Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Patrick Lefevere’s decision to openly deride Soudal-QuickStep star rider Julian Alaphilippe’s recent form is being depicted as yet another example of the old-school motivational mind-games favoured by the Belgian. But, asks Jeremy Whittle, is that his real agenda or is the Machievellian Belgian looking further ahead?
Silver-haired, ashen faced, weather-beaten, and occasionally, after a few drinks, world-weary, I was once told I look a little like Patrick Lefevere. Given the Belgian team boss’s other qualities, I really hope, for the sake of my family and friends, that that is where the comparison ends.
Lefevere’s, cycling’s best-known trash-talker, was born in the ’50’s and reared on ‘good old fashioned’ values. He may use Instagram, but he’s no millennial. The cultural mores of Gen Z mean nothing to him and the politics of woke leave him cold. And no — he definitely doesn’t drink oat milk.
He doesn’t suffer fools. Nor does he try to hide his disdain. “If you ask a question like that, then you know nothing about cycling,” he once told me. Fair enough. At the time, I didn’t know as much as I do now.
Lefevere makes no attempt to ‘PR’ his image. He mixes a little casual bullying, with a soupcon of misogyny, some self-aggrandisement and rounds it off with a dose of public humiliation. His management style is built on browbeating and intimidation. Nobody can possibly know as much about cycling, rider management, or motivational tactics as Patrick, you see.
To Lefevere, cycling remains a man’s world; a ‘what have you done for me lately’ sport. It would be easier, more comfortable even, to see Lefevere’s medieval macho swagger as some kind of ironic comedy turn. But it isn’t. He really believes this stuff. He’s the embarrassing relative in the corner at Christmas with the toe-curling world-view.
Before Patrick was the head teacher at the school of hard knocks, he graduated from the academy of ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’ Show any weakness and he will savage you. When riders need an arm around their shoulder, he’ll tell them to man up. When they doubt themselves, he’ll tell them they’re acting like a girl.
The Machiavellian Lefevere has shown that attitude time after time. One spring he’s hugging a tearful star rider after taking a big win; the next, he’s telling the world he’s a gutless loser, or lacking in, ahem, ‘balls.’ Now as he seeks to reshuffle his pack around Remco Evenepoel, he’s doing it again.
At different times, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen, Sam Bennett and Mark Cavendish have endured such treatment. Latest to have his ambition, character and value publicly doubted, is Julian Alaphilippe, who after a difficult 2022, marred by a series of crashes and bouts of illness, is trying to reboot his career this week, racing in Mallorca.
These public spats with his stars have become a familiar scenario, and usually the preamble to a parting of the ways. Lefevere talks riders down, belittling them, before the inevitable split. When Sam Bennett left Lefevere’s team after a deterioration in their relationship, to sign for Bora-Hansgrohe, Lefevere displayed his usual tact.
“He’s the pinnacle of mental weakness,” he said of Bennett’s move back to Bora, “…moaning to everybody about how he was ‘bullied’ and almost broke and depressed, only to return fourteen months later. It’s the same as women who still return home after domestic abuse.”
Lefevere has little time for the mental health concerns of his riders, or the peloton as a whole. The traumas of Alaphilippe’s 2022 season, which included a horrifying high-speed impact so shocking that his compatriot Romain Bardet abandoned Liege-Bastogne-Liege to tend to the double world champion, cut no ice with him.
Telling what he described as the ‘cold truth,’ Lefevere said this week that he understood Alaphilippe’s illnesses and falls, but added, “you can’t keep hiding behind that.”
“Last year (2022) he won two times, the years before three and four times.” Lefevere said. “I didn’t take him into the team for that…”
Anyone who’s had a bullying boss — whether overtly or stealthily — knows it’s a debilitating experience that slowly sucks the confidence out of you. Once it starts, there’s usually no way back. But, beyond Lefevere publicly suggesting that Alaphilippe is not providing value for money, despite his world titles, what is really going on here?
The French rider is contracted with Lefevere until 2024, but he is no longer the star of the team.
That’s because 2022 Vuelta and World Road Race champion, Remco Evenepoel, now is. He’s also Belgian and a potential future Tour de France winner, perhaps the most high-value rider in the sport, and one who definitely needs a stronger support team if he is to take the fight to Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard.
Thus Alaphilippe and his big salary is now (possibly) in the way of Lefevere’s grand plan: building a team to guide Evenepoel to the yellow jersey.
But imagine that scenario played out in public, through an uncritical media that hangs on to your every word. The Belgian media are supporting Lefevere’s attacks on Alaphilippe, knowing that Evenepoel’s Grand Tour aspirations will be the beneficiary, and the French media are sticking up for their own man.
But the writing is on the wall. How long will it be before Alaphilippe, like others before him, decides that he’s had enough of the belittling and opts to move on?