Eclipsed at Opening Weekend, Soudal-QuickStep are shifting to a stage race focus

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by

While they were outgunned by Jumbo-Visma in Belgium, Patrick Lefevere’s riders clinched another notable stage race title in the UAE

It used to be that Patrick Lefevere’s Soudal-QuickStep team set the performance standard in the cobbled Classics, and the Belgian squad rarely missed out on at least one big win at some point during the campaign. From 2003, when QuickStep first stepped up as a primary sponsor of the team and Johan Museeuw won Het Nieuwsblad, Lefevere’s merry band of one-day men have been the team to beat.

They may have leaned heavily on Tom Boonen for several seasons. Yet even when the Belgian was at his peak, there was always real depth to their Classics talent on their roster, which ensured that they had strength in numbers when these races arrived at their decisive moments. If Boonen wasn’t in position to take victory, then Stijn Devolder, Servais Knaven, Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, Gert Steegmans, Michał Kwiatkowski or one of a raft of other names probably almost certainly would be. While there were occasional droughts, these were short and tended to culminate with another glut of success.

“There are also guys with us who can ride like Benoot. If Nathan Van Hooydonck gets into the breakaway, there could also be four of us with him. That just doesn’t happen.”

Patrick Lefevere

As recently as 2021 that sense of QuickStep always setting the benchmark for the Classics still seemed to be well set. Kasper Asgreen won the GP E3 and the Tour of Flanders, his victories following closely those by Davide Ballerini at Het Nieuwsblad and Sam Bennett at the De Panne Classic.

Last year, however, QuickStep were visibly outgunned. Although their northern Classics campaign began with a victory for Fabio Jakobsen at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, they didn’t have a rider in the top 10 at Flanders. Things were little better at Roubaix, where Yves Lampaert was their highest finisher in 10th place.

Although Lefevere (pictured above) will know better than anyone that fortune tends to be a fickle beast when it comes to the Classics, the recent Opening Weekend offered scant reason to suggest that Soudal-QuickStep’s fate is about to change for the better. After Ballerini finished sixth at Het Nieuwsblad and Jakobsen was ninth in Kuurne, their Belgian boss’s Monday morning column in Het Nieuwsblad was sure to make for interest reading.

Lefevere had flown into Europe from the Tour of Rwanda, where he’d seen William Lecerf of Soudal-QuickStep development team finish third, a second behind the overall champion, Eritrea’s Henok Mulubrhan, who has apparently signed a deal to join Soudal-QuickStep from Green Project-Bardiani. “I didn’t return from Rwanda to see this,” Lefevere stated witheringly in Het Nieuwsblad.

He’d watched his team – and, it should be added, almost every other team – being out-thought and outmuscled by Jumbo-Visma. “We have to conclude that they are now the team we were a few years ago. They dominate and we’ve been found to be too light,” he acknowledged. Then he added some more substance to that final comment, blasting his riders for not being able to compete with Jumbo’s Tiesj Benoot and Nathan Van Hooydonck, who finished 1-2 in Kuurne.

“There are also guys with us who can ride like Benoot. If Nathan Van Hooydonck gets into the breakaway, there could also be four of us with him. That just doesn’t happen. We’re not prepared to take the bull by the horns.” Lefevere’s mood wasn’t even improved by Julian Alaphilippe’s first victory since his horrific crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège last April. After the two-time world champion followed his success in the Ardèche Classic with 16th place in the Drôme Classic, Lefevere focused on how the Frenchman had been “knocked out of the running”, and, as he often tends to do, signed off his machine-gunning of his riders by reminding them that quite a few of them are out of contract at the end of this season. “If they want an extension, I will be on the other side of the table,” he declared ominously.

Two things were very evident from this weekend’s action – both of them confirmed by Lefevere in his Het Nieuwsblad roasting. Firstly, Jumbo-Visma are the team now setting the standards in the northern Classics. They have a totemic leader in Wout van Aert who is backed by a cohort of very strong performers, including Het Nieuwsblad victor Dylan van Baarle, Benoot, Van Hooydonck and France’s Mr Everywhere, Christophe Laporte. Fortified by long spells training at altitude and by confidence in each other’s ability, they’re leaving their rivals standing. Among the many moments that underlined this was the way that 19-year-old Norwegian Per Strand Hagenes, who is still a member of the Jumbo’s development team, created the gap in the wind that split Kuurne’s peloton apart 100km from the finish.

Secondly, for the first time in their history, Soudal-QuickStep are stronger in stage races than one-day events. “It is true that we are shifting the emphasis within the team,” Lefevere confirmed in his column. Traditionally, his team has relied on outliers for success in the Grand Tours, on riders who could cope with the fact that the Belgian team would always focus on the Classics and line up around a potent sprinter in Grand Tours, where their specialists would need to look after themselves to a large degree. While a few GC riders have thrived in this environment, including Rigoberto Urán, many others have flopped – come on down Juan Miguel Mercado, José Antonio Pecharromán, José Rujano and Peter Velits.

Now, though, Lefevere has in Remco Evenepoel his stage racing Tom Boonen – a Belgian rider that he can count on to beat the very best in the world on a consistent basis. Evenepoel’s success this weekend in UAE Tour was no less than his 11th stage race victory, among them last year’s Vuelta a España. Now the 23 year old has sights set on the Giro d’Italia. Lefevere, meanwhile, will be working out how best to spend his budget on supporting Evenepoel’s longer-term push for success at the Tour de France, well aware that he doesn’t have the funds available to Jumbo, Ineos, UAE and others.

Bringing in the very highly rated Mulubrhan is likely one part of this planning. But as well as needing great climbers to support him, Evenepoel will also require powerhouses like Laporte, van Aert, Benoot and Van Hooydonck. Balancing this demand with continued success in the cobbled Classics is going to be difficult to achieve without a significant boost in funds, so sacrifices will surely have to be made in order to ensure Evenepoel isn’t tempted away by a squad that can guarantee it will match his ambition.

You may also like

[block_content id="3209"]