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Offseason Capsule: Bell Lap for Quick Step in the Era of Tom

The Face of the Franchise is taking one last shot at the classics, but the team charges on.

2016 Paris - Roubaix Cycle Race Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Every year Quick Step is one of the teams that we feature early on in our Offseason Capsules. Because every year they are interesting, entertaining, maybe even fascinating. No exception this time around. If anything, this is a team about to evolve.

Tom Boonen is retiring, in case you hadn’t heard. Boonen, the winningest classics rider of his time and maybe ever (depending on how you measure such things), has been the symbol of this team since he came to it in 2003. Without looking, I’m going to say that his service to his team is the longest-running rider-squad relationship in the sport at present (beating Valverde by two years). That plus the stature of the man has made him the face of the franchise for a long, long time. In that time the team has looked pretty similar from year to year. Those two things are probably related, if not exactly Boonen’s fault.

This year it ends. The franchise will have a new face, or maybe several, and will be freer (in our minds at least) to evolve into something different. Maybe they will, and in fact maybe that’s already begun. But maybe “different” is really just splitting hairs.

What We Thought Coming In

Conor had the honors last 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.

That was certainly the story going in last year, and before too. Etixx-Quick Step, as they were known the last two seasons, did a reasonable job of covering their bases, particularly in the classics (duh) and bunch sprints, with some glimmers of hope in the climby races. It generally added up to a respectable points haul, albeit one that could sometimes feel empty in summer.

But it’s been a bit of a broken record too. Despite the fact that [...]-Quick Step have led the world in victories every year since HTC folded, the sameness of the seasons has been a bit of a downer at times. And it didn’t seem like the script had changed much for 2016.

What We Got Instead

A veritable explosion of results from their young talents, one that threatens to transform the team’s identity as the old guard relinquishes control. Certainly the exploits of Julian Alaphilippe and Bob Jungels vastly expanded the map for the team, putting them on the front of races like the Tour of California and the Giro d’Italia (in the same week, no less), races that one might not have looked to them to control beforehand. I suppose Gianluca Brambilla merits a mention here too, though more as a stage hunter who might have a jersey land on his back if things break right... as they did in the Giro.

This in itself is pretty damn exciting. Yes, the team did find itself supporting Rigoberto Uran to a second place in the Giro in 2014, but Nairo Quintana had the win in the bag, and that serves as their lone result in a grand tour since the heady days of... er, Levi Leipheimer taking third in the Tour de Suisse? That’s a grand tour, right?

Petr Vakoc saved face for the team with his Brabantse Pijl win and Boonen’s return to excellence at Paris-Roubaix made for a Classics campaign that can’t be bemoaned too much, except maybe in Belgium. Kittel won enough races to keep the team atop the world victory rankings, and checked the stage-win box at the Tour. So the team arguably got most, if not quite all, of what they paid for. Lots of teams would feel pretty OK about themselves after a season like that. I’m just not so sure Quick Step do.

Individually, Julian Alaphilippe built masterfully on his breakout 2015 campaign, doing everything but win in most of the big puncheur/grimpeur-friendly one-day events, while threatening several one-week tour classifications and taking home the top prize in California. Vakoc launched his own breakout with an early-season ambush of wins, and some quality work all the way to autumn. Fernando Gaviria was brilliant on both sides of his 22nd birthday in August, taking two stages of Poland and a fantastic win in the iconic Paris-Tours, a result that has to overshadow his misstep in Milano-Sanremo. Bob Jungels forced his way into the Grand Tour GC discussion with a terrific, surprising sixth at the Giro, strong to the end. None of the riders in this paragraph were alive to see Miguel Indurain’s first Tour win.

Among those who were, things were far less exciting. Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar didn’t quite have things go their way in spring, starting with Stybar’s narrow loss in the Strade Bianche all the way to Roubaix where, after Boonen’s startling second place, the next EQS rider was Matteo Trentin in 36th place. Kittel won a lot, including two Giro stages, which means his career is back on track, but his currency is Tour stages, and his account ended up pretty light. Oh, and Yves Lampaert, barely older than the kids, couldn’t recover his top form in time for the classics after breaking his sternum in Portugal.

Probably the best run by a veteran Quick Stepper was that of Gianluca Brambilla, whose adventurous ways put him in the Maglia Rosa after one stage win, and in the spotlight of the Vuelta after another. The other candidate would be Dan Martin, who came on board for 2016 and was immediately slotted into the Tour de France GC role, one he executed with a personal-best ninth place, including second on the first Pyrenean stage. I’m not going to write the “Next Stop: the Podium!” post as a result, but Conor might.

Top Three Highlights

  1. Paris-Roubaix. Yes, I know Tommeke didn’t win, but coming inches from history, as speculation swirls about his eventual retirement, is a pretty fair end to the season’s most exciting day. Later wins in Ride London and the Brussels Classic hammered home the point: Boonen wasn’t done.
  2. Jungels in Pink. What was remarkable about Jungels’ Giro campaign wasn’t so much that he took a second-week turn in the leader’s jersey -- someone has to wear it, and before the race reaches the northern provinces there are lots of candidates for the honor. But once he got there, Jungels set about showing us that, even if he couldn’t keep it, he could stay in contention and hold his own for the full three weeks. Once his deficit hit seven minutes, Jungels pretty much stopped the bleeding and hung tough to the end as others fell away. Very few people saw him in this light before May. Dan Martin’s ninth place in the Tour could slot in here too, but I’ll go with Jungle Bob since he’s got more years and presumably more improvement left.
  3. Gaviria in Paris-Tours. This year’s fall sprinters’ classic was bunchier than some recent editions, but Gaviria bossed it like a true classic, launching from over 500 meters and opening up a huge gap that he held to the end. Proving that assumptions about how sprinters’ classics are won by sprinters don’t always hold true. Nor did any assumptions about Gaviria’s class, which were selling him short for much of the year after the MSR mess. He’s top shelf. And young enough to call his racing-likeness Oscar Freire “pops”.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. Stage 1 of the Tour de France. Narrowly edging stage 6 of the Tour, as both stages featured expensive import Kittel pipped by recently cast aside import Mark Cavendish. Did this one moment undermine Lefevre’s offseason plan in its entirety? I don’t know about that: both Cav and Kittel came in with question marks, and Kittel at least had the Scheldeprijs to point at as evidence on his side. But this sprint did pretty much end the team’s hopes of holding the Yellow Jersey at some point.
  2. Tour of Flanders. Since it’s such a barometer of their season, and since they hit the Oude Kwaremont with Tom Boonen going backwards, yeah, this wasn’t good. Boonen has said this week that he actually was suffering from fear of crashing, a residual and startlingly normal consequence of his terrible fall in Abu Dhabi the previous season. One apparently rather effective counseling session later he was back on form (scroll up to the highlights list). But the thought of Tom Boonen, of all people, fearing the cobbles is pretty arresting.
  3. Gaviria comes a-cropper in San Remo. Some close calls have upside, but there was nothing to savor about the young Colombian sprinter, making it to the end of his first Primavera, with quite possibly the best sprint of anyone hanging around the top ten or so places of the slimmed-down peloton, as they approached 500 meters to go. One moment of inattention later, poof! his day was over and Arnaud Demare was raising his arms. Matteo Trentin had done brilliant work to hold things together, and Gaviria himself had played his cards exceptionally well up to that point, bridging to Van Avermaet and Boasson Hagen to put himself in prime position.

Comings and Goings

Clearly a single sad note here, as Tony Martin is taking his talents to Katusha, albeit on a strong note as EQS defended its World Team Time Trial status and Martin himself scored a rainbow he can actually keep for next year in the ITT. Also on the way out are Stijn Vandenbergh, who could have made it in the NFL as a pulling guard if he’d been American. He’s off to AG2R. Guillaume Van Kiersbulck will take his not very helpful “mini-Boonen” rep to Wanty to see if he can evolve his career under perhaps more reasonable expectations.

Incomers are headlined by Philippe Gilbert — more on that in a sec — and Jack Bauer, who can maybe lend a hand in the classics by taking Vandenbergh’s spot, after today’s news that Classics team sizes won’t be slimmed down to seven riders just yet. Eros Capecchi and Dries Devenyns provide additional depth, and a trio of kids from Klein Constantia — Enric Mas, Remi Cavagna and Maximilian Schachmann — will try to catch Lefevre’s eye.

Outlook for 2017

There will be no shortage of drama in the spring, as Boonen is sticking to his plan to hang up his bike once he climbs off in the Roubaix Velodrome (assuming he makes it there). Obviously the team will round up the usual suspects, hopefully with Lampaert as well, and try to dominate the spring, with its iconic captain going off into the sunset in a blaze of glory, and other cliches. I don’t want to say much more on that right now. My doctor says I should avoid unnecessary excitement to prevent high blood pressure.

On the grand tour front, the expectations for a Martin-Jungels-Alaphilippe assault might come in a bit high, and the inevitable focus on the Tour will be another step up for Jungels, possibly a very steep one. It might be reasonable to look for clues for the future instead of results in the now. That alone would be a positive development for Team Quick Step, as they’ll be known next year.

That leaves about another 200 days on the calendar where something good can happen, and the best news for Lefevre and co. is that they will be positioned to contest just about everything else under the sun. If you think Kittel is a temperamental sprinter from central casting who needs to be carefully dropped off in the last 50 meters or else, well, so what? Where that’s possible, QS will do so and reap the rewards. Elsewhere they can launch the emerging force of Gaviria, possibly as soon as Gent-Wevelgem (where he was sixth last year), if not earlier in Dwars door Vlaanderen, or even earlier as he atones for his last visit to Milano-Sanremo. I might be the first (and last) to call him the next Oscar Freire, but if I’m right, Lefevre will be over the moon.

Oh, and finally there are the other classics, the ones with hills. What’s left of Philippe Gilbert’s career is the overarching question. BMC paid him a ton of money for past performance, like when Brett Favre went to the Vikings, which almost worked. Now it sort of feels like when Favre went to the Jets, and everybody completely forgot about him. Still, in his beloved climby classics, Quick Step will launch riders from all sides like Voldemort’s army of deplorables attacking Hogwarts in the last movie. Hopefully with more of a future in the offing, regardless of the results.

I guess I’ll close by just observing that the Lefevre project is a clear message for how the sport really works. No matter what theme you want to assign to a team, even this one which is such a target for assumptions about how they operate, cycling teams are pretty simple in how they really work. You get as many of the best riders you can and try to win every race your guys are good at. When you are Quick Step, you have to overcome those assumptions, which the fans hang on to and which riders themselves maybe self-select when it comes to picking a team, and try to be more than a Classics squad. Thankfully they have a huge budget. Because whatever you think about this team, every day after Paris-Roubaix is another one where they get out of bed looking for a race to win. And every day in 2017, from January to October, they’ll have a fighting chance at something.