Can Patrick Lefevere revive Soudal Quick-Step’s cobblestone crew?
Lefevere's quandary: Is there a 'next Tom Boonen' lurking in the junior ranks? Or is the 'Wolfpack' content to ride the Remco wave?
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Patrick Lefevere likes to say the spring classics end with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and that’s all he can hope for after another bumpy ride across the cobbles by his once-feared Soudal Quick-Step.
There’s no hiding from the fact that the “Wolfpack” was defanged during the 2023 northern classics campaign. There was only one minor win and no whiff of victory at Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
“The Flemish part of the spring has not been good,” Lefevere told the Belgian media in the Roubaix infield. “I can hardly stand here cheering, hopefully the best is yet to come.”
Yes, Liège counts, especially when you have the likes of Remco Evenepoel returning at defending champion, but for more than two decades, it’s been the cobbles and bergs of Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix that really moved the needle for Lefevere and his fleet of Flandrien sponsors.
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Is it time to hit the panic button for Lefevere and his cobblestone legacy?
The team once dominated the northern classics, yet for the past two seasons, the so-called “Wolfpack” has lost its bite. A string of bad luck, crashes, ill-timed punctures, and rising rivals is quickly sending Quick-Step into the second tier of players.
Lefevere faces an interesting quandary. Does he sign a big-name rider to bolster his classics squad? Or does he embrace the arrival of Evenepoel and his grand tour ambitions, and put the classics as a secondary priority?
Or, can he have it both ways?
Unrivaled dominance takes a hit
No team’s dominated the cobblestone classics more than Lefevere’s and his relentless crew of cobble-eaters.
Dating from the late 1990s and into the earliest Quick-Step iterations, the wins came so quick and often that the conversation wasn’t about what races the team won, but rather about what they didn’t win.
Lefevere had the budget and the ambitions to sign the biggest and baddest cobblestone specialists in the game. And if they were Belgian, chances are they raced for Lefevere at some point of their career.
By the retirement of Tom Boonen in 2017, the team had fully evolved into a classics superpower, with the team, not one marquee rider, as the star of the show.
Going into the opening years of this decade, Lefevere and Co. had the “Wolfpack” so finely tuned that the team would bring multiple options to every major Belgian classic, and the team could play hot potato across the squad to bring home the sponsor-satisfying trophies.
The “Wolfpack” ethos hit a high-water mark in 2021, with victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Brugge-De Panne, E3 Saxo Classic, and the Tour of Flanders, and fifth at Roubaix.
Even with Lefevere’s tremendous run, nothing lasts forever in cycling.
The cracks started showing in 2022, even if the team opened the spring classics campaign with a win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Fabio Jakobsen and the capstone at Liège with Evenepoel. In between, though, the team struggled.
There were no major wins in the major Belgian classics after KBK, and the “Wolfpack” imploded at the two races that really count at Flanders and Roubaix. Evenepoel saved the day with his dramatic solo victory in 2022.
Things are just as bad so far this spring, with the team not winning any of the major one-day races. Tim Merlier won the second-tier Danilith Nokere Koerse in March in what was the team’s only significant win this spring.
Of course, Evenepoel could save the day with another home-run ride at Liège.
Cobblestone reload or all-in for Remco?
So where does Lefevere go from here?
With Evenepoel riding high in just about every race he starts, the team is clearly pivoting toward supporting his style of racing.
His historic Vuelta a España victory last year — the first grand tour win by a Belgian in four decades — naturally sees Lefevere piling more resources to support the budding Belgian superstar.
Evenepoel some day could race and be competitive in such races as Flanders and other classics, but right now, it’s the Giro d’Italia and likely the Tour de France next year that immediately on the radar.
Lefevere is a unique position that he has his first rider in years who realistically has a chance to win the Tour de France.
The Belgian manager knows he will need to bring more riders to support Evenepoel if he hopes to face off against Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar for the yellow jersey in 2024.
There are no less than 20 Soudal Quick-Step riders off-contract at the end of this season. Marquee names Kasper Asgreen and Julian Alaphilippe remain through 2024, and stalwart Yves Lampaert remains through 2025, but everything else is on the table.
Lefevere will have space and money to bolster Evenepoel’s flanks, and dip into the market to shore up his classics program.
So what are his options? We dive in:
Finding the ‘next’ Tom Boonen
What Lefevere lusts for most is another franchise rider to retool his northern classics squad.
For nearly two decades, Lefevere rode the coat tails of Johan Museeuw and then Tom Boonen.
Lefevere likes to have a marquee Belgian rider, ideally one from Flanders, to juice his long list of loyal and bike-crazy Belgian sponsors who sign on to be party of the cobblestone party every spring.
The irony is that there are a lot of good Belgian riders right now succeeding on the cobbles, just none of them are realistically within his grasp.
The undisputed king of cobbles in Belgium right now is Wout van Aert. Is there any chance to sign him? Almost none.
Van Aert is under contract at Jumbo-Visma through 2026, and he’s at the gravitational center of the team. Even if Lefevere opened up his checkbook, there’s no way he could lure Van Aert away. And it’s unlikely Van Aert would want to share the spotlight with Evenepoel anyway.
There’s also Florian Vermeersch, whose hard-fought 12th places at both Flanders and Roubaix this spring helped prove he’s no one-hit pony. A Roubaix runner-up in 2021, Vermeersch is under contract at Lotto-Dstny through 2024.
The Wolfpack never gives up 👊
Photo: @GettySport pic.twitter.com/m0npbjaBAJ
— Soudal Quick-Step Pro Cycling Team (@soudalquickstep) April 12, 2023
Another promising Belgian is Nathan Van Hooydonck, whose father is a two-time Flanders champion. At 27, he’s enjoyed a breakout season with second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and hit top 15s in E3 Saxo Classic, Flanders and Roubaix. Yet he’s under also contract at Jumbo-Visma through 2024.
Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) is a promising speedster, but he’s also under contract through 2024, and doesn’t have the look of a monument baller. Jasper Philipsen, 25, keeps improving with age, winning Brugge-De Panne and Scheldeprijs, two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico, and second at Roubaix this spring. He’s under contract at Alpecin-Deceuninck through 2024, and will be expensive by then.
Insiders say 18-year-old Steffen De Schuyteneer is being watched carefully by all the Belgian teams. He’s on the AG2R Citroën U19 Team, won the junior version of Gent-Wevelgem and was eighth at the junior Roubaix. Could he be the next Boonen? It’s too early to say.
And then there’s Arnaud De Lie.
Though the 21-year-old hails from the French-speaking part of Belgium, people close to Lefevere said he’s the rider he’s most interested in signing.
He’s also under contract through 2024 with Lotto-Dstny, but the team’s loss of WorldTour status could crack open the door for an early exit. Though there’s not been any big wins this spring, De Lie hit second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and top-10s at Kuurne, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Brabantse Pijl.
If there’s going to be an October surprise, it could be De Lie.
Poaching the peloton for a big-name deal
Could there be a rider Lefevere could pick up in the open market going into 2024 to revive the classics program?
It’s not as if the current Wolfpack lineup is that bad. All the team might need is one new face to mix up the dynamics and give the group some fresh energy.
Who’s out there? All the big-name Belgians are all but locked up, but there are frustratingly few options in the bunch.
Right now, behind the established kings of the classics Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, there are some interesting names. Yet again, almost none of them are immediately available.
Mads Pedersen is the rising star of the cobblestone monuments. With third at Flanders and fourth at Roubaix, the big Dane is coming off his best and most consistent classics season yet. The 2019 world champion, however, is closely tied to Trek and has a contract with Trek-Segafredo through 2025. It would be too expensive to sign him away.
Stefan Küng and Matej Mohorič, two rising stars in the monuments, are also under contract through 2025 with their respective teams. Filippo Ganna is committed to Ineos Grenadiers through 2027.
Like every season, there are dozens of riders off-contract going into 2024.
Greg Van Avermaet fits the perfect profile of a member of the multi-pronged attacking style of Quick-Step, but is his best behind him? His Ag2r-Citroën teammate Oliver Naesen is also off-contract, but he’s never quite lived up to expectations.
There’s bad boy Gianni Moscon, former Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol, former Roubaix podium finisher Neils Politt, and big man Max Walscheid, hot off a solid eight at Roubaix. All are available, and all could slot into the Quick-Step machine.
And what about Matteo Jorgenson? The American enjoyed a great classics season, and is off contract with Movistar. It’s likely he will be courting interest from several teams.
So what will Lefevere do?
Evenepoel shines brightest right now, and Lefevere is counting his blessings that he won the Remco lottery. The world champion is under contract through 2026, and Lefevere knows he will have to beat back would-be suitors to keep him in a Quick-Step jersey.
Lefevere’s first priority is keeping Evenepoel happy and winning. He’s the team’s meal ticket for the next few years, and Lefevere might have to be content to live on the sidelines in the northern cobbles for the next few seasons.
It’s not a bad problem to have. Other teams have it way worse.