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Back Pocket Previews '09: Quick Step

[Has it been a month since the last of these? Damn, February is crazy-busy...]

Back-pocket-2_medium Is there an easier team to pigeon-hole in all of cycling than Patrick Lefevre's Quick Step-Innergetic outfit? Every year they target the same race, they bring (mostly) the same big names, the sponsors are something of a permanent fixture, and they haven't substantially altered their kit since 2006. Even their CQ ranking tends to fluctuate between all of second and fourth. Consistency.

Quick Step are the national team of Flanders, if not quite all of Belgium. They have a mix of nationalities, but it's all basically in support of Tom Boonen and the classics and sprint squads. Of the outsiders, typical is Sylvain Chavanel, a Frenchman, who makes his name these days on... the cobbles of Flanders. Each year Lefevre tinkers with the roster -- out goes Steegmans, in comes Chavanel -- but the formula doesn't really change; if anything it simply gets stronger. This year the squad is even more one-dimensional, with the retirement of Paolo Bettini and departure of his protege Visconti.

None of this is news... so let's hunt around and see if there is anything interesting to say about them. Don't get your hopes up.

Attributes: Hm, nothing here. If you don't know where they excel, you're on the wrong website. I will say that Lefevre is doing a decent job of regenerating talent. Wouter Weylandt has been grooming for the second slot after Boonen (remember, he's only 24), while Kevin Seeldrayers and Dario Cataldo might be the future of the Ardennes team, circa 2012. Lefevre also likes to have a veteran plan B and C around Boonen, and it's something of a revolving door (Devolder, Chav, Steegmans, etc) but there's always someone to fill the spot. Picking up Allan Davis was shrewd as well.

Problems: I almost don't see Lefevre getting out of the box he's in. Visconti, like Pozzato before him, fled when it was time to take a starring role. Just as the cobbles guys come in as if hauled to Lefevre by a tractor beam, so too do the climbers tend to duck out the back door after a few years of Quick Step money and some anonymous work in big races. To be fair, Lefevre did try to hire Stefan Schumacher... nah, let's not go there. Anyway, here's something interesting to consider at least: Who decided that Quick Step can only be a cobbled classics squad, Lefevre or the rest of the cycling world?

Key Rider: Chavanel. Yes, it all starts and ends with Tom Boonen, but the Emperor of Mol is rock-solid consistent each spring and summer (last year's personal issues aside). Chavanel can help Boonen help Quick Step improve over the 2009 campaign in several ways. First, he constitutes a big-time helper to Tom, or seriously threatening distraction to other teams, throughout the Flemish classics season -- much more so than Stijn Devolder, who seems a tad more independent. Better still, Chavanel's attacking style makes him a candidate to score some wins (like, oh, I dunno, Paris-Nice?) early on, before Vlaamse Wielerweek. And finally, Boonen will need all the help he can get in July if he wants to regain possession of the Tour de France points jersey, so a veteran Frenchman like Chav has an awful lot to offer.

Key Moment(s):  It's often said that their entire season hangs on whether or not they win the Tour of Flanders, so April 5 is the easy answer. But another one would be, oh, Saturday, July 18. On this day the Tour comes to a halt in Besançon, after five days of lowland grinding or light climbing. If Boonen is in green by this day, he'll almost certainly keep it. If it's close, the final day on the Champs Elysees could be rather explosive.

Passing Thought: Can a single team be truly great at more than one sub-discipline of cycling? Riis' CSC and Saxo teams have tried, and made the strongest case at crossover greatness. But often it seems a team that excels in one area pushes out the guys who bring something else to the table. A similar example to Lefevre's teams would be the Bruyneel machines. Rarely did Postal/Disco win in single-day races, and not for lack of effort. George Hincapie won Gent-Wevelgem, but while Bruyneel tried to build a classics team around Hincapie, Hoste, Boonen and Gusev, eventually they all left (except the abandoned Gusev). Now that Astana have ascended to the top of the stage racing world, there is less and less of a classics team in Bruyneel's stable.

Obviously a single team can do it all, if you spend your roster spots wisely. But as a practical matter it's highly unlikely, thanks to the free market. Cycling's contracts are just fluid enough to allow assets to move around when it's really, really valuable for them to do so. And any one distinct asset is going to be more valuable in a space of its own. In other words, guys like Tom Boonen mean more to Quick Step (the team and the sponsor) than he ever would mean to Bruyneel's team as yet another big winner. Once a sponsor makes a huge name for itself on the back on a single champion cyclist, there is noplace to go but down, and paying another champion's salary doesn't gain them much. So the big chess pieces keep moving around the board, away from each other. Only at Saxo or Columbia do you see big collections of talents across the board... and those only work for so long, until the individuals start really winning big and demanding a space for themselves. How long did Sastre last with CSC after winning the Tour, a month?

There is one exception: pure sprinters -- you can keep Cavendish and a huge classics or grand tour squad without offending the fastmen, who tend to only need a helper or two and whose victories don't overlap with anybody else's objectives. In the past, teams like T-Mobile had no difficulty maintaining a grand tour squad and Erik Zabel's points chase simultaneously. IMHO sprinting is a smaller subset of the sport, a very cool show but never really equated with classics or grand tour overall success.