Gone are the days of one defined team leader. Racing success now relies on hunting in packs.
Teams across the peloton are embracing a new philosophy of racing that’s built around a different concept of leadership. Instead of racing for one singular leader, more teams are putting several riders into the fray. The tactic is simple; if one rider tumbles, another is right there to fill the void.
One of the most efficient purveyors of this swarm offense has been Deceuninck-Quick-Step. In just about every race the team starts, it brings multiple leaders for the sprints, breakaways, and climbs. Though it might not be reeling off grand tours, the Belgian team consistently ranks at the top of the WorldTour standings in wins and points.
Philippe Gilbert had a front-row view of how the self-styled “Wolf Pack” helped rewrite the tactical script of racing over the past decade.
“I think in this mentality this team was innovators for the past several years,” Gilbert said. “This team changed the ways of racing, riding with many leaders who sacrificed for one another.”
Gilbert’s stint in Quick-Step ends this year as he rejoins Lotto-Soudal in 2020 on a three-year contract. He and John Degenkolb will share leadership duties during the northern classics.
“Other teams have started doing this because it works,” Gilbert said during the Vuelta a España. “Jumbo-Visma races with a lot of leaders, and so does Movistar. They have more than one leader, and I think that’s the future of cycling. It makes it more dangerous for other teams.”
Quick-Step has long deployed its multi-faceted leadership philosophy at the spring classics. Even during the heyday of Tom Boonen, other teammates could often play off other teams to press the advantage. So long as Quick-Step wins, team boss Patrick Lefevere is happy.
During his three-year run with the team, Gilbert lived the good and the bad of that tactic on several occasions. Gilbert was often the strongest rider in a race, but he would sacrifice his chances for the good of the team. The payback comes when the tables turn, as Gilbert saw when he won the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2017 and Paris-Roubaix in 2019.
“You have more results as a team,” he said. “Sometimes you have to block for your teammates from behind, and you lose your chance. The wheel always turns and in the end, you still have plenty of opportunities to win.”
Lotto-Soudal will try to replicate the Quick-Step play in the northern classics next year.
Quick-Step is losing some of its biggest winners, including Gilbert and Elia Viviani (Cofidis), and it’s loading up on fresh talent to keep the “Wolf Pack” running for the next few years, with 21-year-old American Ian Garrison and Irish sprinter Sam Bennett among them. Under Quick-Step’s fluid model of team leadership, the newbies will be playing captain before they know it.