“I said ‘Tafi, you shut up. If you listen, I will teach you how to win. If you don’t, you can look for another team.’”
Patrick Lefevere is recounting the infamous 1996 Paris-Roubaix, that of the Mapei 1-2-3. He was calling the shots from the team car and decided that the strongest would win, Johan Museeuw. But Andrea Tafi wanted desperately to be second ahead of Gianluca Bortolami. So he laid down the law in no uncertain terms.
“What I said happened. Six months later, he arrived in Anderlecht’s stadium at the end of Paris-Brussels solo and I said ‘do you remember Paris-Roubaix?’ And then he won Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours, Flanders.”
Lefevere has broadly been teaching that lesson for the last 40 years. He was a mediocre professional cyclist from the West Flanders city of Roeselare who retired young and became a renowned team manager.
In the glory years of Mapei and Quick Step, he was the man with salt-and pepper hair who juggled individual egos to contribute to the greatest years of the likes of Museeuw, Ballerini, Boonen, Steels, Bettini and Tafi.
He’s worked with talented riders, shrewd directeur sportifs and moneyed backers. But while cash is important, there are many other components.
In the latest episode of De Kleedkamer (The Changing Room) on Belgian channel VRT, long-time charge Wilfried Peeters mentions his human touch – “if you had problems, he saw it in advance.”
Lefevere himself repeated the words of Johan Museeuw: “When Patrick gave a meeting, you had the impression that nobody was listening, but everyone executed perfectly what he wanted.” According to Patrick, he has never shouted in a briefing.
It’s nearly 20 years since Mapei disbanded, but the squad’s motto – vincere insieme, win together – still shines through in Deceuninck. Witness the happiness of team-mates Stybar, Gilbert, Lampaert and Viviani – all big race winners, all possible Sanremo champions themselves – finishing minutes after Julian Alaphilippe crossed the line in Sanremo.
Regularly, he stacks his teams with strong riders – reasoning that it’s too risky to have just one leader – and gets them to put their egos aside for the greater good. Lefevere’s squad has regularly dominated the spring Classics to the point it’s noteworthy when one of the self-coined “Wolfpack” fails to win a big one.
Especially in recent years, he has proved deft at finding sponsors for the squad too. That’s a driving force for the 64-year-old former bookmaker: he is keenly aware of the people who make up part of this project, that failure to find a backer means up to 75 people could be on the street.
Lefevere is a master of reinvention, whether going from callow DS to CEO of the sport’s most prolific team, finding new companies to bankroll the collective dream or snapping up nobodies who become stars like Gaviria, Lampaert, Jakobsen, Alaphilippe and Mas. And when a rider is past his best, he’s often shrewd at letting them leave for pastures new too. Quick Step lost several at the end of 2017, yet one of their most prolific years followed.
Lefevere is rarely short of confidence or a bon mot too. On occasions, his remarks are ill-judged and backwards. Top of that list was his January 2019 suggestion that the waitress in the Keisse/San Juan mess was motivated by money, an affair for which Deceuninck-Quick Step later apologised. That error will understandably sour some people’s opinion of him.
In the context of his career, it’s far from the most serious storm he’s weathered. There have been eleventh-hour sponsorship searches, an accusation of organised team doping (settled in court), drug scandals for Boonen, Garzelli and Vandenbroucke and pancreatic cancer in 2000. “I nearly died, I thought already that my career was over. Today when I wake up, I go to my work and I’m still happy,” he told me last year in Calpe.
Ultimately, nobody in the sport comes close to Lefevere for protracted success at the top level, nous, man management and bouncebackability.
“I’m very proud of what I did but I’m not above anyone else,” he told me last year. “I tried to do as best as I can. In 20 or 50 years, if cycling still exists, maybe they will mention me but if they don’t, it’s not a disaster. I don’t do this to have a palmarès.
“My whole family is in the car business; they always speak about cars and money. My sister sells 3000 used ones a year. I always say to them: I’m the poorest one in the family but the richest [in happiness].”
Over the coming months the Rouleur team will be making the case for each of the 18 Cycling Hall of Fame nominees. Vote for LeMond – or any of the other nominees – below.