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Power Polls: Out With Cobbles, In With Ardennes

Time to wrap up one phase and get fired up for the next

55th Amstel Gold Race 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Nico Vereecken - Pool/Getty Images

Welcome to the next round of classics — the Ardennes! Yes, it’s all a bit muddled this year. Today they ran the Scheldeprijs — and it was interesting! Then we start with Amstel Gold this Sunday, followed by Brabantse Pijl, back in Flanders. Then we finally double back and finish the cobbled races with Paris-Roubaix before continuing the Ardennes stuff. Pretty weird, and it may not lend itself to the same kind of week we are used to. The Amstel teams need not resemble the Flèche and Liège teams because there’s an extra week for them to gather, race, and go off to something else. All of this is very weird.

But whatever, the races are still what they have been, and if Amstel is more like a stand-alone event, well, I’ve been saying the same thing about Paris-Roubaix for a while. It’s part of the group, but not really. It can be enjoyed without the context of the other events.

The Last Cobbles Power Poll of 2022

The biggest question I have here for our final version of the poll is, how do we write this thing? What is the precise question we would like to answer here? Overall roster excellence? Best results? Return on investment?

Here is what I won’t do: rank each team by whether they won. Alpecin-Fenix doesn’t finish first every time, given that they don’t really do anything dramatic to support Mathieu van der Poel, and let’s face it, he doesn’t need much. You can argue that winning is the point, and I agree with you, but just putting out a list of who won, nobody needs that.

So I guess what this is is the ranking of overall team strength. It is based mostly on what we just saw, but with a dash of “hold on a sec” sauce, given that Paris-Roubaix is still out there. Basically, this enables me to do the right thing and pick the best team #1, even if Sunday wasn’t their finest moment. Arrows show movement from the last poll.

  1. Jumbo-Visma
  2. INEOS
  3. Groupama-FDJ
  4. Alpecin-Fenix
  5. Quick Step
  6. Trek-Segafredo
  7. Bahrain-Victorious
  8. Intermarché-Wanty
  9. AG2R
  10. TotalEnergies

Honorable mention: UAE, Lotto-Soudal, DSM, Team BikeExchange, EF Education

Tops: I am sticking with Jumbo-Visma, because the only reason they aren’t running away with the ranking is that Wout got COVID and had to miss Flanders. Their big plans were hampered by Laporte falling into a ditch at the wrong time, so while he still may not have kept up with van der Poel and Pogačar under better circumstances, it’s nonetheless impressive that he got into the peloton for the finale.

INEOS has been consistently quite good, even with a diminished (maybe?) captain in Pidcock. Tactically they made the right moves Sunday with Turner and van Baarle and got a podium spot for their efforts, one of the few teams whose results exceeded their top talent level. Alpecin-Fenix with the courtesy fourth place since they apparently did everything right, or right enough, last week.

Biggest Risers: Nice work by Bahrain and FDJ to go all out and get rewarded. Madouas and Küng (with help from Geniets, among others) gave FDJ their best Ronde van Vlaanderen in the entire 24-year history of the club. They did everything but match the greatness of the two ultra-elite leaders, with Küng one of the strongest riders of the day and Madouas rewarded for excellent, aggressive riding. Similarly, Bahrain got a surprise performance from Fred Wright and cannily snuck Dylan Teuns into the home stretch, in the break just 2” behind the final four, for a close call at a real shocker. I nudged Quick Step up one spot because I like their lineup better for P-R than anywhere else.

Biggest Fallers: Trek couldn’t get Stuyven going anywhere Sunday, which was disappointing (although he’s really more of a P-R guy), and while you could like seeing them get Mads Pedersen and Alex Kirsch into the first major move, it seemed awfully early to deploy Pedersen and hinted at them operating from a position of weakness. AG2R never seemed up to their billing, which I moved up one place this time but that was after they had fallen to 10th from fourth in the pre-E3 poll. Why did they waste Dewulf on the early break? They never got Van Avermaet or Naesen out of the peloton in the late stages of the race. Wanty fell a spot but that’s nothing to do with them particularly, they did their job and gave it their best shot.

CYCLING-BEL-FLECHE WALLONNE
Alafleche
Photo by ERIC LALMAND/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images

Ardennes Classics: 12 Teams to Watch, and a Poll

Following is a quick run through the teams configurations for the Ardennes. Like I said, Amstel teams are a bit separate from the other races, but often overlapping, so for the purposes of this exercise let’s lump them all together as if the Ardennes Week were still a distinct racing phase.

AG2R

Captain(s): Benoit Cosnefroy. Just 26, he already has a building track record at La Fleche (2nd in 2020), which is a decent predictor of future success in the other ones. I.e. it’s a nice starting point.

Wildcard(s): Aurélien Paret-Peintre, Dorian Godon. AP-P has some nice results already in the Ardennes. Van Avermaet could get involved in Amstel (he doesn’t start the others).

Support Network: Bob Jungels, Larry Warbasse, Stan Dewulf

Past History: This century, Cosnefroy’s second at FW was as close to a win as they have gotten, but they had a nice run of top 10s in the 20-teens with guys like Bardet, Pozzovivo and even Carlos Betancur.

Grade: B-

It’s a changing of the guard at the Blue-and-Brown-Boys, and it might not lead to explosive results in 2022 but their core guys are 25-26 years old, so the time might be now.

Astana Qazakhstan

Captain(s): Vincenzo Nibali? Gianni Moscon?

Wildcard(s): Samuele Battistella. Former U23 World Champion from 2019 started to deliver on his promise last fall with an Italian classics campaign that ended with a win in the Veneto Classic and a couple other top 10s.

Support Network: Fedorov, Velasco...

Past History: Two Amstel wins (Gasparotto and Valgren) and one in Liège (Fuglsang), but none by the current roster.

Grade: C

This entry is really all about Alexey Lutsenko’s training crash where he broke his collarbone last week. Astana were gearing up for some mayhem, and not just the kind you get in the team hotel when nobody’s paychecks have arrived for a few months. Although at least that kind is still in play here.

55th Amstel Gold Race 2021 - Men’s Elite
Mohoric in Amstel
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Bahrain Victorious

Captain(s): Matej Mohorič. How can you not like the MSR winner? He took 9th and 10th in Amstel and Liège last year, and it’s not his first time just plowing through all of the spring classics everywhere (see his 2019 program), so I guess he can just keep going.

Wildcard(s): Wout Poels, Dylan Teuns. After his nice Flanders finish Teuns might be the captain? Anyway, they have guys who show up in these things.

Support Network: Jasha Sutterlin, Fred Wright. Couple of tractors there.

Past History: This is their sixth season of existence and they have five straight top tens at Liège so far, including fourth by Mohorič two years ago.

Grade: B-

After Mohorič, there are the usual suspects (although no disrespect to Poels, the LBL winner six years ago). Does that make them a strong team? It’s hard to argue with the results. Don’t look for them much in La Flèche though.

Bora Hansgrohe

Captain(s): Aleksandr Vlasov, Max Schachmann. Vlasov looked like a future classics stud in 2020 but hasn’t done these races. Schachmann is an established threat, but was sick during Paris-Nice.

Wildcard(s): Sergio Higuita, Patrik Konrad. Higuita isn’t normally a classics guy, but he’s been excellent since coming on board this year. Konrad has hung around these races before. Also, Cian Uijtdebroeks could go off at any moment and just start winning all of these races

Support Network: Jonas Koch, Ide Schelling.

Past History: No wins yet but they took second and third in 2019 at Liège. Schachmann has a third (behind ex-teammate Formolo) and ninth place there. They have three recent top fives at Amstel. Konrad had a 7th in La Flèche.

Grade: B+

Vlasov’s pedigree, albeit predominantly in stage races, could really turn the heat up for Bora, who already had a solid plan of Schachmann and Konrad. But maybe Vlasov just isn’t a classics rider? Time to find out.

EF Education

Captain(s): Michael Valgren, Neilson Powless. Two experienced classics riders, although Powless hasn’t ridden these particular races before.

Wildcard(s): Simon Carr, Marijn van den Berg, Ruben Guerreiro

Support Network: Mark Padun, James Shaw

Past History: America’s best hope at a result here is clearly Team Vaughters, who tend to win in places you don’t expect. They have a LBL victory and second place via Dan Martin and Michael Woods.

Grade: C+

Powless was sick and DNF’d at Catalunya, so we will see what his legs are like right now. Valgren’s are fine, and he’s working his way through his usual Cobbles-Ardennes juggernaut of races, so I’d like him at Amstel at least, where he has a past win and second place.

Cycling: 81st La Fleche Wallonne 2017 - Men
Gaudu attacks
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Groupama-FDJ

Captain(s): David Gaudu. Maybe only for La Flèche and LBL. Looks like at Amstel they are trying to ride the hot hands of Valentin Madouas and Stefan Kung.

Wildcard(s): Apart from Madouas in Amstel, Rudy Molard has some OK results here.

Support Network: Kevin Geniets, Quentin Pacher, Anthony Roux.

Past History: Gaudu third in LBL last year was a high water mark for the franchise. Just a handful of top tens otherwise.

Grade: B

I wouldn’t get too excited about the team overall, but Gaudu might be making the leap to top tier classics rider. He’s 26, has been steadily coming up the ranks, and is looking strong right now.

INEOS

Captain(s): Tom Pidcock, Adam Yates, Michal Kwiatkowski. Pidders made the final selection in Amstel last year, along with more cobbles guys, but then he goes to the support role in favor of the old vets.

Wildcard(s): Ethan Hayter, Dani Martinez, Dylan van Baarle. All good riders with no track record in the Ardennes. Yet.

Support Network: Jhonatan Narvaez, Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe. Loaded.

Past History: Just one win by Poels in LBL, and some podium finishes for Kwiato and Pidcock.

Grade: B+

All depth, no favorites to actually win here.

107th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2021 - Men’s Elite
Primo!
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Jumbo Visma

Captain(s): Primož Roglič, Tiesj Benoot. Roglič won LBL two years ago, part of the Slovenian takeover of the race.

Wildcard(s): Jonas Vingegaard, Christophe Laporte, Tom Dumoulin, Tosh Van Der Sande. Dumoulin hasn’t succeeded in Amstel despite being from Maastricht. Pretty weird.

Support Network: Mike Teunissen

Past History: For years this was the team (Rabobank) that always managed to not deliver on expectations, and they were riding a 20 year streak of not winning Amstel Gold, something of a home event for them, until (Belgian) Wout Van Aert delivered last year. Roglič’s Liège win is the other recent milestone after a couple decades lacking in them.

Grade: A+

Lotto Soudal

Captain(s): Veterans Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert. Wellens still seems like a guy with a chance. Gilbert...?

Wildcard(s): Harm Vanhoucke, Victor Campenaerts, Maxim Van Gils. The latter is a very hot prospect and was coming on strong at the Pais Vasco before taking a DNF today for some reason.

Support Network: Andreas Kron

Past History: Four victories in these races over the last 20 years, all by Gilbert, including the famous 2011 sweep of the Ardennes.

Grade: C

Some things never get old. Wait, yes they do.

Movistar

Captain(s): Alejandro Valverde.

Wildcard(s): Alejandro Valverde.

Support Network: Alejandro Valverde

Past History: Alejandro Valverde Alejandro Valverde.

Grade: C+

AlejandrovalverdealejandrovalverdealejandroVALVERDE!

Quick Step

Captain(s): Julian Alaphilippe. He doesn’t come back til after Pais Vasco, so maybe they back Bagioli.

Wildcard(s): Kasper Asgreen? Not that I expect anything. Remco Evenepoel and Mauri Vansevenant could definitely make hay in Liege though.

Support Network: Pieter Serry, Dries Devenyns.

Past History: Cycling’s winningest team was a bit dormant in these races from 2000 to about 2014, when Kwiatkowski reawakened their Ardennes program, followed by Dan Martin and now Alaphilippe, with a brief appearance by Bob Jungels: Monument Winner.

Grade: A-

Am I just rooting for Evenepoel to rescue my FSA DS team, or could he actually break through this year? He has never raced in the Ardennes Classics at the senior level, having been recuperating last spring and the previous fall from his Lombardia crash. Alaphilippe is probably the most dependable top rider in these events, a mortal lock for a podium at least.

107th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Vincent Kalut - Pool/Getty Images

UAE

Captain(s): Tadej Pogačar, Marc Hirschi, Diego Ulissi. Dear lord.

Wildcard(s): Juan Ayuso, Matteo Trentin. I mean...

Support Network: Finn Fischer-Black, Rui Costa, George Bennett, Rafal Majka. What do these terms even mean? All of these guys are hugely talented and/or successful.

Past History: Zero wins in La Flèche, which is weird. Lots of wins and podiums over the years from the likes of Camenzind, Costa, Cunego. Maybe even a few guys whose names don’t begin with C.

Grade: A+++

Is this the most loaded Ardennes Classics team of all time? Probably not, but it may feel like that by the time they are through. Pogačar is obviously the top favorite for FW and LBL, leaving Amstel for just Hirschi and Trentin. In all cases they will be supported by a host of star-level teammates. They could have multiple podiums in every race, though it’s more likely that they will control who wins and not fret about second or third.

Special mention: Team BikeExchange has Michael Matthews, who’s often good for a decent result. Trek have Mollema and Ciccone, the former being a top 10 type of finisher.

Alpecin Fenix has the huge favorite for Amstel and nothing else. So if you want to talk about their prospects, you don’t need a team preview. Just watch this video.

As for an opening ranking, let’s go like this.

Top Tier: UAE and Jumbo. Van Aert could put Jumbo truly level with UAE, but he may be held back for testing once his COVID is cleared up. Either way, these teams have the favorites for a couple races, plenty of alternatives, and seasoned, powerful support.

Second Tier: Quick Step, INEOS, and Bora-Hansgrohe. Is Quick Step’s funk so deep that even Ala can’t pull them out of it? Possibly.

Third Tier: Groupama-FDJ, AG2R, Bahrain-Victorious. Waiting in the wings, hoping to surprise the bigs.