GENT, Belgium (VN) — Quick-Step owns the spring classics in 2018 and the team’s rivals finally admitted it Sunday.
“They are riding so strong right now, it’s hard to beat them,” said Trek-Segafredo director Dirk Demol. “You can see they have been building a core group of riders, and now it’s paying off for them. To beat them is easy — you have to be stronger. Right now, they are the strongest ones.”
The Belgian outfit has won three of the four major races in the cobblestoned classics so far. They went one-two at E3-Harelbeke, second at Gent-Wevelgem, victorious at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and first and third at Flanders. With Roubaix looming Sunday, Quick-Step is hoping to put on the finishing touches of what’s been its most stellar classics campaign since Tom Boonen’s glory days.
“It’s easier when the wins come,” said BMC Racing sport director Fabio Baldato. “Last year it was like that for Greg [Van Avermaet]. You have more confidence. The team works harder. We have one more chance Sunday.”
Frustration has been building over the last several races among Quick-Step’s rivals. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) put the blame on others, saying they’re marking him yet unwilling to coordinate an organized chase against Quick-Step’s multi-pronged attacks.
“Look at E3 Harelbeke and here, Quick-Step controlled it all,” Sagan said Sunday. “They put all the teams into a spin. They have great riders, but they put us leaders in trouble because they open the race early and there aren’t helpers left to control the race. If the other riders don’t wake up, it’s going to be like this.”
Quick-Step’s main rivals are exasperated that they don’t have the firepower to challenge for the win. On Sunday, Zdenek Stybar attacked before eventual winner Niki Terpstra followed a surge from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). With Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) lurking in the group, many are hesitant to chase down a big move only to have Gilbert waiting to come over the top.
“When Terpstra attacked, I was a bit boxed in and I couldn’t immediately respond,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot. “The way he distanced Nibali uphill was impressive. He is the deserved winner. There were some important teammates missing from our line-up, which meant I was all by myself in the finale.”
The run of success is sweet revenge for team manager Patrick Lefevere, who almost saw his team collapse last summer following the retirement of Belgian superstar and sponsor magnet Boonen. Lefevere kept the team together and is earning the returns from a development team and good recruiting. While the like of Terpstra and Gilbert are hogging the spotlight, it’s riders like Dwars winner Yves Lampaert, front-line worker Tim Declercq, and new signee Florian Sénéchel that are fueling the Quick-Step revival.
“There is life after Boonen after all,” Lefevere said with a laugh. “Everyone is asking me how do we did it. We have been doing it like this since 1993.”
Quick-Step is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a sponsor this year, and the team is paying it back in the best pay possible.
“We are all working together very well,” Gilbert said. “That’s how it works on this team. If you are strong enough to be a leader at Quick-Step, you are usually strong enough to win the race.”
The classics aren’t over yet. Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix is perhaps the biggest prize of them all. Quick-Step might have a few cracks in its armor. The team’s four-card play could be weakened. Terpstra is a former winner on a roll while Stybar seems overdue for a big win, but Gilbert and Lampaert are far from ideal candidates for the victory. It is also a race where luck and persistence favor the brave.
“I don’t know if it showed on TV, but everyone was cooked,” said Groupama-FDJ’s Arnaud Démare. “I just missed a bit to stay with the front riders on the Kwaremont. Quick-Step is strong, but the way we raced today gives me hope for Roubaix. Roubaix is a race where we hope to break the Quick-Step grip.”