Every year there are a few top cycling teams facing existential funding issues, for which a solution may or may not exist. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and a need for the teams and their riders to be thinking of contingency plans. All of which would make for tremendously entertaining cycling blogging if we could have nice things, like contract information in cycling. But we persist, regardless.
I’m sure there are other teams to discuss in this vein, but by far the most important is Quick Step. The Belgian classics powerhouse has long been one of the sport’s pillars, and certainly the most entertaining of the top teams. Quick Step are currently swinging for the home run financial backing they need to make it all fall in place for another run, and there are... what? murmurs? ... that it will happen. Perhaps it won’t, but since that doesn’t make for much of a post, let’s assume it does, and that Quick Step retains its stake in cycling’s second-flashiest neighborhood, the comfortably well off area outside the gates that separate them from Sky, Katusha and BMC.
Last week Cycling Weekly had a story about Quick Step’s budget, suggesting that the team would cobble something together to carry on even if a new big-money sponsor did not appear, but that certain contracts coming up at the team meant that the roster itself was at a crossroads. This fundamental direction issue shouldn’t be news, since obviously the team’s most notable “era” ended in April, but until we know what the new and (maybe) improved Quick Step team looks like, it’ll be fun to speculate into that void.
The first question (posed by Cycling Weekly) is what to do with riders whose contracts are up within the team. The biggest one (psychologically speaking) is Tom Boonen’s deal that expires and isn’t being renewed no matter how many Flemish fans are camped out in his driveway begging him to come back. [No, I am not in Belgium right now.] Then there’s Marcel Kittel, Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Dan Martin and Julian Alaphilippe among the next level of stars. Apparently Fernando Gaviria and Bob Jungels are also up for renewal. Basically, the team was built to disappear after 2017 if nothing happened on the sponsorship front. And even with an infusion of cash, the Quick Step we’ve known lately could be gone.
Three contracts I’d say goodbye to are Gilbert, Kittel and (reluctantly) Alaphilippe. The temperamental Kittel might occasionally be the fastest man on Earth, but otherwise isn’t worth a fraction of his cost and is already just keeping the Tour de France sprinter’s seat warm for Gaviria. On that subject, Gaviria is one of the most essential signings. Following his dominant Giro d’Italia, Gaviria is poised to be the next big thing in points competitions and maybe the classics, at the ripe age of 22. CW thought he was as good as signed, however, so there’s no need to debate what should happen there. I will note, though, that Quick Step is his first pro team in Europe, and there’s a special bond that forms — in all sports — with your first big breakthrough team. Until it’s inevitably poisoned by money, but for now they should and probably will make a serious commitment to the Colombian. Kittel, an import, can be cut loose at will.
Am I being too dismissive of Kittel? He had one lost season at (now) Sunweb but regained his footing for Quick Step, who know how to get value out of a reliable top-end sprinter. The German also contributes to the team time trial squad that won a world title last October. I just think he’ll have more value to someone else with money to spend than he would on a Quick Step team that’s remaking itself around Gaviria. And also, Kittel’s past performance isn’t something anyone wants to pay for going forward.
Which brings up Gilbert. Paying for past performance is the biggest sin in sports team financial management, but it happens all the time because of the lure of big names, and cycling teams are even bigger suckers for big names, since their job is to get attention as much as it is to win. Gilbert got paid a formidable sum by BMC for what he did at Lotto, and only the team’s absurdly deep pockets saved the contract from dragging the whole team down. Now he’s been revived in his single season at Quick Step. I don’t know why -- you can speculate all you want about why he can’t just keep his spot on the classics pedestal — but Gilbert rediscovered his top form this spring and has delivered (is still delivering) a memorable season.
I’d offer him a one-year deal. First, the Belgian character of the team is lacking, and while national origins aren’t as big a deal as we like to think, it’s not nothing at Quick Step. Secondly, Gilbert riding for his next contract seems to be one of the few things you can maybe count on. Or, put another way, the Gilbert who wasn’t riding for a contract was one of the worst deals in the sport for the last several years. He’s exactly the guy you don’t pay. But at 35 he might accept one year at a time, and it’s hard to imagine too many teams competing for his services.
Yves Lampaert remains in the fold, I believe. I see that he signed a contract in 2016 and the default is two years. Given his win this spring, if he isn’t under contract with Quick Step for the next season, he should be. Presumably the price isn’t exorbitant, and he’s a homegrown talent as far as the team goes.
Alaphilippe is the toughest call, but I suspect other teams will make it an easier one. He’s a young French ace for the classics and short stage races, who might be a team contributor in the Tour de France, or at least an exciting stage hunter. He turned 25 yesterday, so if there are bigger things in his future, we’d better start finding out pretty soon, but the package of established skills is already enough for Quick Step to probably get outbid. They should make him a reasonable offer, but he’s not vital enough to the team’s future to pay him like a grand tour guy.
Terpstra and Stybar are the other tough calls as far as retaining existing riders. Both are north of 30 but neither so old (Terpstra just hit 33, Stybar 18 months younger) that they can be expected to fall off a cliff in terms of performance. Both were on the podium of monument classics in April, with Terpstra third in Flanders and Stybar second in Roubaix. I’m not aware of any buzz on either rider, which might be a sign that they aren’t tremendously in demand. If Lefevre can get at least one if not both on a reasonable deal, he probably ought to do so.
The question that hangs over that decision (or pair of decisions) is who is the next classics star, and once we know that, is Quick Step a destination for them, or should the team be directing its gaze elsewhere? It’s impossible to imagine them choosing to be irrelevant on the cobbles, and relevance is what you get immediately from Terpstra and Stybar, with Gilbert and Lampaert the wild cards. It all worked brilliantly enough this time, and that’s with Terpstra stuck in a car after his steerer tube doodsmak’d him. But that’s a short-term plan, and you can guarantee Lefevre would consider a long term alternative.
So the question then becomes, who can you add to the team. For my money...
[Ahem! Excuse me Chris.]
For my money I’d...
[This might be a good point to ponder your FSA DS performance and insert a disclaimer.]
Sigh. OK, I am having a horrendous season with both my main board team and the Editors’ League. So anything you read from here on about roster construction must be taken with a lot of salt. I’m not very proud of any of this.
Moving on. Who are the next big Belgian cycling hopefuls? Tiesj Benoot and Jasper Stuyven have more or less arrived, or are threatening to at least, but both are signed for next year with their current teams. As is the current star of the scene, Greg Van Avermaet, who I can’t picture ever leaving BMC considering their financial freedom and commitment to the Olympic champion. The other two might want to assume the Mantle of Tom when the time comes, but that’s pure speculation for now.
If Quick Step want to add more firepower (particularly on the young side) to their classics squad, they should take a hard look at Dylan van Baarle. Cannondale will probably make him a good offer, but they are usually dealing with a small budget. I have no idea what van Baarle’s priorities are; it’s possible that Vaughters is ready to give him complete leadership, which Quick Step can’t match, and the money will make sense to stay. And maybe Benoot is worth waiting two more years for (or one more for Stuyven). Oliver Naesen is another rider who is off-limits now but maybe an option in a year. Gianni Moscon was supposed to re-sign with Sky, but if his suspension for racial abuse scuttles that (and isn’t too much for Lefevre to stomach) he’d be a good addition assuming he’s mended his ways.
Finally, there’s one big classics star who is most definitely available... after his current team told him they had lost interest. That’s Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, and wasn’t it not that long ago that he was the most dominant rider of the spring? Dear Patrick: do not sign Alexander Kristoff! Unfortunately it sounds like a thing that can happen, given the last two times when a top Tour de France sprinter type became available, except neither of those was worth the headache, and this one won’t be either.
On the grand tour side, it’s hard to see where Quick Step can reasonably deposit any available funds in a way that would change their fortunes. Fabio Aru could be had, but it’s hard to see what he would do for them unless and until he ups his game to “legit Tour contender,” which isn’t happening. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet both have another year on their current deals; Bardet makes some sense but we will see how pricey he gets. Both Yates brothers are in the same boat. Ilnur Zakarin is available, if Katusha can’t get him on board, though between the Russian locale and their money supply that seems like no great change is on the horizon. Louis Meintjes is up for renewal too, though I’m not sure what to make of that either.
Without a shot at a Tom Dumoulin perhaps the Quick Step future should continue to keep the Tour hopes on the back-burner. The Colombian connection could pay dividends eventually (Nairo Quintana has two years left on his deal at Movistar), but until a legitimate contender comes along, or they can grow one of their own, that goal just seems out of reach. [And yes, I know Dan Martin is still here.]
Alright, that’s as far as I can take this hypothetical exercise. Feel free to come up with your own version.