ranked too low, these guys are it. Sagz is a bona fide cobbles stud and a threat to win every race that he turns up in. Still, he’s only won two monuments which remains a ridiculous statistic for a man of his talent. In Politt he has one of his most talented teammates, a man who is among the favourites (especially for Roubaix) even without the need for team tactics. The two of them together could prove dangerous, especially as recent editions have seen Sagan frustrated by isolation after selections have been made.
Cuddles speaks: Ugh. Here we are again. I’ve enjoyed this list. Really Belgian, really young, really positive. Really sensible hair. Now this. I’ve been positive for too long. Point me at a beer and end this nonsense.
Others receiving votes:
8. DSM (Benoot always a threat and the supporting cast is deep but not extraordinary).
9. Total Direct Energie (a bit of a wildcard (literally) but Terpstra, Turgis, Petit and the Boss Hog is not a bad quartet by any stretch).
10. EF Education - Nippo (you can’t ignore a Vaughters team and Bettiol is a Flanders winner. Keukeleire needs to bounce this season).
11. UAE Emirates (nobody will want to see Trentin and Kristoff around at the finish, and neither of will be are easy to shift).
12. Groupama FDJ (probably a bit low for a team that can go long with Kung or sprinty with Demare, but I’d like to see a result or two before I bump them up, on cobbles at least).
Opening Weekend Predictions
We won’t be getting detailed parcours until the last minute (well, unless Movistar choose to tweet more information out) to avoid too many crowds on the road, but the expectation is that the courses will look much the same as last year for both races. With the weather set fair (dry roads and limited winds) these should be fairly pure editions. Expect a very select group or lots of small groups on Saturday and a battle between punchy finishers and a reduced peloton sprint on Sunday.
1. Tim Wellens
2. Kasper Asgreen
3. Greg van Avermaet
1. Mathieu van der Poel
2. Davide Ballerini
3. Jasper Stuyven
Three more intriguing names
These aren’t guys who are necessarily going to be stars on the cobbles. Just three names that I’ve got notes on that I wanted to share.
Bling is, quietly, picking up lots of experience on the cobbles, climbs well, finishes well, and only needs a bit of luck to pick up a podium or two. Now, do you make your own luck? Sure. But I haven’t totally given up yet and it’d be a mistake to count him out too soon.
We talk about cobbles specialists all the time, and rightly so. Still, Ala wasn’t on many people’s Ronde-radar before last year, and he proved experience isn’t everything. You could say the same thing to a lesser extent about Nibali (and, if my predictions are right, Wellens). Warren Barguil on cobbles? That might be a stretch, but the dude is due to ride Dwars, Flanders and even Paris-fricking-Roubaix. As far as I can tell, these are his first cobbles start ever, even including his U-23 days (but do check that). I don’t think he’ll be winning in Roubaix, but I am intrigued.
I’m just putting his name out there. He’s on my VDS team and my draft VDS team. He’s a strong young Swiss rider with the right combination of skills (a bit of a sprint, a bit of a time trial, a lot of cobbles experience). He was the only rider who could come close to sticking with Pidcock in the 2019 Roubaix espoirs. Perhaps he isn’t the outstanding cobbles rider of his year, but he’s among them. Unlike his competitors, he rides for Movistar, which means he’ll have a free hand to go and ride for himself. That’s a little intriguing, right?
With that, I’m going to put a cobblestone into a very heavy-duty box, tie it up very firmly, and mail it to the great state of Washington.
I’m coming, boss! Let’s head on over to Tyler’s and get blitzed!