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Offseason Capsule: Quick Step

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We didn’t see any Quick Step Flaws

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In 2018, Patrick Lefevre’s boys put together a season for the ages. What does 2019 have in store? Well, they can’t possibly match last year (can they?) but nothing says Christmas on Podium Café like looking back over the most dominant cobbles season we’ve seen in the modern era.

What we said last year

I’m reasonably pleased with this. I was optimistic about the team surviving the loss of Boonen and continuing to lead the peloton in wins and topping the VDS rankings. I talked up the sprint unit and was optimistic of increased success in the Ardennes, and I also enthused about the chances of many strong cobbles riders between them grabbing a cobbled monument. I was comparatively down on their GC chances and I didn’t see Enric Mas coming. I also missed the sheer onslaught of wins, but I used the word juggernaut, which looks just about perfect.

What we got in 2018

Wins everywhere. Seventy-six of them, if you’re counting at home. Among them were two monuments and thirteen grand tour stages. So you can’t even say they were badge-collecting in the small events. They had, by my count, thirteen individual winners, plus they took the final world team time trial event. I’m writing this with a glass of 21 year old Linkwood to hand, and it really feels like I might also need a cigarette by the time I finish this section. Let’s get into it.

Viviani broke the seal, grabbing a stage of the Tour Down Under. He’d add another sixteen wins through the season (plus track success) including four Giro stages and three Vuelta stages. I’ve covered him enough, anointing him the sprinting belt-holder of 2018 and denying him membership of my 2019 VDS team, so we should move on.

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Next onto the wins list was Fernando Gaviria, who would go on to have a far less successful season than his Italian teammate. He won in San Juan and three times in Oro y Paz but once the season came to Europe he struggled for victories. However, he did add two stages in California and, most importantly, two in the Tour. As the winner of the first stage he pulled on the yellow jersey, so whilst his expectations for the year would have been higher, this was far from a lost season, though it’ll be his last with Quick Step.

Vivian cleaned up in the Middle East but for this team, the spring is the season, and boy was 2018 successful. The boss reflected on it as the spring season wrapped up and I can’t do better than quote him here.

Obviously Quick Step bossed the sport around pretty brutally, no quarter given, for the last month or so. 27 wins in mid-April is a metric fuck-ton of success (I’m told; we Americans still use English fuck-tons). Their string of wins is as follows:

Le Samyn

Dwars door West Vlaanderen

Nokere Koerse

Ham Sandwich

Driedaagse De Panne

E3 Harelbeke

Dwars door Vlaanderen

Ronde van Vlaanderen

Scheldeprijs

La Flèche Wallonne

Liège-Bastogne-Liège

It might be faster to list the misses: Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, Brabantse Pijl, and by the way, Milano-Sanremo, last won by Club Lef in 2006 thanks to Filippo Pozzato. Still pretty damn impressive.

That is a phenomenal list of success. The departing Niki Terprsta takes plenty of credit for it, grabbing Flanders (the biggest prize of all for this squad) to go along with E3 and Le Samyn, but that list of wins was shared by Terpstra, Lampaert, Viviani, Cavanga, Hodeg, Jakobsen, Alaphilippe and Jungels, who wrapped up the spring by winning Liege. Meanwhile, Mas was winning a stage in the Basque Country (as was Alaphilippe) and Schachmann was winning in Catalunya (as was Hodeg). You know, in case you thought they were only interested in an historic annexation of classics and semi-classics.

The rest of the year got quieter, because it more or less had to, but it was far from quiet. Noisiest of the Steppers the rest of the way was Alaphilippe, who grabbed the polka jersey in the Tour, to go with two stages, and he also took out San Seb, a stage of Dauphine and the Tour of Britain (stage and overall) to finish a season that proves he is one of the finest bike racers alive. The team simply didn’t stop winning and will be mentioned whenever we talk about greatest team seasons.

Now, where’s that whisky? I think I need a lie down.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

1st – With a bullet. Seventeen and a half thousand points put them approximately 4,500 points, or a UAE season, ahead of Team Sky in second place.

Top Highlights

1. Terpstra wins Flanders. That must be number one. There are rules, dude.

2. Jungels winning Liege may not have had quite the same significance for the team, but it was a second monument and it was a great moment for a rider who I was beginning to doubt. He’s always had the talent but needed to prove he could win something as his GC efforts have been consistently good but not great. It was a great team performance with Alaphilippe in an entertaining finale.

3. This was the year Viviani put it all together on the road. Pick whichever of his wins you like, but I’ll go for his points win in the Giro. Four stages and a jersey in your home GT is a highlight.

Bottom Lowlights… nah, it’s Christmas. Next three top highlights

1. Alaphilippe deserves a mention on this list. After banging his head on the glass ceiling of a Valverde dominated speciality, he beat him fair and square in an uphill sprint to win La Fleche. With hindsight, that’s probably the moment he well and truly arrived, and it was one we’ve seen coming for a while.

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2. Enric Mas took second in the Vuelta aged just 23, and he got there in part by winning the last mountain stage. He’s one of many on this team who took a huge step forward and were he on any squad other than QuickStep, this would be far higher up the list. He preceded that coming out party with a stage and youth win in the Basque Country, and another youth jersey in the Swiss Tour. 2018 is when he added his name to the list of potential GT winners.

3. Even with double the usual highlights, there’s lots to add (and I feel bad for leaving Gaviria’s yellow jersey off the list) but I need to find room for Yves Lampaert’s win in Dwars, simply because it was a demonstration of superior tactics and brutal strength, and as such it was reflective of the team’s spring, as well as being lots of fun to watch.

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Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Remco Evenepoel, Mikel Honore (Virtu)

Outs: Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Laurens De Plus (LottoNL-Jumbo), Maximillian Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Fernando Gaviria (UAE), Jhonathan Narvaez (Sky)

Renewals: Yves Lampaert, Remi Cavagna, Enric Mas, Eros Capecchi

If I’d done a lowlights section, this would have to be part of it. Terpstra is a huge loss and the team, whilst still deep, won’t be the same without him. Indeed, at the risk of sacrilege, I’d say this will be a more keenly felt loss than Boonen’s retirement.

Schachmann, Gaviria and Narvaez are also all hugely talented and Gaviria in particular could prove a dominant winner for his new team. All four (plus de Plus, a rare and valued domestique at a star team, and a tireless and versatile helper) were the victims of the team’s depth, success, and financial pressures. The team will miss all of them.

The good news is, they’ve retained their most exciting GC talent and the Belgian champion, and they’ve also added the most exciting Belgian talent this millennium. Remco Evenpoel has won everything worth winning as an U23 and has done it with an elan and grit that makes it easy to think he’ll do more of the same as a senior pro. I have no doubt he will, in time. For 2019, though, the two kids coming in (Honore was a stagiare late in 2018) can’t make up for the five guys heading out. Existing talent will need to improve, and we’ll come on to that.

Most intriguing rider

You’re expecting me to say Evenpoel, aren’t you? Not yet. For me, the most intriguing name is Enric Mas. He’s chosen to stay at Quick Step, which is intriguing enough in itself. This isn’t a GC squad, and by losing Schachmann it has moved even further away from being a GC squad. Also departing were Gaviria and Narvaez, leaving just Hodeg as a fellow Spanish-speaker. It is easy to warm to a rider who sticks with his team when many more would have been closer to his comfort zone. The Majorcan Missile Balearic Bullet Spanish Sensation Arta-culated truck young rider has 2019 to prove what he can do as a watched rider in the biggest races, and once again will be doing it with limited support.

For all his 2018 season surprised me, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Mas was turning heads as a junior, finishing second to Frankiny in the 2016 Valle d’Aosta after winning Savoie Mont Blanc, proving along the way that he was a damn competent time triallist as well as a great climber. Whilst he didn’t do anything extraordinary in his first season with Quick Step, 2017 was a good learning and development year and his ride in Burgos (second, behind Landa but ahead of de la Cruz and Lopez) kept him on everyone’s radar.

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2018 was a huge year, and one that just got better and better. His Vuelta ride truly surpassed expectations. I know I was less bullish on him than many of our regulars, but I don’t think anyone saw second place coming. Coming into 2019, his challenges are the typical challenges of the developing rider – continuing to perform when being marked, performing more consistently, and doing it in the biggest races. He has a head-start in that we know he can maintain his form over three weeks, but more riders will turn up on form for either the Giro or the Tour, and we must assume that’s where he’ll be looking.

I’m intrigued to see if he can back up his 2018. My early prediction is that he can in terms of performance but not in terms of results. A year with two GTs, a couple of stage wins and some low top ten performances would be more than solid, and we shouldn’t judge him a failure if he doesn’t return to a GT podium. It is also going to be fascinating to see what happens when his contract is up again next offseason. Can Lefevre afford to keep him, and can he avoid the psiren call of Movistar, or whichever other big climbing squad comes calling? Chances are not high, sayeth the magic 8-ball.

So, what happens next?

This is Quick Step we’re talking about, so we’re dealing in degrees of dominant. They’re going to be good, and at times they’re going to feel ubiquitous. I don’t think they’re going to match their 2018 performances. Comparing this team, with the new Deceunik sponsor to previous iterations may be more useful than comparing to other teams.

  • 2018 – 17.7k VDS points, 73 wins
  • 2017 – 15.8k, 56 wins
  • 2016 – 16.1k, 54 wins
  • 2015 – 12.1k, 54 wins
  • 2014 – 12.5k, 61 wins

You get the idea. This is a team for whom 50 wins looks like a down year, and we’ve plenty of established café dwellers who weren’t entering VDS teams the last time they didn’t top the team rankings. So, where are we pegging this squad for 2019? I’d say the 2015 version is a reasonable template. That team had six riders picking up 1,000 points but none grabbing more than 1,272. Terpstra, Uran, Kwiatkowski, Boonen, Stybar and Alaphilippe kept wins coming in all year but none were dominant individually. Cav won a hatful of sprints and there were semi-classic wins galore, with Strade Bianche and Amstel Gold among the most prestigious, but they didn’t win a monument or sniff a GT podium. Brilliant for any other team. Mediocre for this squad.

There’s lots of reasons to be cheerful for 2019. Gaviria will be missed but I’m extremely optimistic about both Jakobsen and Hodeg who can step up and join Viviani as part of a hugely impressive sprint unit that will keep the victory total high. They’re also both part of a quietly impressive youth movement at the squad, with the likes of Cavagna, Knox and Senechal (as well as the “only 18 and holy crap what will he be like in a decade” Evenpoel) among the under-25s also likely to progress.

In the Ardennes, Petr Vakoc, only 26 and returning to form last year after a horrendous injury is almost as good as a new signing, and a healthy Devenyns gives them a road captain they missed last year. Jungels and Gilbert are great cards to play but in Alaphilippe they have the world’s best Ardennes rider not currently wearing rainbow stripes and picking up a pension. They’re the best team around for those races.

Enric Mas we’ve talked about, and a quiet year of consolidation seems reasonable, whilst the rest of the GT teams will support sprinters, hunt stages, and maybe have one more look at Bob Jungles as a potential breakthrough podium contender. I don’t fancy his chances and think he’ll peak a level below that, but I’m aware I said that about Simon Yates last season.

I’ve gone this far without talking about the cobbles. This squad is still loaded, and it’d be a brave or foolish writer who ruled them out. Gilbert, Stybar, Lampaert, Senechal, Keisse, Declercq and two youngsters or wildcards is a hell of team to trot out. Certainly, any of the first three could win any spring race they enter. On the other hand, Terpstra’s loss will be felt and it is hard to see them having as many cards to play as they enjoyed last year. I think they’ll win some cobbled races, but many fewer than they won last year. Four or five would be a great outcome, and they won’t have an individual favourite for a monument.

The Quick Step boys now have their flaws, but they’re still the deepest one-day team in cycling, and they’ll win 50 races whilst scaring everyone all spring.

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