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Can Quick-Step find the ‘next Tom Boonen?’

Long before Tom Boonen skidded to a disappointing 13th place at his final Paris-Roubaix, Patrick Lefevere’s Quick-Step Floors team was headed for a profound identity crisis. Flemish cycling’s new hero Greg Van Avermaet is at BMC Racing, with little hint that he will ever switch squads. So for the first time in its history, Lefevere will not have Belgium’s biggest rider in his roster.

Lefevere also faced the loss of his star in 2004, when his original franchise player Johan Museeuw bowed out at age 38. Back then, the line of succession was clear. Boonen won E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem that spring. Museeuw closed out his career with a quiet 77th place at Scheldeprijs. At the other end of that race, arms raised in victory, was Boonen. The king was dead. Long live the new king.

Of the young Flandriens who would and could usurp Boonen, none wear Quick-Step blue. Jasper Stuyven, fourth at Roubaix, rides for Trek-Segafredo, as does Edward Theuns, who was eighth. Tiesj Benoot, who has stacked up top-10 finishes in major classics since the age of 21, has been with Lotto-Soudal practically since the cradle. This year’s cobbled revelation Oliver Naesen rides for Ag2r La Mondiale.

“There is only one Tom Boonen,” says Quick-Step sport director Wilfried Peeters. “He’s a big champion, like Museeuw and Merckx. We are not trying to find a new one. There isn’t another Tom Boonen, and everyone knows that.”

With no successor to Tommeke in its current lineup, Quick-Step will need to look to its foreign legion for success, even in the Flemish races that have traditionally been the stomping grounds of the squad’s home guard. Yes, Philippe Gilbert won this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen in the Belgian champion’s jersey. At 34, his time is limited and the circumstances of his victory are rare. Gilbert’s likely successor for glory in his favored Ardennes terrain, Julian Alaphilippe, is French. The team’s top cobbled contender Zdenek Stybar is Czech, and its remaining Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra is Dutch. Its reigning top sprinter Marcel Kittel is German and its rising sprint star Fernando Gaviria is Colombian. In total, Lefevere’s team features riders from 13 different nations and has the talent to win not just the northern classics, but in sprints, in the mountains, and in stage races.

Without Boonen, will that quality lineup be enough to assure the team’s future? That was the big question coming out of the northern classics.

“I don’t want to paint it all doom and gloom. We are talking to the current sponsors and new ones,” Lefevere said with his gravelly voice. “But there is no deal yet.”

“There is only one Tom Boonen. He’s a big champion, like Museeuw and Merckx. We are not trying to find a new one. There isn’t another Tom Boonen, and everyone knows that.”
– Wilfried Peeters, Quick-Step director

HOW DID QUICK-STEP, its image so often wrapped in the Flemish flag, not secure an heir apparent to Boonen’s throne? Without being party to budgets, offers, negotiations, and motivations, it is difficult to know for sure. While Lefevere has always excelled at recruiting established talent both domestically and abroad, and forming it into a disciplined, cohesive unit, the team has abdicated on rider development in recent years, particularly in its own backyard.

In 2014, Lefevere’s team ended a four-year relationship with the Belgium-based EFC development team run by 1980 Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Michel Pollentier. The club produced Quick-Step’s winner of this year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, Yves Lampaert, among several dozen other Belgian pros. Since its divorce from Quick-Step, the all-Belgian squad has become a feeder program for Trek-Segafredo.

Quick-Step also established a Prague-based development team, most recently sponsored by winemaker Klein Constantia, after Czech entrepreneur Zdenek Bakala purchased the WorldTour team. That program produced Alaphilippe and Petr Vakoč as well as current Quick-Step neo-pros Remi Cavagna and Enric Mas. The squad did little to advance Belgian talent, housing just four Belgian riders before being shuttered at the end of last season.

By contrast, Belgium’s other WorldTour squad, Lotto-Soudal, has run its in-house U23 program for more than a decade, producing more than 30 professionals in the past five years alone. Developing Belgian talent is a core value for a team that is effectively sponsored by the national government.

“It’s not an obligation, but it’s a pillar. It’s an important part of our vision to develop talent and to try to integrate it in our WorldTour team, but also into Belgian cycling [in general], because the national lottery is also a partner of the Belgian federation,” says Lotto-Soudal spokesman Arne Houtekier.

Now, with the changing of the guard underway in Flanders, Lotto-Soudal is reaping the rewards of establishing relationships early on. Of the 19 Belgian riders on the Lotto-Soudal WorldTour roster, nine are products of its development team, including rising stars Benoot and Tim Wellens. While wealthier teams like Quick-Step can afford to buy more established talent, modestly budgeted Lotto sees the money it spends on development as a good investment in the long run.

“To work with that budget, it’s easier to transfer talents from the development team to our own [WorldTour] team. For sure the first few years they are a little bit cheaper than buying riders who are already cycling stars,” Houtekier says.

Even when there is no formal relationship between a development team and a top squad, the relationships between riders, sponsors, and directors can secure talent. Axel Merckx, owner and director of the Axeon-Hagens Berman squad, said he has regularly informed bike sponsors about top talent in hopes of creating relationships for the riders.

“I give them a little run down about the athletes I have, but at the end of the day, those athletes are free to go wherever they want,” Merckx says. “My only wish is that they consider and are respectful to the fact that people and companies like Specialized and Trek are investing in development, and that it doesn’t go unnoticed by those riders.”

Stuyven, whose spring performances could see him sharing leadership with John Degenkolb next season, was one who did notice those investments.

“Back when Jasper [Stuyven] made the jump from development to WorldTour, I know that Quick-Step wanted to be in contention to hire him,” says Merckx, who directed Stuyven at the Bontrager-Livestrong development team (now Axeon-Hagens Berman). “Jasper decided to stay with Trek and signed with them as a personal choice.”

CASTING A WORLDWIDE NET has made Quick-Step one of the sport’s top teams, one that notched 22 wins through the close of the cobbled classics season — the most in the WorldTour. But it has not yet landed a home-team successor to Boonen, one who will keep the home press and fans engaged for the decade to come. When home fans are the source of your budget, having that rider might be more important than ever.

Since the team’s inception, Lefevere had managed to draw sponsor funds not just from the limited pot of Belgium or even Flanders, but from West Flanders. A 50-kilometer bike ride from Gent can take a rider past every one of Quick-Step’s past and present title sponsors, from Etixx just south of the ring road in Merelbeke, west to Omega Pharma (and longtime team supporter Marc Coucke) and subsidiary Davitamon in Nazareth, on to Quick-Step Floors in Wielsbeke, and north to Innergetic in Tielt. They were all on a first-name, handshake basis — the business associates came with corporate dollars clambering for Boonen. Sponsors loved the VIP treatment that Lefevere dished out at team training camps, at the classics, and the Tour de France.

Now, without Boonen, the Flemish purse strings seem tighter than they once were. In February, Lefevere announced that while he was negotiating with Quick-Step, he had yet to secure a title sponsor for the team past 2017, and needs to find 15 million euros to keep the doors open. Angel investor Bakala, who has personally covered significant funding shortfalls since assuming ownership in 2011, has publicly committed to keeping the team afloat. Lefevere has set a pre-Tour deadline of June 30 to find corporate backers.

“I give myself until the end of June,” Lefevere says coldly. “If I cannot find new sponsorships before the Tour de France starts, I will let my riders go.

“Mr. Bakala has been putting in a lot of money for the team, and that has to end. That cannot go on forever,” Lefevere says. Bakala, however, in an interview with Belgian TV network Sporza, promised the team will ride on in 2018, unless “I die.”

With most of the native talent — including Van Avermaet, Stuyven, Naesen, Benoot, and Wellens — under contract through at least 2018, Lefevere may need to expand his search radius considerably and rely more on the cosmopolitan makeup of his team than its roots in the Flemish soil to sign sponsors.

“I know, so far I’ve always worked with people in a circle of 20 kilometers around me — people from my habitat,” Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad in February. “But that has grown historically. I’m not blind: Cycling is a reflection of the global economy. China has bought half of Africa, the Arabs have half of football in their possession. My new sponsor might be a sympathetic Chinese.”

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