When newly-crowned World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski walked into the Omega Pharma-Quick Step service course this morning to gather for the daily training with his team (I know, but work with me), he undoubtedly encountered an interesting reaction from his teammates. Two of them, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish, trotted over and welcomed him to the club. They informed the young Pole of receipt of a simple "bravo!" from Paolo, a long-time Stepper now coaching Italy. Tony Martin came by, showing his "emeritus" stripes earned from three time trial Rainbows, and Niki Terpstra reminisced with Kwiatkowski about the double-rainbow winning TTT squad that had been largely broken up last winter. Zdenek Stybar checked in to moan a bit about how rarely he gets to wear his rainbow colors. He was shouted down by the mechanics, who all remember his two earlier years on the cyclocross circuit in the arc-en-ciel, and who reminded him that they just repainted his Czech national champion colors on his training day bike.
What? Riders don't hang around the Service Course like a locker room on the days in between races? Oh well. The life of a cyclist is far less interesting than one's imagination would like to believe. They live at home, they go for long, lonely training rides, and when called upon to race, they hop in a van or a plane, get dropped off at a hotel, and the team bus takes over from there. Lather, rinse, repeat. But I'm getting sidetracked from my primary point.
Which is this: if you're a young, strong rider in almost any discipline and Patrick Lefevre calls with a contract offer, why on Earth would you turn it down? I can think of a couple reasons: if your main skill is blocked, e.g. you think you're the next Cavendish but probably won't get to show this as long as the original one is around; and if you're a potential grand tour winner... provided you have an offer from a more Tour-focused squad. Because even here, there are possibilities. Anyway, chances are, you don't say no. Chances are, you instruct your agent to make it happen, STAT.
The Quick Step machine, while temporarily and somewhat spectacularly displaced by the Highroad Project, is quite simply the place for winners. Since flipping the millennial calendar, Quick Step/Mapei/Omega Pharma have finished ranked #1 in the world in victories seven times, and are about to make it three straight this season. That's seven times in fifteen years, and as a reminder there are 18 World Tour teams, most of whom haven't sniffed the top win total even once. When not on top, from 2003-11, Lefevre's charges spent four years in the top quartet, sandwiched around a disappointing three year run from 2009-11 when Highroad stole their mojo. [It seems hard to believe that they once finished with a mere eight wins.] The best way to characterize the team is that they grew out of the Squinzi juggernaut, ably extended their run, then rode Boonen for a while til he was revealed to be human after all, and after losing their way, they reloaded after bottoming out in 2011, tying for the top spot in 2012 (including a virtual clean sweep of the cobbles), followed by two more seasons of extended, slightly improved excellence. Their 61 wins (so far) this season is the best for the franchise since 2000.
Even sheer numbers -- a mixed bag for Highroad -- do not mask a lack of quality at Quick Step. If anything, champions come in too many different forms to emulate. The World Champions are all readily acknowledged as stars of the sport: Boonen, the record-setting classics rider; Cavendish, the record-setting sprinter; Bettini, the clever Cricket whose Monuments resume is among the best. Between them and Kwiatkowski they hold half of the last ten world titles. The individual and team crono crowns are a different species, but nothing to sneeze at. The abilities against the watch come in handy when guys like Kwiatkowski and Martin are racking up world tour points.
There are the other champions. Niki Terpstra, coming off a Classics season where he book-ended wins at Dwars and Paris-Roubaix. And really, as classic after classic reinvents itself out of awesomeness, is venerable Paris-Roubaix less of a palmare than a world title? If you answer in the negative, then you might like to know that five of the last ten editions have gone to Lefevre's charges. And you might be casting a longing look at Stybar, the team's next big threat. Is the Tour of Flanders a better marker? Don't get me started... but instead dwell on the fact that Quick Steppers have again won five of the last ten, barely missing a sixth (Chavanel in 2011). They win even when all eyes are upon them. They lose occasionally to Fabian Cancellara or the odd one-off champion, but mostly, they win.
Rather than prattle on about their palmares, suffice to say that their record suggests something different about the team and the way they race. They take risks, usually calculated ones. Kwiatkowski took a big risk when he departed the field yesterday with seven kilometers to go, gambling on the type of disorganization that ensued and enabled the Pole to win gloriously. Not that he was riding for Quick Step; if anything, that would be Team Belgium, though of course they were really riding for their BMC blokes more than anyone else. Nevertheless, if Kwiatkowski hasn't learned his instincts from his time at Quick Step, he's certainly doing a pretty good imitation of those who have. Terpstra's long Roubaix run was reminiscent of what Boonen -- accused of sitting in for a sprint -- did two years earlier when he rode nearly 60km alone. In between Stybar was the aggressor who drove the 2013 race, until a mishap with a spectator stole his considerable thunder. Earlier it was Stijn Devolder taking off two years in a row in Flanders, the first a stealth attack, the second too obvious to miss, and yet the other 22 teams missed it anyway. When Chavanel almost won, he was the Stybar of the group, pushing onward and barely missing out. Years ago Pippo Pozzato attacked early at the end of Milano-Sanremo to upstage Boonen. The common thread here is that you can afford to be aggressive when you have so many weapons. OK, fine, but BMC (for example) have no shortage of weapons, and we rarely see the same level of aggressiveness or success. Garmin have loaded up on the classics in the past, and mostly missed out (except when they didn't). So have plenty of others. When Lefevre pushes his chips to the center of the table, most other teams fold.
There are limits to how far one should go in attributing Kwiatkowski's win to his time on his trade team. But the progress is unmistakable. The flowering of Kwiatkowski's career began in earnest at the 2012 Tour of Poland, where he was given leadership in a somewhat-comfortable environment, racing in his home nation against a World Tour field. He finished second behind Moreno Moser (remember him?), then battled the sprinters in the ENECO Tour for an eighth place. In 2013, at age 22, the wraps came off, and Kwiatkowski was a full-fledged threat for the Ardennes Classics, taking fourth and fifth in Amstel and La Fleche after a strong Tirreno-Adriatico promised a good run of form. At his first Tour de France he went stage-hunting, and on six occasions he finished in the top ten, along with second in the team event, and ended up eleventh overall on a course that suited his skills (heavy on time trialing quality). A year later, those near-misses became wins, with overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve and Strade Bianche to start the season. I guess you could focus on the might-have-beens on his resume from this year: second in the Pais Vasco, third in La Fleche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, second in the Tour of Britain. But it's his age-24 season, and he's truly been killing it all year long.
When Kwiatkowski broke away and made Polish cycling history, he did so with a reserve of confidence many riders would envy. He didn't do so with his usual teammates ready to strike if he didn't make it, but after being brought along just quickly enough to succeed wildly along the way, he probably assumed the boys were with him in spirit, smiling back in the pack or shouting at the telly at home.
This is what extraordinary development looks like. The vast majority of the credit goes to the rider himself, but save a decent serving of credit for his team. Rider after rider goes to Quick Step and finds success. Young guys, specialists, veterans at the crossroads, and so on. They know how to spot talent and work with it. They're not the only team that can do so, but in a crowded field, to achieve so much success, it shows that they're among if not alone at the pinnacle of the sport in achieving success.