Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Patrick Lefevere insists his team’s home races are still very much part of their DNA, but admits change might be coming
Let’s hope that Patrick Lefevere has picked out a good spot for lunch during this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. Following his team’s failure to contend at the recent GP E3 Saxo Classic, the Soudal-QuickStep boss quipped that his mid-race meal had been the only high point of his day, and there’s been nothing to suggest since that his riders are likely to end a victory drought that now stretches back two years to the 2021 edition of Flanders that culminated in Kasper Asgreen outsprinting Mathieu van der Poel for the title.
At any other period over the 20-odd years of the team’s existence, this drought would have been the focus of heated debate, both within the team and outside it. Yet, while there’s undoubtedly a good deal of discussion about the lack of victories that Patrick Lefevere’s team have had in the events that have been their bread and butter for the past two decades, criticism is tempered as a result of Remco Evenepoel’s stage racing exploits.
“Quick-Step, the new cycle” stated the L’Équipe headline on their preview of the GP E3, the article beneath it laying out the quite unlikely state of affairs the Belgian team now finds itself in, whereby they were likely to have as much focus on the conclusion of the fifth stage of the Volta a Catalunya as on the finale in Harelbeke of what that point was the biggest of the Flemish Classic of the season so far.
Prior to the E3, Lefevere was still bullish about his team’s status as far as its home races are concerned. “I don’t agree at all with those who suggest that my team is no longer a specialist one for the Flemish Classics. They’re still part of our DNA and that can’t be questioned just because we’ve had a year without a victory,” he told L’Équipe, adding that they’ve still got the main core of riders who won seven races during Flanders’ “Holy Fortnight” between 2019 and 2021. “It’s our culture, and that can’t change that suddenly, from one day to the next,” Lefevere affirmed.
He also stressed that, Zdenek Štybar apart, his team still contains the big-name riders who conjured up seven Flemish Classics victories between 2019 and 2021, including Asgreen’s Ronde success. Yet, there wasn’t a Soudal-QuickStep name in the top 10 at the E3, nor at Gent-Wevelgem, which followed it two days later. What’s more, while the “Wolfpack” slunk in the shadows, Jumbo-Visma reaffirmed their bid for the mantle of kings of the Flemish Classics by scooping both titles, the first with Wout van Aert’s thrilling sprint victory over Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar in Harelbeke, the second with a demonstration of team tactics and all-round power that saw Van Aert and Christophe Laporte ride away from their rivals the second time up the Kemmelberg and quickly kill the race off as a competitive spectacle.
The prospects of Lefevere’s men turning their fortunes around at the weekend look slim. Asgreen has been affected by illness, Julian Alaphilippe has still to regain his best level since his awful crash at Liège last spring, and veteran campaigner Yves Lampaert can’t fill the performance gap those two have left on his own, especially against Jumbo’s armada, Van der Poel and Pogačar. Yet Lefevere admits that he faces problems in the longer term too, stemming from his team’s comparative lacking of budgetary power.
He’s underlined that the gap between what he’s got to spend on riders and the financial power available to Jumbo makes it harder to compete. The Dutch team’s management have responded to this by pointing out they are still outside the peloton’s top five teams in terms of budget, Merijn Zeeman saying that achieving this status is their goal. “But at the risk of upsetting Patrick Lefevere, we’re not there yet,” he told L’Équipe.
Jumbo have made no secret that they’ve used Lefevere’s team as a model for contending in the Classics in the same way that they drew on the example on Sky/Ineos for the Grand Tours. What’s become very evident is that the Dutch outfit has become the master in both domains, drawing on what team manager Richard Plugge describes as “total cycling”, a comparison with the ground-breaking Ajax football team of the 1970s in which players’ positions were fluid, changing as the needs of a game dictated. In Van Aert, Laporte, Tiesj Benoot, Dylan van Baarle, Nathan Van Hooydonck and others, they have developed a nucleus of riders who are all a threat, as QuickStep traditionally did. “We went from a period of apprenticeship, to copying but now we are reaching a higher level,” Plugge told L’Équipe.
Lefevere acknowledges he’s hamstrung too by the fact that for the first time in its two-decade-long history his team is more potent in the biggest stage races than the Flemish Classics. “We’re waiting for the Giro to see if Remco Evenepoel is right to be leading us in this direction [of the Grand Tours], we’ll know then if he’s the most talented of them all and if we’re right to go in that direction with him,” Lefevere said last week, when Evenepoel was engaged a race-long battle with Jumbo’s Primož Roglič for the Volta a Catalunya title.
It was noticeable during that battle that Evenepoel’s support crew appeared to have an edge on the Jumbo riders backing Roglič. Although the Slovenian came out on top by a handful of seconds, if Evenepoel were to turn the tables at the Giro d’Italia and add that title to the Vuelta he won last September, Lefevere will undoubtedly have to strengthen the precocious Belgian’s line-up of domestiques with a future shot at the Tour de France in mind and to fend off interest from well-backed squads who have already made clear their interest in Evenepoel.
Of course, the upside for Lefevere if Evenepoel does continue his upward trajectory is that it brings within range the prospect of a prize that Lefevere has never seriously considered as being attainable, the Tour de France’s yellow jersey. Contending for it would be a big step beyond his team’s traditional goals, of stage wins for their best-in-class sprinter and, in recent years, whatever magic Alaphilippe can serve up.
It’s almost 50 years since Belgium last savoured a Tour win, thanks to Lucien Van Impe in 1976. Patrick Lefevere must now be weighing up whether to stake most of his chips on Remco Evenepoel with the aim of ending what has become an unimaginably long drought for Belgian cycling.