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Offseason Capsule: Quick Step

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No Boonen – no problem?

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2017 saw the final year of a storied career, and the Quick-Steppers move into 2018 without their totemic leader. They still bring a loaded team into the new year as they seek to maintain their dominance.

What we said last year

As far as my search shows, we didn’t cover them in a capsule last year. That seems wrong, and I’d be thrilled if someone could dig a capsule out of the archives. I know Conor picked them up a couple of years ago and we certainly talked about them plenty on the run-in to the season. In essence, we spent a lot of time worrying about who would be leading their squads in various races given the sheer number of one-day leaders they brought in. We hoped for a big year from Boonen, contemplated a breakthrough for Alaphilippe and considered the newly mountain-ready Dan Martin. We wondered what the future would look like, as represented by Jungels and Gaviria.

What we got in 2017

We got a team who were top of the FSA-DS rankings for the fifth consecutive season, which is pretty impressive. According to PCS, they wrapped up 56 victories, which is a pretty big number too. This was a big season – let’s take a quick swing through it.

The first win wasn’t the most illustrious, with Jack Bauer claiming the Kiwi TT nats. In San Juan, the team showed early form with wins for Richeze, Boonen and Gaviria, whilst Kittel took the overall and a bunch of Dubai stages. He was still winning in Dubai and Gaviria took his fast wheels to the Algarve, but the home fans weren’t interested until we got to opening weekend in Belgium. That wasn’t quite so hot for the team, but Trentin picked up a couple of top tens and Gilbert flashed some early form (hey, look! This right here is a journalistic technique known as foreshadowing; he actually had quite a big year).

As the calendar moved into the March tune-ups for the classics, Julian Alaphilippe enjoyed an excellent Paris-Nice, picking up a win, a 2nd, and the green and white jerseys, as well as 5th overall. In Tirenno, they picked up a win through Gaviria and the white jersey and a TT 2nd through Jungels. Alaphilippe would then prove his outrageous strength in sticking with Kwiatkowski and Sagan in the finale of Milan-San Remo to pick up a third.

The good news continued back in Belgium, with Lampaert winning Dwars ahead of Gilbert, who was also second in E3, before he won the three days of De Panne. The race that every Quick-Step season revolves around, of course, is Flanders, and Gilbert, as the form man in a loaded team, was sent up the road. He went early and it looked like a brave sacrifice, but a tumble for the chasers left him clear for an unexpected win to cap a spectacular cobbles season for the veteran rider. Terpstra added a cheeky 3rd to cap a great day. Paris-Roubaix didn’t quite bring the same glory but allowed Tom Boonen to ride off to a well-earned retirement, whilst Zdenyk Stybar picked up another 2nd in a race that seems to suit him perfectly.

The Ardennes squad was just as impressive as the cobbles squad, but they ran into a one-man wall of resistance called Alejandro Valverde. Dan Martin finished second to him in both Liege and Fleche, but there was still glory to be had, with Gilbert (who else?) kicking off Ardennes week with a win in Amstel.

Any other squad would consider that quite enough winning for one year, but the Grand Tours were still to come. They managed to win 16 stages across the three grand tours, a frankly absurd record. Gaviria (four Giri stages), Trentin (four in La Vuelta) and Kittel (a dominant five in France) led the way, but there was glory too for Jungels in Italy, and in Spain for Lampaert and Alaphilippe.

Were one to quibble with the season, it would be in the lack of a big performance in GC terms at the GT races. Jungels paced the team with 8th in the Giro and 42nd in the Vuelta. The former, his main target, brought victory in the youth competition but it never felt like a competitive performance; he climbs well but is yet to climb with the very best. The counter-quibble, however, came with Dan Martin’s performance in the Tour. Since moving to Andorra he’s worked to improve his performance on the longer mountain passes and his consistency, and the evidence of 2017 is that this worked. Despite losing time when brought down in the Porte crash, he finished 6th, a best-ever performance for the Birmingham Bullet and one that raises real promise for 2018 (when he will be riding as UAE’s most intriguing man).

The season ended with another torrent of wins, Trentin carried his Vuelta form to Paris-Tours and Gaviria kept up his winning streak, with his fourth stage in Guangxi representing his 13th win of the year. They also added another podium in a monument, with Alaphilippe the game and impressive runner-up to Nibali in Lombardy.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

1st – They’ve been top of the tree since 2013, and kept their place again, 903 points clear of Team Sky. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make it six in a row in 2018. Seven riders scored more than 1,000 points, and if you guessed in January that Gaviria, Trentin and Gilbert would top their list, you should be writing this instead of me.

Top Highlights

1. Gilbert won Flanders. What do you think is going to top this list?

He rode it for much of the race, by the way
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2. Let’s take Kittel’s Tour. He won 5 races and was unfortunate to leave the race before he could add more to his total. He’s not been the most consistent sprinter, but he was incontrovertibly the fastest man in the world this July.

3. Many to choose from, but I’ll take Alaphilippe winning stage 8 of the Vuelta. After a very promising spring, he will have been disappointed to have missed a chunk of the summer and his home Tour. However, a great win here, coupled with a strong Lombardia and a very impressive Worlds made it a great year. I confess I was slow to board the JA bandwagon but I’m seeking space now. This kid looks like a future world champion and multiple monument winner. He’s not without chances in GTs, either.

Bottom Lowlights

1. A lot of off-the-bike stuff, with continued sponsorship noise and a difficult transfer window (we’ll come to that). Still, none of it was terrible and the fact it tops this list tells you that it was a pretty good year, all told.

2. The chance to win a green jersey with Kittel was real until stage 17. Him dropping out cost them an excellent chance at a win on the Champs and a jersey presentation. Pity.

3. There really aren’t many lowlights to this season. This is the first year that they didn’t finish on the podium of the World TTT, having won in 2016. Let’s go with that.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Fabio Jakobsen (SEG Racing Academy), James Knox (Team Wiggins), Michael Mørkøv (Katusha-Alpecin), Jhonathan Narvaez (Axeon Hagens Berman), Florian Sénéchal (Cofidis), Elia Viviani (Team Sky).

Outs: Jack Bauer (Orica-Scott), Tom Boonen (retired), Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Matteo Trentin (Orica-Scott), Julien Vermote (Dimension Data).

Renewals: Julian Alapahilippe, Tim Declercq, Dries Devenyns, Fernando Gaviria, Philippe Gilbert, Bob Jungels, Iljo Keisse, Yves Lampaert, Davide Martinelli, Maximiliano Richeze, Fabio Sabatini, Pieter Serry, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Petr Vakoc.

There’s a lot of names here. Replacing Kittel with Viviani makes a great deal of sense, as this is presumably a significant saving and provides a sprinter who has demonstrated he doesn’t need a full train. He’ll work around fellow track-star turned sprinter Gaviria, one of several big re-signings. Kittel will be a loss but the budget made it inevitable. Similarly predictable was the retirement of Boonen. No direct replacement, but the cobbles squad is absurdly deep. Martin and Brambilla will both be missed, but the depth of puncheurs is high, and Gilbert, Vakoc and Alaphilippe (again, three important re-signings) will find the field less crowded in 2018. Martin’s loss will be felt more strongly as a GT rider, and whilst Jungels has been kept, the list of legitimate GC contenders is pretty short.

There’s no way to hide the fact that the riders leaving are a stronger group than the riders coming in. However, this was a loaded squad and will continue to be competitive throughout the season, and a simple list of ins and outs ignores the continued development of the riders who remain with the team. Additionally, a review of the names that were renewed shows how hard it would have been to keep the departing riders, who quite legitimately sought big money elsewhere.

The signings of Jakobsen, Knox, Narvaez (this kid is going to be something special, I think) and Morkov help to maintain strength and quality throughout the squad and contribute promise to a much younger team than might be expected (14 of the riders for 2018 are 25 or younger). Most importantly of all to me, they’ve signed Senechal, in whom I have the highest confidence. I still believe he’ll win Paris-Roubaix one of these days. For this year, though, they’ve stayed strong and deep, and have stayed young.

Viviani and Senechal are already enjoying 2018 in QS blue
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Most intriguing rider

There’s plenty, but I’m going to go with Fernando Gaviria. He’s winning already this year, and has proved he’s quick on the road, as befits a track world champion. I, for one, didn’t see him beating Ewan in flat sprints at the Giro, and 26 pro wins at 23 is a heck of a record. Marcel Kittel has moved on, and he’s in line to race the Tour. He’s young, quick, and has graduated from the track to sprint on the road for a big world tour team. Impressive, yes, but not intriguing.

You know what is intriguing? Two top tens in Gent-Wevelgem, the first as a 21 year old. A planned entry into the Quick Step team for Flanders and Roubaix. What appears to be a genuine enthusiasm for riding on cobbles. The guy is a 23 year old Colombian. They don’t normally enjoy this stuff.

Chris talked in our latest podcast about the need for new names to come into the cobbles and join Sagz and GVA at the top of the tree. There’s plenty of possible names. Indeed, many of them are riding for Quick-Step. However, if you want me to point at a potential heir to Boonen on the current QS team, I have to point at this guy. 2018 will be a big year for Fernando. I can hear the drums. (Sorry.) He’s either going to have a look at the toughest cobbled races and go back to bunch sprints, with occasional forays into Milan-San Remo and Scheldeprijs, or he’s going to go full Boonen. As a PdC editor, I think you know what I’m rooting for.

You find me intriguing, you say? That’s... intriguing.
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So, what happens next?

This is basically the same answer we give every year, but with slightly different names. There’s a loaded squad gathered and, whilst the focus will be on the cobbles of March and April, there’s enough talent to win all year round.

The cobbled team once again looks like a lot of potential winners without a dominant leader, but if I told you that any of Gilbert, Terpstra, Stybar or Gaviria would win a monument before Easter, you wouldn’t be surprised, right? Throw in Lampaert, Senechal, Serry et al and you have the deepest team on the cobbles, again. They’ll be active in every race and will pick up a few wins.

The Ardennes squad may be missing Martin but Gilbert, Alaphilippe and Vakoc (the latter was a forgotten man last year after an impressive 2016) are a strong trio and will challenge in all of the hilly races, especially if Valverde isn’t back to his best after injury.

The sprinting and stage-nicking units will go nicely all year, with Gaviria and Viviani leading the way, but the depth provided by guys like Devenyns and Morkov has always been an underrated strength of this squad. They probably won’t match 16 GT stages, but they’ll win their share.

The question mark is over their GC contention. That’s the Achilles heel, and that is what might undermine their attempt to finish top of the season rankings yet again. Without Martin, they have Jungels and… some promise. Jungels needs to have improved his climbing to be a real podium threat, and I have him in the “very good, not great” category until he proves me wrong. Going to France will be tough. Alaphilippe is another question mark, as we haven’t yet seen him try and lead a squad over three weeks, and it might not be his thing. On the other hand, punchy week-long races will be well within his grasp. After that… back to stage-hunting.

We’ll see this team lead the way in victories. Despite losing some big names, I think we’ll see them lead the way in points and rankings, too. The juggernaut rolls on.