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Cobbles Baby! Quick Step Preview

[warning: written late at night...] [scrubbed...]

The key question facing Patrick Lefevre's boys is, how many? How many wins can they chalk up in the 14 Belgian races coming up in the next two months? And how many riders can score wins?

This sounds like hubris, but in the world of Quick Step, it's pretty straightforward business. This is a team built for April, and by extension March, and aside from Bettini's exploits or maybe Boonen's summer sprint campaign, that's about it. Lefevre isn't especially apologetic anymore about building the sport's most one-sided squad; from his interview with Cycle Sport, it sounds like he's through trying to win grand tours. Which means there is a lot of pressure on the whole team right now... but that's life in Belgian cycling anyway, and if and when they back it up, it'll be something to see.

A few facts...

  • Quick Step are not the team with the biggest budget; they're #2, at $11 mil or so. But Bettini and Boonen are #2 and 3 for individual salary. (Cycle Sport)
  • Time to revamp the Pro Tour? For all their classics success, Quick Step finished 13th in team rankings last year, behind such big-budget squads as Saunier Duval. In 2005, it was 12th. But both years they won the Tour of Flanders and Lotto didn't, so who cares?
  • In the last two years, Quick Step have won five of the ten monument races (MSR, Flanders, Roubaix, Liege, Lombardy).  Except for Liege, they've won each race at least once. Last year three different QSI riders won monuments (unprecedented??). Lotto, in that time, have no monument wins.
  • MSR winner Filippo Pozzato is gone, but by hiring Peter Van Petegem the current squad now includes winners of eleven monuments, and three of the last four Flanders tilts.

Quick Step brings star power to the cobbles, but incredible depth too, which is why their control over the peloton throughout March and April is reminiscent of Postal's hold on the Tour in the Lance days. They might let someone away occasionally, like Gilbert's gallop in Het Volk, or become passive at lesser goals like Brabantse Pijl, but all eyes are on Lefevre's boys at every big Belgian race. And when it's a priority, like Flanders, Roubaix, E3 Prijs, etc., they're heavily favored and any other result is a major upset.

This year will be no exception. Boonen will pick his spots despite being talked up as a favorite every time he starts. Last year they were E3 Prijs, Scheldeprijs, Flanders, Roubaix, and maybe Milan-San Remo, until Pippo got away. This year he will share the spotlight reluctantly at Flanders with teammate Bettini, though the desire to become only the second rider to win three straight Rondes will drive him. He may ramp up for a showdown with Petacchi and Pozzato at San Remo. And he will want to win his hometown Scheldeprijs.

Bettini, meanwhile, has talked only of Flanders. But more so than Boonen perhaps, every time he takes the line he is sure to be marked, the price of the Arc-en-Ciel jersey. Bettini is unpredictable, and so too will be the team's intent to set him free. When he's on, he rightfully strikes fear in opponents, already on the defensive in the presence of Boonen.

Peter Van Petegem seems to have lost a step in the closing meters, but showed great strength making the finales of both Flanders and Roubaix last year, his only meaningful targets. Now Van Petegem is freed from the responsibility of leadership, or maybe flung into an unfamiliar supporting role, depending on how things shake out. Boonen has said that Van Petegem should be the favorite for Flanders, because everyone will be marking the two younger stars. Personally I think he's trying reverse psychology, hoping Hoste and Ballan and Pozzato will feel compelled to chase Van Petegem as he softens up the field with attacks. It would be hard not to mark him, though.

Oh, and Gert Steegmans will be around to tow all of them to the front and chase down anyone foolish enough to try anything. He may also pick off a lesser win in March. How do you stop a team with this depth? It takes an unstoppable individual effort, like Fabian Cancellara's gallop to Roubaix last year, something to which nobody has an answer. Otherwise, Lefevre and his charges will be in complete control, all the way to the line. I'm predicting their best spring in years.

On second thought, while Bettini makes Boonen more dangerous, I can easily talk myself out of expecting the Cricket to win anything of consequence. I'm not sure there's a race where he would be THE favorite. Liege? Not with finishers like Cunego and Valverde around. Flanders? Last year Boonen looked utterly invulnerable, and he's a better sprinter. P-R? Get serious. His best bet is Milan-San Remo, but all of Italy will be sitting on his wheel. So the pressure is on Boonen and Van Petegem to finish out P-R and Flanders if this is to be their year.