We hardcore cycling nuts spend a lot of hot air educating the masses about the FACT that cycling is a team sport. [And then someone wins the Tour in a time trial.] The classics do a good job of driving this point home, particularly in years where for whatever reason the races get aggressive and team tactics become easier to spot from the race broadcast helicopter. If you have cards to play, and you use them well, you can win the classics.
In the era dominated largely by Tom Boonen, team tactics have been downright devastating... or they were, until Fabian Cancellara became impossible for any team to control. Let's take a quick run through the Boonen Years and look at the team that made him as great as he was.
2002: US Postal Service
Key Teammates: George Hincapie, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Benoit Joachim
Stats: 17 wins (t-20th), no classics wins.
Rival Teams: Er, a bit awkward since I'm not sure USPS were seen by anyone as their rival. But for reference, Mapei still existed, which is to say they dominated the victory totals, and Lotto-Adecco were the Belgian alternate. Telekom and Rabobank were in with a shout.
Power Plays: Yeah, no. Hincapie and his young protege were the entire presence for the team, with Big George getting taken to the cleaners at the end in Flanders (Tafi attacks... and attacks... and attacks again, finally going solo) and Young Tom cleaning up the team's mess in Roubaix. In Gent-Wevelgem the team did fine but simply couldn't reel in Cipollini in the sprint.
Verdict: Boonen was still a kid, so for him and Hincapie to get past large, veteran teams was too tall an order.
2003: Quick Step-Davitamon
Key Teammates: Johan Museeuw, Frank Vandenbroucke, Paolo Bettini, Nick Nuyens, Luca Paolini
Stats: 24 wins (9th), Het Volk, Milano-Sanremo
Rival Teams: Telekom, Lotto-Domo, Alessio, etc.
Power Plays: Nothing notable. QSD had riders near the front but not in numbers. Vandenbroucke, enjoying a brief revival of his early promise (or at least staving off his tragic end), got unleashed in de Ronde but beaten on the line. Boonen wasn't quick enough to finish off Gent-Wevelgem, or avoid the photographers' well. And Servais Knaven was their lone rider within a shout of the front of Paris-Roubaix.
Verdict: This was the calm between the storms. The eye of the Patrick Levefre hurricane. Others were free to move about. Peter Van Petegem did the Double and forever introduced Brakel and his magical facial hair to the world. Just a weird moment in time.
2004: Quick Step-Davitamon
Key Teammates: Knaven, Bettini, Museeuw, Nuyens, Paolini
Stats: 46 wins (1st), Brabantse Pijl, E3 Prijs, Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs.
Rival Teams: T-Mobile, US Postal, Lotto-Domo. Lotto went into reloading mode as Van Petegem dropped off dramatically. Wesemann scored his big win in de Ronde and Zabel was still strong, but otherwise they were minor players.
Power Plays: I'm going to take something of a pass here. Obviously they swept the semi-classics, unless you count Hincapie's overall win in Driedaagse de Panne. Gent-Wevelgem video is lacking but from the results list Boonen had Museeuw, Knaven, Nuyens, Cretskens and Bodrogi all up there with him. Beyond that, I can't say much.
Verdict: The pieces were falling into place. Boonen the klassikoer was still a work in progress, but if it came to a sprint he was the favorite, and he usually had enough support to deliver him to the line.
2005: Quick Step
Key Teammates: Bettini, Nuyens, Knaven, Kevin Hulsmans, Paolini
Stats: 37 (4th), Omloop Het Volk, E3 Prijs, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix
Rival Teams: Discovery Channel, Davitamon Lotto, T-Mobile. The stakes started going up with the rivals, as Discovery picked up Leif Hoste and Stijn Devolder. Lotto were still pretty leaderless as PVP finished out, but the pieces were in place for later and they nabbed Davitamon as their big $$ sponsor from QS. Klier and Zabel led the Germans.
Power Plays: I'm not sure I'd say anything they did qualified as an outright power play. Boonen's monumental wins were won at the end on his own. I'm sure he had help getting and staying in position though.
Verdict: The best you could say is that nobody else had critical mass, and Boonen was so strong and so fast that he himself represented the center of power throughout the classics.
2006: Quick Step-Innergetic
Key Teammates: Bettini, Steven de Jongh, Nuyens, Filippo Pozzato, Wouter Weylandt
Stats: 45 wins (2nd), Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Milano-Sanremo, E3 Prijs, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Rival Teams: Discovery, CSC, Davitamon-Lotto. CSC are the newcomers, formed in 2005, and adding Cancellara to Breschel, O'Grady and Kroon leads to immediate results. Lotto and Discovery are status quo.
Power Plays: De Ronde, where Bettini had begun talking up his chances of winning, and he stood guard for Boonen with Pozzato and Serge Baguet when Hoste made his fateful/fatal move. The presence of a lot of guys made it hard for Hincapie, among the favorites, to simply go bounding after Boonen. A week later, however, Boonen gets isolated and Discovery are the ones in charge. Well, of everyone except Cancellara.
Verdict: Not a great year for team tactics, but Boonen is good enough in the sprint to salt away a bunch of wins regardless.
2007: Quick Step-Innergetic
Key Teammates: Baguet, de Jongh, Bettini, Weylandt, Gert Steegmans, Peter Van Petegem
Stats: 38 wins (t-2nd), K-B-K, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Prijs
Rival Teams: CSC, Predictor-Lotto, T-Mobile. CSC were as loaded as ever. Discovery announced it was finished at the end of the season. Lotto poached Hoste from them, paired with Johan Van Summeren.
Power Plays: From QSI, very little. Van Petegem did not really feature as he wrapped up his career. Weylandt was coming into his own as the team sprinter, which helped out Boonen quite a bit, but in the race it's telling that the guys in position at Paris-Roubaix were Matteo Tosatto and Kevin Van Impe, and nobody in the Flanders breakaway.
Verdict: CSC were the ones making the power plays that year. Boonen's boys were hardly weak; it's just cycling. Sometimes things come together nicely and other times they don't.
2008: Quick Step-Innergetic
Key Teammates: de Jongh, Stijn Devolder, Steegmans, Weylandt
Stats: 45 wins (3rd), K-B-K, Nokere Koerse, Flanders, Roubaix
Rival Teams: Columbia, CSC, Silence-Lotto. Columbia were an incredible assemblage of talent -- Hincapie, Boasson Hagen, Eisel, Hammond, Greipel, Cavendish and so on. They were a bit too young to really destroy the sport, but 77 wins is nothing to sneeze at.
Power Plays: The ultimate power play! Devolder had been in the all-important penultimate-hour break, putting CSC (primarily) on the defensive. Even two years before his confirmation, Cancellara was viewed as a major threat in Flanders, one Lefevre obviously took seriously. Cancellara and Boonen marked each other all day, while Devolder launched once -- and drew an all-star response from Hincapie, Ballan and Flecha -- then got caught and countered with a solo move from the Eikenmolen, some 20km away. The following week, CSC were quick to cover Devolder's probing attacks in northern France, and eventually launched Cancellara, only for Boonen to follow, ride stronger, and win the sprint.
Verdict: There has been a few volumes' worth of argument about the Devolder Ronde wins, but few would say he didn't deserve this one. Anyway, the spring campaign was the ultimate Quick Step master class, where you pick your poison one week, and die, then try the other one a week later, with the same end.
2009: Quick Step
Key Teammates: Devolder, de Jongh, Sylvain Chavanel, Allan Davis.
Stats: 24 wins (t-9th), K-B-K, Dwars, Ronde, Roubaix, Le Samyn
Rival Teams: Silence-Lotto, Rabo, Columbia-HTC, Saxo Bank, Garmin-Slipstream, Cervelo Test Team. Lotto nab Philippe Gilbert, staving off total collapse. Columbia crush everywhere but the cobbles, though Boasson Hagen took an epic Gent-Wevelgem and in general the team had HUGE talent. CTT got hot with Haussler and Hushovd. Garmin started sneaking into the conversation with Maaskant notching two fourths in the monuments. Really, this was probably the most competition QS had faced since the Boonen days began.
Power Plays: A two-man support job this time, as first Chava takes the break to the Muur, and then Devolder attacks the front of the pack over the top. And then, a week later, Boonen did the work for himself. [Possibly out of anger.]
Verdict: This was a definite milestone year in the team's development, with some of the old guard (e.g. Bettini) leaving and Lefevre stocking up with guys who could actually stand in for Boonen. Chavanel was a great signing, providing value right away. But it has to be said, they got immensely lucky both times. The Ronde group was weakened by Cancellara's withdrawal, and in Roubaix if Hushovd could stay on his damn bike, who knows how that one would have turned out?
2010: Quick Step
Key Teammates: No major changes
Stats: 17 wins (t-16th)
Rival Teams: Saxo Bank. And to a lesser extent, HTC, BMC, Rabo, Garmin, and Lotto. Saxo won Dwars (Breschel), E3 (Fabs), Ronde (Fabs) and Roubaix (Fabs), while HTC took Gent-Wevelgem (Eisel) and Garmin the Scheldeprijs (Farrar). BMC were just starting out. Gilbert was capable of anything, and a year away from his own milestone.
Power Plays: None. There simply was no way to check Cancellara at this point. Also, the Devolder-Boonen dynamic had officially turned into a problem. Stijn always apepared to be a loyal teammate, but the temptation of three straight Rondes began to change that as he began to talk up his own chances for the first time. Which led Boonen to talk them down, and Lefevre to chastise Devolder in the papers, particularly when he had a poor run-up to the classics, and fell flat in them.
Verdict: In a way this year was a few years in the making. Two years before, Boonen was probably stronger than Cancellara, but the Swiss Bear was gaining strength and was held back by luck in '09. Breschel too was in top form, while QS just got older. Part of the problem is that it's hard to be on top for so long. But a much bigger problem -- still a big problem -- is that the rest of the world had discovered the cobbled classics by now. Foreigners won every single event until the post-Roubaix Brabantse Pijl, taken by Seb Rosseler... who had just left Quick Step.
2011: Quick Step
Key Teammates: Steegmans, Chavanel, Iljo Keisse, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar. Adieu Stijn.
Stats: 8 wins (t-50th), Nokere Koerse, Gent-Wevelgem
Rival Teams: Garmin-Cervelo, HTC, Sky, Leopard-Trek, Rabobank. The CSC/Saxo implosion was a major shakeup, with Breschel going to Rabo and Cancellara left a bit on his own (but Saxo getting the last laugh in Flanders anyway). Garmin and CTT merged, and the argyles nabbed stalwart Joahn Van Summeren from poor ol Lotto. And then the usual litany of strong teams without a major threat to win, unless you still counted Pozzato and Ballan as threats to win. Vacansoleil nabbed Devo to go with Leukemans and Marcato, which was... something.
Power Plays: I'm going to stretch this a bit and credit Quick Step for some powerful defense. By now Cancellara had passed Boonen by, and the onus was very clearly on Leopard to make the race, but Cancellara was simply surrounded by everyone with an interest in winning, and no escape route. Well, one, the long launch, which he tried in Flanders but drew an alert and very strong Chavanel for company. By the end of Paris-Roubaix, which Summie stole from the front group, Cancellara got downright pissy about his situation, but it's his own damn fault for signing with the Schlecks.
Verdict: Year One of Life After Tom. Not Life After Tom literally, just Life After TOM! and the team did well to get on a podium. Also the move to hold Boonen back from E3 (then not WT) so he could go after points in G-W (WT) paid off with a win there. Doing the best with what they had.
2012: Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Key Teammates: Chavanel, Keisse, Grabsch, Stybar, Terpstra, Tony Martin
Stats: 51 wins (t-1st), all the classics. All of them.
Rival Teams: Pfft. Well, Lotto got smart and hired Andre Greipel once HTC shut down, staving off yet another disaster from losing their sponsor to Quick Step. Layopard morphed into Radioshack-Nissan, but that didn't bring Cancellara any relief. Garmin, Rabo, Sky... usual suspects. BMC became a solid classics team with Ballan, Hincapie, Gilbert and Van Avermaet. They were probably the second-strongest, but not fully baked as a unit.
Power Plays: 2012 will be remembered for sunny weather, Classics coming down to bunch sprints (all won by Boonen), and of course the greatest escape ever, Boonen's power play in Paris-Robuaix. Actually it was a two-man attack with
Chavanel Terpstra (by now feeling maybe he was worthy of his own moment), and Boonen topped his lieutenant by going alone shortly after. This was winning from the front, an answer to Cancellara's whining about how everyone was out to get him the previous year. There's always a way out of the box, you just have to know when it happens. I don't know if this was a team thing or just brilliant instincts by Boonen.
Verdict: There will always be the asterisk next to it, with Cancellara having only been on hand for the first two drubbings, but Boonen put his mark on cycling history, and had largely himself to thank.
2013: OmegaPharma - Quick Step
Key Teammates: Chavanel, Stybar, Terpstra, Martin.
Stats: 55 wins (1st), Driedaagse de Panne
Rival Teams: Fabian Cancellara. Also a new guard of Cannondale (re: Sagan), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and the hordes from BMC. Lotto were hanging on with Greipel and Jurgen Roelands. Sep Vanmarcke's move to Rabo/Blanco was good for Blanco, if not Sep.
Power Plays: None to be had. Boonen crashed out early on and the field was cleared for Cancellara to do his thing.
Verdict: Boonen's loss and the team's lack of results without him signaled another changing of the guard was due. Not so much through transfers though. Stybar and Terpstra were both looking increasingly like major options for the next season. And reality suggested Boonen wouldn't be around much longer, not at his old level.
2014: Etixx-Quick Step
Key Teammates: Keisse, Stybar, Terpstra, Mark Cavendish, Guillaume Van Kiersbulck
Stats: 62 wins (1st), K-B-K, Paris-Roubaix
Rival Teams: Cancellara still, and still alone. Tinkoff-Saxo, Katusha, Giant-Shimano. Degenkolb's Gent-Wevelgem win was a hint at things to come.
Power Plays: Definitely Paris-Roubaix, as the team missed out entirely on the moves in Flanders. The race stayed together after the major cobbles, but Lefevre had Stybar -- now in his second display of excellence in Hell -- along with Boonen and Terpstra, so when Terpstra attacked with 6km to go, it was pretty standard tactics. But it also worked. Oh, and before then Stybar had sat in on an all-star attack featuring Sagan and Vanmarcke, which Terpstra and Boonen eventually reeled in.
Verdict: The team was fantastic, but Boonen could be heard grumbling about his teammate taking a win instead of him. Sure, it was aimed at their rivals, who sat on him, but you could sense him sensing a changing of the guard, or at least the sand running out in his career's hourglass.
2015: Etixx-Quick Step
Key Teammates: Stybar, Terpstra, Vandenberghe.
Stats: 54 wins (1st), K-B-K
Rival Teams: Katusha, Tinkoff, Giant, Sky, Lotto, BMC
Power Plays: None to be had without Boonen. Stybar got second in Roubaix, brilliantly enough, but EQS wasn't holding all the cards anymore.
Verdict: The torch is in need of passing. Stybar is the team's worthy successor by now, and Terpstra a wildcard co-leader as well. This was a year without Tommeke, and while it didn't go well, it was the team's new reality.
The metaverdict here is that Boonen has almost always had an advantage over his rivals in his team support. Patrick Lefevre is unparalleled as a game-manager, along with his lieutenants (who probably deserve a ton of the credit). And roster-building? The best. Year after year they are #1 in wins, and that counts for a TON in Belgium. But there's also some luck involved. Taking on Stybar and in the process gaining Bakala money was a shrewd move that became a million times shrewder when Stybar blossomed into a brilliant rider all around. I doubt they were counting on that happening.
Still, with all the team support, Boonen has shown time and again that he was the strongest guy, capable of winning even without that special edge. His instincts have also gained him some great times (and cost him a few others). So you can't point to his team and discount Boonen's record. But you can't point to Boonen's record and discount the brilliance of his team either.