What a year 2019 was for the Steppers. They had the exact kind of dominance you might expect from a team that employs Julian Alaphilippe and a cadre of barely lesser lights. Retaining their form is the name of the game, but given their history there seems to be only so far they can go wrong.
The transfer merry-go-round provides a mixed bag for the Belgian outfit. Gone is Elia Viviani and (the man who I have long maintained is the best leadout guy in the peloton) Max Richeze, alongside Roubaix winner Philippe Gilbert. Enric Mas leaves too, following a season in which he failed to build on the great potential he showed in 2018. Direct replacements for Viviani and Richeze are Sam Bennett and his trusty leadout companion Shane Archbold. There isn’t such a like-for like replacement for Mas: uno mas Mas there is not. Bennett is certainly the red-letter signing but Mattia Cattaneo, Bert van Lerberghe, Davide Ballerini, Stijn Steels and a couple of younger riders are all solid pickups. Overall it seems that Deceuninck haven’t exactly come out ahead from the winter but it may have been a necessary trimming of the wage bill. Mas and Viviani might be good riders to lose as future expectation and possibly unsustainable success respectively may add quite a lot to their value.
Either way, Deceuninck go into the 2020 season with a packed team. Their sprint set-up might be the most formidable aspect of the lineup. It seems as though Bennett should start the season as leader, but Hodeg and Jakobsen aren’t very far behind him and will be only too eager to assume the mantle. This really is a make-or-break year for Bennett: he has wrenched himself free from the Bora-Hansgrohe outfit which didn’t want him at the Tour or Giro, but wanted him at one of their rivals even less, leaving him with everything he could have wanted. Now is the time for him to capitalise. Plural Tour de France stage wins have to be the target and with the sprint field in the state of flux in which it has resided for the last couple of years that is far from a pipe dream.
No dream is too unrealistic for Julian Alaphilippe. A barnstorming 2019 saw him pretty much conquer cycling, winning MSR and thrilling as he did at the Tour de France. This year is all about whether he can continue at a similar level of success or regress to what for him would still be a very impressive mean. In Andrew’s Buy/Sell/Hold paradigm Alaphilippe is probably a sell, just because it’s difficult to see how he could have a better season. He’s skipping MSR and Strade Bianche in favour of a tilt at the Flandrian classics: aiming to widen his palmares as opposed to deepening them is a respectable move and if he were to win Flanders it would jettison him up the legend leaderboard. If Bettiol can do it...
As for the Tour de France is it reasonable to expect or hope for a repeat performance? On the strength of the route alone, maybe but I will warn that even if the race were to suit his attributes to a T, form will be the real decider. GC contenders being dropped on the first climb of the Peyresourde and being condemned to chasing breakaways for a month due to poor preparation happens every single year and a nice goatee doesn’t make you immune. Bottom line, Alaphilippe can have a worse year than last without losing a lot of prestige. He isn’t playing it safe which is making me root for him. Liège seems on the cards for him alongside a rake of intermittent other successes.
Ride the Ronde Alaphilippe may but he can expect a fight for leadership. Quickstep are well-used to the post-Boonen era and it’s impossible to pick out a leader for their assault on the cobbles as of yet. In fact it’s getting harder and harder to pick out a single domestique. All going well they should start the Ronde with Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen (second place in Flanders last year), Bob Jungels (Kuurne winner last year), Yves Lampaert (Double Dwars winner and permanent heir apparent), Florian Sénéchal (Le Samyn winner and fine example of a hardman) and Zdenek Stybar. This leaves only Tim Declercq and Dries Devenyns (far from chopped liver themselves) to carry bottles. That leaves Quickstep in the same odd position they’ve been in for some time now: not having the top guy in the race, maybe not even having one of the top three or five guys in the race but having so many cards that they can just keep throwing them on the table and seeing what works. I don’t spend much time in casinos. Just Go Mental isn’t the subtlest of strategies - or indeed monikers - but both I and Deceuninck are forced to employ it. They have enough viable winners that their maxim must be that if one of their guys isn’t ahead of Sagan and Van der Poel on the road, somebody needs to attack. Having a leader would make no sense because on most days, riding conventionally won’t net that leader anything better than a top five. Everybody in the Quickstep classics setup is going to have to leave their ego in the team hotel. If they do, Quickstep will have another successful classics season.
Then...there’s...Remco. If you
a) were born in the 2000s and
b) have won a World Tour classic
then forgive me if I can’t make any cast-iron predictions about how your 2020 system. Compensation can be secured from the reception desk on the ground floor.
Evenepoel is riding the Giro after a tilt at the Ardennes and a normal calendar of early-season stage races. While guessing at targets Evenepoel might aim for does seem like an attempt to clip his wings, a Giro stage seems like a logical progression in his career. Given that he is, by the most objective measure available, the second-best time-triallist in the world and the Giro contains three such tests, he may easily surpass that. Top tens in the Ardennes are reasonable to expect but (or perhaps as) he will find himself playing second fiddle to Alaphilippe. Then he’s going to go to the Olympics and for all any of us know, discover Strong Zero and win two gold medals. What I’m saying: 1500 VDS points? Possible. 3000 VDS points? Possible.
So, let’s put their 2020 ambitions in the following format: Their bankers, what they expect and what really ought to happen barring injury, their reasonable aspirations, hopes at least a few of which will be realised and their dreams, things that will go right if everything goes their way.
The first banker: Alaphilippe winning a Monument or an Olympic gold medal. He’s expressed an interest in Lombardy, he’s going for Flanders and Liège, it seems almost a fait accompli he won’t win one of them.
Another: At least two big cobbled classic wins. They seem to have gotten their heads around the JGM approach in recent seasons and this is the minimum it will net them.
A third: Sprint wins at the Vuelta. Hodeg and Jakobsen need something to do and whichever is sent to Spain should be the best sprinter there.
The first reasonable aspiration: Bennett to win at least two Tour stages. It’s what they’re employing him for and there is no sprint hegemon to take them away from him.
The second: Alaphilippe to be the face of the Tour de France. Deceuninck exists to sell windows and Alaphilippe is their best billboard. Maybe he’ll challenge for GC but even if not, close to the worst-case scenario is he stage-hunts all race, wins the mountains jersey and lifts his arms twice at a minimum.
The third: Remco to continue his progression into superstardom. Can’t see why not but there have been young sensations forever.
Now for the dreams. Number one: Lampaert, Asgreen or Sénéchal to take a level in awesome and become the Bona Fide Classics Star that Quickstep haven’t had for a little while, on a level with the likes of Van Avermaet. Not likely, but by god it would change the landscape.
Two: Alaphilippe to win the Tour. What I said about this above stands but so does the fact that this is as kind a Tour route as he could hope for.
Three: Knox, Jungels or, fuck it, Evenepoel to be a proper GC contender in the Giro or Vuelta. Knox especially looks like one to watch.
So...that’s it. Look guys, it’s Quickstep. They aren’t going to crash and burn. I haven’t even mentioned the UCI Rankings because we all know they’ll top them like pineapple tops a pizza — to most people’s distaste but it’s happened for a long time so we just have to deal with it. With Bennett’s win on stage one of the TDU the crusade has already begun.