Twelve months ago, I was at a Calpe hotel for the Quick Step team presentation, wondering where on earth the wins were going to come from.
They had lost Tom Boonen the previous spring to retirement, prolific sprinters Marcel Kittel and Matteo Trentin sought pastures new and Dan Martin left for UAE-Team Emirates.
I saw it as a team in transition, lacking a talisman. Mentally, I derided their A-team as they lined up on stage. Gaviria and Alaphilippe: worth a few wins, granted. Elia Viviani: talented and consistent, but not the best sprinter. Philippe Gilbert, 35 and on the way out. Niki Terpstra… well, he’s forgettable Niki Terpstra, isn’t he?
Mea culpa: they proved me completely wrong. With 73 wins, it was their best haul in years. Alaphilippe rose to the challenge of leading the team in one-day races, while Gaviria debuted at the Tour with two stage wins and Viviani plundered sprint victories at the Giro and Vuelta. Perhaps most unexpected were the results of up-and-coming riders like Enric Mas, Max Schachmann, Alvaro Hodeg and Fabio Jakobsen, showing the outfit’s strength in depth.
The twist was that such success couldn’t prevent a fight for survival. They sought a sponsor to replace Quick Step’s input before a PVC windows company from Lefevere’s home town of Roeselare came up trumps.
They’ll hope for the same number of wins, even if the name’s changed: “Deceuninck – but as long as you buy my windows, I don’t mind [how you say it],” their CEO Francis Van Eeckhout said, giving a lesson in pronunciation.
Team principal Lefevere (above) is aware that 2018’s prolific tally could be a rod for their backs, saying “we cannot say we are going to do it the same … we stand for winning, but we also stand for quality … if we win twenty less, we’re still the most winning team.” There was a comic pause before he added to his riders: “That doesn’t mean you have to be winning less, boys!”
The magic trick the squad keeps repeating is cherrypicking and development of fresh talent into winners while simultaneously letting go of riders who are past their best and/or go on to have inferior seasons (Kittel, Trentin, Tony Martin, Chavanel etc.). Deceuninck-Quick Step may have lost Gaviria and Terpstra for 2019, but they’ve had it worse.
Their collective mood betrayed no pressure. The morning’s training ride was led out by Julian Alaphilippe, hitching a ride on a motorbike for 50 metres with his bike. “It’s better like this,” he said. Management no doubt hope he’ll be going like one in the Ardennes Classics.
While there was a bevy of press in Calpe for hyped neo-pro Remco Evenepoel, it’s worth keeping an eye on sprinter Fabio Jakobsen in 2019. Sports director and trainer Tom Steels reckons the 22-year-old Dutchman is only a year or two away from winning Tour de France stages. “The first training camp, we did some exercises for the sprint train, and then I really noticed his talent, that he was kind of a rough diamond,” he says.
“He had incredible speed in his legs, he could really accelerate. I saw the power output and he was really standing out, this is one of the guys you don’t see often.”
Steels, Jakobsen, Lefevere and company will all be hoping it’s just a case of different team name, same number of victories in 2019. Whatever happens, I won’t be making any more predictions about Deceuninck-Quick Step.