Quickstep are ringing the changes at the end of this year, but were their performances so bad?
What We Thought Coming In
Mark Cavendish was expected to fight Kittel for all the sprints, and to go to the Tour particularly fired up after his early exit last year. Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh were expected to not make a mess of the cobbles season (which worked out really well). Tony Martin was meant to storm the time-trials as usual while Kwiatkowski was supposed to look cool in his rainbow jersey, and win stuff as well. They had reinforced...very little. There were no big transfer moves, so the team was basically the same as last year.
What We Got Instead
Mark Cavendish's replacement was being lined up four hours and forty minutes after he started his season. The unheralded Fernando Gaviria won the first sprint of the Tour de San Luis by some distance from the Manxman, as we all saw on the wonderful feed provided to us by the Tour de San Luis. Gaviria proved it was no fluke by continuing in the same vein with a win in stage three. Cavendish only managed to overhaul him in the final stage. The year didn't get much better for the Manxman, who had trouble in the Tour de France, winning only one stage, and taking the psychological blow of losing often to the man who he has always claimed superiority over - Andre Greipel.
The classics season started well. The first one hundred-and-ninety kilometres of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was as good a start to a classics season as anyone could hope. What happened for the next ten kilometres, and the rest of the classics season was less pretty. Powering away on the Haaghoek section of cobbles with only Ian Stannard for company, Boonen,Vandenbergh and Terpstra looked certain of taking an Etixx victory. Somehow, it went pear-shaped, with the former two falling off the pace, and Stannard beating Terpstra in a two-up sprint. It was the first of a myriad of second places. Stybar came second in E3 and Roubaix and Terpstra came second in that brilliant edition of Wevelgem and the Ronde. There were other high placings, such as a fourth and a sixth in Dwars and Scheldeprijs. Their only cobbled win was Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. You might notice that none of these results contain the name Tom Boonen. That's because, on the first stage of Paris-Nice, he crashed, and had to skip the cobbles with injury.
After the cobbles however, things took a turn for the better, Kwiatkowski taking his only road race victory of the season in Amstel Gold, beating Michael Matthews in a sprint at the top of the Cauberg. He was then expected to continue his form into the following Ardennes races, but faltered, and was overshadowed by young team mate Julian Alaphilippe. Alaphilippe was a bright spark for the team, finishing on the podium of both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and coming within inches of winning the Tour of California.
Does this sound too much like a damning assessment? Well, it's not meant that way...exactly. The team did manage 55 UCI wins, but a glance at them shows that very few of those were big races, and while that number is far more than any other team, they only place fourth in the UCI team rankings, as very few of them were in particularly big races.
Top Three Highlights
- Alaphilippe emerges
As I've said above, Julian Alaphilippe rode a great Ardennes campaign, with a surprise second in Flèche Wallonne, and a good third after Kwiatkowski's capitulation in Liège, but he also showed his mettle in the mountains with a superb victory on Mount Baldy.
- Yellow in Cambrai
While the cobbled stage of the Tour de France didn't serve up such excitement as last year, it was a successful day for Etixx. Tony Martin knew just what he had to do to grab hold of the yellow jersey, and he did just that, attacking late on to pull on the jersey. While he lost it soon after, not starting stage seven, it was a good first week for the team, with Stybar winning stage six, and Cavendish stage seven.
- Another Classics star?
Yves Lampaert is not a household name, no matter how easily it rolls off the tongue. However, anyone watching Paris-Roubaix could not fail to notice the 24-year-old's presence in the seven-man group who sprinted for victory in the velodrome. A sign of things to come?
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Nieuwsblad mess-up
You don't mess up an opportunity like that. Stannard had no business doing anything but hanging on and grabbing second, but somehow they managed to mess it up.
- Cobble problems
Boonen's crash put a huge dent in Etixx's classics aspirations, and they didn't really gel together too well, with Terpstra and Stybar on similar form. Second place after second place, but no victories.
- Where was Uran?
He had pinned down second place in the Giro, but lost in in 2015, having problems in the mountains, and even when given the opportunity to move himself back up the classification came in the time-trial, he was below his usual standard in that as well. He redeemed his season a little winning the GP du Quebec, but in a year when he was expected to move forward, he took a step back.
Who's coming and going?
In: Marcel Kittel, Daniel Martin, Max Richeze, Bob Jungels, Davide Martinelli, Laurens de Plus, Fernando Gaviria
Out: Mark Cavendish, Mark Renshaw, Rigoberto Uran, Michal Golas, Michal Kwiatkowski
Verdict: Transfer merry-go-round doesn't describe it. As far as sprinting goes, Marcel Kittel, Max Richeze and Fernando Gaviria sound like a formidable line-up. However, the important factor here is Kittel's form. In his 2013 class, Kittel is an improvement on Cavendish, but in 2015 he was sick all season. Gaviria is another big addition - he's very fast indeed. Colombian sprinters! Whatever will they think of next! Daniel Martin in, Rigoberto Uran out. And Kwiatkowski and Golas have gone to Sky.
What Happens Next?
Daniel Martin and Julian Alaphilippe will presumably be Quickstep's leaders in the Ardennes, which to me seems like a very strong tag team. On his day, Martin is very hard to beat, and Alaphilippe has a great kick at the end of races, possibly meaning that Martin might find himself with more freedom to attack earlier, as opposed to his usually conservative style at Cannondale. I'd be interested to see how they approach Flèche Wallonne though, it's Martin's best race of the Ardennes trio, in theory, and both have placed second in the last two editions of the race. Either way, those two should make a great pair for the Ardennes next year.
As far as Grand Tours are concerned, if there's one think the team lack it's a man for the GC. Martin is never going to do any better than a sixth or a seventh, and that's if he manages to get through the whole race without crashing or getting sick. While Alaphilippe won on Mt. Baldy, he's going nowhere as far as GC is concerned either.
Despite what I've said about their cobble prowess this year, they do have the strongest line-up for those Belgian races. Stybar, Van Kiersbulck, Lampaert, Terpstra, Vandenbergh and Boonen are formidable names, and something has got to click eventually...right?
Finally, Kittel, if on form can storm the sprints, and Gaviria can possibly pick up what he doesn't take. Will they regret losing Cavendish? No, would be my answer.