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Watch out for these 13 riders as cobbles season goes full-speed on Friday

Classics stars of the future

Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing): A two-time winner of the under-23 Paris-Roubaix, Phinney is the most natural-born cobbles rider to arrive on the sport’s biggest stage since Boonen and Cancellara a decade ago. Like Boonen, Phinney is large (6-foot-5, 185 pounds) and able to withstand the violent beatings delivered on the pavé; like Cancellara, he’s a time trial specialist able to sustain massive power output. In his debut at the 256km Roubaix last year, Phinney finished an impressive 15th after riding in support of Alessandro Ballan and Thor Hushovd.

Just 22, Phinney has not yet come close to realizing his potential, though over the past 12 months the two-time world pursuit champion has proven he can do much more than simply lay down the power against the clock or cobblestones — evidenced by his fourth-place finish in the Olympic road race, and seventh at Milano-Sanremo last weekend after a bold chase down the Poggio and into the finish. Nearly catching the six leaders on the line, it was the best finish of any BMC Racing rider, which should earn him a spot as a protected rider for the cobbled classics. Though he’s likely to struggle a bit on the climbs of Flanders, when it comes to flatter races, and particularly Roubaix, the sky is the limit for Phinney.

Geraint Thomas (Sky): The 26-year-old from Wales is a world champion and gold medalist on the track, yet seems at home on the cobblestones, having won the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2004. He showed his class on the pavé in stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France, which used seven sections of Roubaix cobbles, finishing second on the stage behind Thor Hushovd and riding into the best young rider’s jersey. In 2011 Thomas finished second at Dwars door Vlaanderen behind winner Nick Nuyens, and then finished 10th in a wild Tour of Flanders finale also won by Nuyens.

Thomas spent 2012 focusing on his Olympic track objectives, winning gold in the team pursuit. So far this year he’s finished third overall at the Tour Down Under and fourth, just off the podium, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. An untimely crash at Milano-Sanremo, at the base of the Cipressa climb, took him out of the running, but with support from Stannard, Mat Hayman, Bernie Eisel, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas will no doubt be a rider to watch on the cobbles.

John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano): Like Sagan, Degenkolb, 24, is a rider for the one-day classics, finishing in the top six last year at Milano-Sanremo, Harelbeke, Paris-Tours, and the road world championship. There’s a big difference between finishing in the top six and winning, however, and Degenkolb — a sprinter who took five Vuelta stages last year — still needs to learn what it takes to be there for the win at the end of 250km of difficult racing.

Ian Stannard (Sky): Just 25, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Stannard is a natural classics rider, and has already finished in the top 10 this year at both Milano-Sanremo and Dwars door Vlaanderen after late-race attacks in both races. In 2010 Stannard finished third as a neo-pro in freezing conditions in Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, and at the 2011 Ghent-Wevelgem he was part of a four-man breakaway, along with Sagan and Chavanel, that was caught 500 meters from the line.

Last weekend Stannard put in an impressive performance in freezing conditions at Milano-Sanremo, riding on the front in support of Geraint Thomas, then attacking with Chavanel after Thomas crashed on the lead-in to the Cipressa. Stannard led Chavanel over the Poggio, only to be caught on the descent by a chase group of five riders; he finished sixth in the bunch sprint. He was on the attack again at Dwars door Vlaanderen with 7km remaining on Wednesday, and though it was a significant effort, it opened the door for Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) to counterattack; Stannard again was forced to chase in the closing kilometers, and finished ninth in the bunch sprint. Stannard has got the heart of a classics rider, though he still needs to work on his race acumen a bit; he’ll be helped when Thomas is in the thick of things late in the race.

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