Welcome to the Most Wonderful Time of the Cycling Year! It’s basically Christmas, where the snow and presents have been replaced by large cobblestones and sharp climbs. Caroling has been replaced by cheering on the suffering of the seemingly immortal heroes of the sport. The landscape isn’t so much a winter wonderland as opposed to its northern aftermath, as stubbly plants emerge from the (actually very pungent) Flemish mud and leaves start to pop out on the trees. There is great psychological comfort in seeing the Earth come back to full life in spring, of course, but this is cycling, and we tend to like it better when winter comes back in for a few last blows.
[Current forecast: crispy but dry for the first few races; maybe getting rougher next week.]
Andrew put up a quick primer on the races themselves, and I don’t have a lot to say in terms of the details — the courses are pretty well set now, and whatever wrinkles happen each year are minor enough to be covered in the live post. E3 remains the coveted Friday classic where riders get their best chance to send a message to their rivals. They swing by Geraardsbergen, they climb a lot, and they roll home to Harelbeke, same as ever. They have even dropped the sexist marketing angles!
Gent-Wevelgem long ago leaned into its WWI history and its burst of hills by the French border. Dwars moved to the following Wednesday a few years back — probably a mistake, but whatever — and is fun as hell. De Ronde is De Ronde, and Paris-Roubaix is a couple weeks late but better than nothing. I could go on, like I used to, but I don’t think anyone needs that.
If you do? Well, I once wrote a book about these races which you are welcome to buy on Amazon, if you truly can’t stop thinking/talking/reading about these wonderful races. It’s heavy on history, which is probably for the best since it’s six years old, though I also geeked out on hellingen, cobbles and the notable places along these famous routes. I based it largely on a trip to the races in 2010 — In some respects I am a very lucky guy.
So, you know the races. This is a post about a subject that is constantly in major flux, the riders and teams who will bring their A-Game to the cobbles as soon as tomorrow. Right now you can see them freewheeling along the Leie or Schelde towpaths, or doing some reps up the Koppenberg or the Haaghoek. You can see the colorful team buses and service course trucks all around Greater Kortrijk or Gent. With fans returning to the roadside, you can sense the building excitement. You should probably go have some frietes and a beer. I cannot stress the importance of doing so enough.
Anyway, I don’t want to repeat my many, many posts dating back to 2006 where I fawn over the beauty and raw awesomeness of these races. I just want them to start ASAP. And I want to dive into who will bring them fully to life. So here goes with team capsules. The point of these is to point out which teams have the three main ingredients in a successful cobbles (or any classics) squad — a potential winner, some threatening alternatives, and a broad base of support. Each squad gets a letter grade reflecting these three qualities and how they apply... mostly to the Tour of Flanders, given that three of the major events are tuneups for De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix is its own universe. I also rank the top ten teams, albeit with the caveat that we won’t know just how locked in they are until the E3 flag goes up. Feel free to debate me here! There are always some guys we overlook and/or overrate at our peril. In no particular order...
Quick Step Alpha Vinyl
Captain(s): Kasper Asgreen, Fabio Jakobsen. Nothing left for Asgreen to prove, given that he won Flanders last year after a blistering second place three years ago. Twice he’s had the legs at the end, and last time he had the sprint to finish it off against van der Poel. Jakobsen is their top sprinter for the potential sprinters’ finishes at G-W and the Scheldeprijs.
Wildcard(s): Yves Lampaert, Florian Sénéchal. Sénéchal is tracking nicely, but Lampaert is something of a mainstay with two wins in Dwars door Vlaanderen and two top fives in Paris-Roubaix. In fact, if they haven’t said this already, I wouldn’t be shocked if the roles switched and Asgreen worked for Lampaert in Roubaix.
Support Network: Zdenek Stybar, Mikkel Honoré, Iljo Keisse
Past History: Deep. Asgreen is your defending Ronde van Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs champion. Does that jog your memory at all? If you want to know more, I can prepare a 1000 page history of Quick Step and the classics. Or I can just show you this matrix of results. The yellow boxes are the wins.
The Usual Suspects of the Cobbles get their usual grade, but to be clear, this is a grade based on their reliable history, ability to throw some muscle around, and diversity of options. I don’t know that Asgreen can just up and repeat his amazing feats of 2021, not with Wout and Matti having more gas in the tank than they did a year ago. So as far as their top option, Quick Step won’t come in as the favorites, except in Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs where Fabio Jakobsen might be top ranked. You have to expect them to have someone in the finale of every race, though, so if you like mathematical odds, then you like this team. They know how to use all of their resources to take down the best opponents.
Captain(s): Michael Matthews. Matthews has top tens in both Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, so at least in the latter case he should be considered a threat to win.
Wildcard(s): Luke Durbridge. Durbo hung around Dwars last year, and has a top five at E3 if you scroll back. Veterans like these races.
Support Network: Alexander Konychev, Jack Bauer. Maybe the kid has something besides super cool bloodlines?
Past History: One Paris-Roubaix win in 2016.
Mathews as your main hope is not a very reliable strategy. Durbo keeps them relevant, and there’s plenty to like about BikeExchange, but the Cobbles aren’t a big priority.
Captain(s): Alberto Bettiol, Michael Valgren. Bettiol is a former Ronde winner, and Valgren has a fourth place in Flanders and an Omloop win. Neither one will be a top-10 pick by the bookmakers, I don’t think, but they won’t be too far below that.
Wildcard(s): Sebastian Langeveld...still a guy. Owain Doull might show in a sprint. Jonas Rutsch was 11th in Paris-Roubaix last year, portending a future there.
Support Network: Stefan Bissegger, Jens Keukeleire. Bissegger is one of the young guys with a big engine, so that should translate before too long. Keukeleire... also still a guy!
Past History: Very colorful! They have swiped several of the biggest events away from the clutches of their more storied and stacked rivals, including Flanders just three years ago, plus Roubaix, the Omloop and the Scheldeprijs in the previous decade. As the former employers of Sep Vanmarcke, they also had several other chances that went horribly awry at the worst possible moment. Because life on the cobbles is not fair.
The Vaughters Project has always found a way to spend its limited funds wisely, and for a while that has included a rather conspicuous investment in the classics. The last couple years haven’t been as fruitful but they could be entering their next window of understated friskiness.
Captain(s): Max Walscheid. The German sprinter was a long time coming into fulfilling his promise, but appears to have arrived. Not just his run of top fours in the mini-cobbles races (with a win in Denain), but his 11th in last year’s Paris-Roubaix was a major advancement.
Wildcard(s): Jelle Wallays. Former Dwars winner still bringing it on the cobbles.
Support Network: Piet Allegaert, Simone Consonni. Allegaert is a sprinter who might get an opening.
Past History: Nothing worth talking about.
Walscheid’s sprint could make things very, very interesting. We have seen the key tuneups E3 and Dwars end in bunches and you could see him getting a shot.
Captain(s): Alex Aranburu, Alejandro Valverde. Valverde was 8th in Flanders last time he stopped by, and he just is who he is. Aranburu hoping for a sprint.
Wildcard(s): Ivan Garcia? He’s young and working it out.
Support Network: Imanol Erviti
Past History: They are awfully good in the Ardennes, so I won’t rip their Cobbles squad too much. But yeah, no.
Pretty hard to picture Valverde outmuscling the star-studded pelotons of the cobbles right now. And after that, it’s just about keeping it respectable.
Captain(s): Tom Pidcock, Dylan van Baarle. The cyclocross World Champion Pidcock is the big name, but honestly I think van Baarle should be their guy. Pidcock has a future in these races, but at 22 and spent from winter and illness, the signs are all bad. Van Baarle, though, is primed. He was top ten in everything last year, including winning Dwars.
Wildcard(s): Ethan Hayter, Elia Viviani. The latter just in a sprint, of course, but Hayter has the talent to break out big time, at any time.
Support Network: Luke Rowe, Ben Swift, Filippo Ganna. Ganna will get warmed up for Paris-Roubaix, where he is a former U23 winner, but probably not a threat to win the big boy race just yet.
Past History: Oddly muted, considering they haven’t exactly overlooked these races since their inception. Van Baarle got them back in the winning column for the first time since the 2016 E3. Their best Flanders or Roubaix finish was a couple thirds in France, and not recently.
What if I am wrong about Pidcock and he overcomes his recent illness, finds his legs, and gives INEOS yet another weapon to use here? Like Quick Step, there may be a couple bigger dogs in the fight but if you get multiple guys into the finale every time out, something’s gotta give.
Captain(s): Nils Politt. Former Paris-Roubaix runner-up. Sam Bennett enters Gent-Wevelgem with a hope, although he has been much closer to a Scheldeprijs win (2nd).
Wildcard(s): Marco Haller. 10th in E3 once. Danny van Poppel, of the cycling van Poppels. Dude has a fast finish on him, as you would expect from his name.
Support Network: Jordi Meeus?
Past History: Just Peter Sagan’s history, really. One Paris-Roubaix and a KBK. Politt was on Katusha for his second at P-R.
No disrespect to Bora really, they just swapped out Sagan and his crew (and massive salary) for a completely different set of very talented riders who happen to not be big cobbles guys. Politt could bring them back into the picture, though he’s not lighting up the field right now.
Captain(s): John Degenkolb, Soren Kragh Andersen. Not sure what you can expect out of Degs these days, but his past includes a giant cobble trophy, and those things are forever. SKA, meanwhile, hasn’t been a cobbles warrior but is looking dangerous after a very active finale of Milano-Sanremo.
Wildcard(s): Nils Eekhoff. Eekhoff is another former Paris-Roubaix Espoirs winner, so yeah.
Support Network: Nikias Arndt, Joris Nieuwenhuis.
Past History: Degs’ magical 2015 is the headliner, but more recently Andersen was third in the Omloop. Pretty thin resume collectively.
Hoping SKA fights his way through this field is... not crazy? But still a pretty long shot.
Captain(s): Matej Mohorič. Thrown deeply into chaos by the unstable cardiac arrhythmia that sent Sonny Colbrelli to the hospital Monday. Every year the competition gets thinned out a bit by injury and illness, so here we go.
Wildcard(s): Dylan Teuns, Fred Wright
Support Network: Heinrich Haussler, Jascha Sutterlin
Past History: For a while, nothing, and then? Well, the good news is that they have really picked things up and even won Paris-Roubaix in a tactically brilliant fashion. The bad news is that all of those big results came from Colbrelli.
Few teams had more of their eggs in a single basket than BV did, and unfortunately that basket, a true star of the sport, is now sidelined indefinitely. Colbrelli will be missed until he can return, which we don’t have any clue when that could be, except that it won’t be in time for the cobbles. Fingers crossed for next year.
Captain(s): Tadej Pogačar. Currently the patron of the Tour, or on the verge of such status, but who isn’t satisfied with being pigeonholed and is branching out this spring.
Wildcard(s): Matteo Trentin. Wildcard isn’t very generous, and outside of De Ronde he will probably function more like the captain. He has a long history of hanging around at Flanders and all of the dress rehearsals.
Support Network: Mikkel Bjerg, Alessandro Covi. Youngsters with some history of riding in Belgium and generally high pedigree.
Past History: Kristoff, when he was on the team, delivered a win at Gent-Wevelgem and third in Flanders just three years ago. Before that, you would have to cite to Alessandro Ballan’s Ronde win in 2007. I think Saronni was around then?
Pogačar is a force to be reckoned with in any format, even if he’s got a pretty tall task ahead of him. Trentin should keep them in the hunt in several events, and the kids might make an interesting showing somewhere. They’re more fun than anything else. But isn’t that the point of watching?
Captain(s): Stefan Küng, Arnaud Demare. Küng has been knocking on the door at Gent-Wevelgem and E3 for a few years now, and is in his prime. Demare has more than knocked on doors — he has threatened to kick them in, at places like Paris-Roubaix, not just the sprinters’ races (though second and third at G-W ain’t nothing). But the big victory has eluded him in Flanders.
Support Network: Kevin Geniets. Is he OK? He dropped out of Paris-Nice after a sign got blown over and caused him to bang his knee on the ground.
Past History: How far back do you want to go? The Gilbert days? Frédéric Guesdon?
Küng doing something seems like a possibility. Demare is his usual self too.
Captain(s): Gianni Moscon. Last seen slipping away up the road to a Paris-Roubaix victory, until a flat tire robbed him of any momentum and hope.
Wildcard(s): Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Felline. Nibali has a top ten in Flanders, because of course he does. Felline might be more of a worker now, but he had a few decent placings in the past.
Support Network: Manuele Boaro.
Past History: Michael Valgren, now departed, got them a couple results years ago, but that’s all.
Moscon didn’t need (or receive) much help in nearly winning himself a cobble, so I can’t mark them down too far. He’s been conspicuously inconspicuous so far this year though. If Moscon isn’t in top form, these guys will only be noticeable by their pajamas, or the occasional NibaliCam if you’re watching in Italy.
Captain(s): Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven. Two top-shelf favorites to win a monument. Granted, it has been four years since Pedersen took a brilliant second in De Ronde, and he has no real history with Paris-Roubaix, but the former world champion will be a threat to win most days. Stuyven, meanwhile, does have some P-R pedigree, with two top fives, as well as fourth in Flanders last year. Both are going well right now, but not too well, which is pretty perfect.
Wildcard(s): Quinn Simmons. No real track record here unless you want to go back to Juniors, when he won Gent-Wevelgem and placed 10th in Paris-Roubaix. But he looks stronger than ever. Probably more focused than ever too.
Support Network: Edward Theuns, Filippo Baroncini. The Italian U23 world champion is a curious inclusion in here, unless you just assume that his win in Leuven means he can ride Paris-Roubaix.
Past History: Loads, from the Cancellara days to the more recent exploits of Stuyven and Pedersen. The management team is experienced too, dating back in some cases to the Leopard squads.
The last couple cobbles campaigns have been a bit disappointing, given the lofty expectations you would lay on riders who have won like Stuyven and Pedersen have. [And by disappointing I mean “can’t you follow up your MSR win with another monument?”] I think Pedersen was sick last spring? Anyway, if Simmons can threaten their rivals some, it could really open up some opportunities. The rest of the pieces are in place, with seasoned veterans in support and in the team cars.
Captain(s): Oliver Naesen, Greg Van Avermaet. GVA is missing only Dwars and De Ronde from his crown of Cobbles wins. Given that he was third in Flanders last year, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to write him off, even at age 36. Naesen, five years his junior, is less decorated but has looked very good this winter.
Wildcard(s): Stan DeWulf. Cut from Flemish central casting, DeWulf has plenty of U23 and juniors successes on the cobbles and is adjusting quickly to the top level, fourth at Paris-Tours last year and fourth in Le Samyn this month.
Support Network: Michael Schar
Past History: Very little until this more recent team was assembled.
Outside shot at a win, with a strong chance of making good trouble.
Captain(s): Florian Vermeersch. Just 23, the kid has a memorable second in last October’s P-R fresh on his mind, as well as a 13th in Gent-Wevelgem as a neo-pro. He has a knack for this.
Wildcard(s): Victor Campenaerts. He’s a veteran and is having a fine start to his season.
Support Network: Jasper De Buyst
Past History: Belgium’s other team has a long history in all of these races, albeit as the second banana who rarely actually wins anything. Maybe more of a whipping boy? Why does that term even exist? Let’s move on.
Vermeersch alone is not a great plan for a team of this stature. Of course, if Philippe Gilbert were up for one last shot at the races where he has won so much, we would be singing a different tune. But he’s back in the Ardennes.
Captain(s): Wout Van Aert. Needs little introduction. One of the clear favorites for a win or wins. Paris-Roubaix is the one race where he has yet to be a major factor, but there is no reason to pretend that can’t happen this year.
Wildcard(s): Christophe Laporte, Tiesj Benoot. Benoot is a mainstay in De Ronde and a sure bet to help Van Aert in some fashion, including attacking. Laporte has been much more threatening of late, though, with sixth in P-R last year and looking very strong this spring.
Support Network: Mike Teunissen. Great helper and dangerous in his own right, assuming he is back to his old self.
Past History: Plenty, given this team’s four decades of prominence. Of late, Van Aert has been responsible for their big results. But like Trek and Lotto, they definitely know what they are doing, results or no.
This team has both the dangerous favorite and the high-end depth to really control races. Whether Van Aert can hold off his nemesis and the other top guys is the challenge. But he will have all the tools at his disposal. Laporte will make plenty of “dark horse” lists, which means maybe he’s more of just a horse.
Captain(s): Mathieu van der Poel, Tim Merlier. Merlier is getting good at winning sprints in the lesser cobbled classics, including the uphill run in at Nokere Koerse. But the headliner is the return of van der Poel, the 2020 Ronde winner and megatalent who might just plow his way through the classics, if he’s back to his pre-injury self.
Wildcard(s): Jasper Philipsen, Gianni Vermeersch
Support Network: Sylvain Dillier
Past History: Well, van der Poel has a history, alright. He won Dwars in 2019, then stormed to his Ronde win by a tire width over Van Aert in the reconfigured 2020, then came back for semi-normal 2021 with second in Flanders and third (six months later) in Roubaix, both in sprint finishes.
Too top-heavy for me to give a higher team grade, but they have won a lot with fewer numbers so maybe they don’t need them?
Captain(s): Peter Sagan. One of history’s more decorated riders, especially in the classics, but where is he at now? Seemingly on the march — he looked fine in MSR before a mechanical knocked him out at the Cipressa. He’s made a couple sprints lately too. So if the old Sagan is ready to rock again, well...
Wildcard(s): Niki Terpstra, Anthony Turgis. Speaking of decorated riders, Terpstra is quite a story, one I want to delve into deeper later. Turgis, however, is on fire and a clear threat to make a podium.
Support Network: Daniel Oss, Maciej Bodnar
Past History: Just a couple strong Terpstra results in the last couple years. French teams weren’t too heavily invested in the cobbles earlier this century. Bryan Coquard and Sebastian Chavanel got in on some sprints in the Yurpcar days.
I literally gave this team three different grades before settling on B+, because I have no idea what to think here. Sagan comes in with a couple dudes, so they could mesh quickly, and if he’s the Old Peter... I mean, their ceiling involves two absolute champions and a third guy who has looked fantastic, with his own solid track record. Their floor is getting passed by as the kids take over with Turgis just out on an island. We are talking some palatial floor-to-ceiling gaps here.
Israel Premier Tech
Captain(s): Sep Vanmarcke. 2010 seems like a long time ago but I have such fond memories of spotting him hanging around beforehand, and then bursting into our collective consciousness with an audacious second place in Gent-Wevelgem later that day. His 13th attempt at the cobbles will probably be a lot like the first 12, lots of potential but lots of obstacles in his way. It’d be cool if he had good luck for once.
Wildcard(s): Giacomo Nizzolo, Jakob Fuglsang, Guillaume Boivin/Tom Van Asbroeck. Nizzolo has been good of late and can get into a bunch sprint. Fuglsang, I have no idea why he’s here. He hasn’t raced the cobbles since 2016, and anyway last year he started to show his age, so maybe he’s just getting in some miles. He could be interesting in Gent-Wevelgem, but they aren’t sending him there. Van Asbroeck and Boivin were 8th and 9th in P-R last year, so yeah. Not sure what to make of that, but they are veterans who know what they’re doing.
Support Network: Hugo Houle
Past History: Sep is basically the team’s history, along with their two P-R placings.
I might be going a bit low here, but it’s a crowded field. If Sep is on his game, he can count on a very solid support network. Also Nizzolo is now a pretty reliable in-the-mix guy, though he will need some of the top fastmen to miss the moves if he is to have a chance at a major result.
Best of the Rest
Captain(s): Rasmus Tiller (Uno-X), Alexander Kristoff (Wanty), Hugo Hofstetter (Arkea)
Wildcard(s): Matis Louvel (Arkea), Andrea Pasqualon (Wanty), Dimitri Claes (Wanty), Jérémy Lecroq (B&B), Sacha Modolo (Bardiani)
No grades here. Kristoff is the biggest name, having previously won a Ronde van Vlaanderen, and having some real cobbles experience behind him.
Based on what’s above, let’s open the rankings thusly:
- Jimbo Visma
- Quick Step
- Alpecin Fenix
- EF Education
- Groupama FDJ
This is just the opening hand, and probably the least accurate, given that we have only the Omloop Weekend to go on, which isn’t a great indicator. By Monday, however, we should see who has the strength to boss the peloton around, so look for lots of reshuffling maybe? That said, the top teams are pretty well known at this point so maybe this list won’t turn out to be too far off the mark. Let’s see your rankings, comments, things I missed, etc. Enjoy!