HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — There were crowds of fans around the Etixx-Quick-Step bus Friday morning ahead of the start of E3 Harelbeke, but not Tom Boonen-huge crowds.
Without the presence of the Belgian superstar, who is missing the entire spring classics campaign with injury, there is a very different vibe around the team bus of the perennial cobblestone favorites.
With Boonen at the start line, there was a guarantee that Etixx-Quick-Step would be a favorite for victory in any of the northern classics. Without Boonen, the team is tackling the most important two weeks of its season, hoping to see different players step up.
“It’s very different, but it’s not necessarily easier for us during these classics,” Etixx-Quick-Step technical director Rolf Aldag told VeloNews. “We believe we have a super-strong team for the team classics. We can still frustrate others, because of the numbers we can have at the front. We hope we can maintain that strength with the team, even without Tom. The only thing that counts is to try to win.”
Perhaps more than any other team, Etixx-Quick-Step lives and dies in the spring classics. While the team has expanded its program to include GC aspirations with Rigoberto Urán and the sprints with Mark Cavendish, the team’s soul remains on the cobblestones.
And the rider that’s carried that pressure and success for more than a decade was Boonen. With seven monuments to his name, Boonen’s 2015 classics campaign came to an abrupt end in Paris-Nice, suffering an AC-joint dislocation. That immediately torpedoed his hopes for the northern classics, but Etixx-Quick-Step vows to push on.
Riders such as Zdenek Stybar, who won Strade Bianche in March, and Niki Terpstra, winner of last year’s Paris-Roubaix will look to fill the void. Behind them will be others, such as Matteo Trentin, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, dubbed as the ‘next Tom Boonen’ in the Belgian media, and Stijn Vandenbergh.
Boonen’s presence meant the others could ride without pressure, but with his absence, that pressure for results will move to their shoulders.
“Riders want those chances, but the pressure comes with that opportunity,” Aldag told VeloNews. “What changes is for the other guys, because with Tom in the race, you could always count on him, so the other guys riding at the front didn’t have the pressure.”
Stybar seems up for the task. Speaking to VeloNews during Tirreno-Adriatico, he said the team is making its adjustments to race without Boonen.
“We will have a strategy to race, even with Tom not being able to race,” Stybar said. “The good thing about this team is that there are many who are strong.”
Terpstra, too, is ready to step up. His dramatic victory in Paris-Roubaix last year came thanks to Quick-Step’s large presence at the sharp end of the action, when he was in the winning group that also included Stybar and Boonen. The others knew the numbers were stacked against them, and when Terpstra attacked, no one tried to chase him down, knowing the other Quick-Steps would counter from behind.
“Last year, we created many opportunities to win because this team is so strong,” Terpstra said. “That doesn’t change. We will have the same strategy, to race to win, like we always do.”
The team will lose its ace in the hole with Boonen, but Aldag said its strategy of riding as a group doesn’t change.
“It’s true that others have more chances, but it’s not like we’re going out there with eight guys, and say, ‘good luck!’” Aldag said. “We still have a good structure around Niki and Stybar, whom we believe can win. And we have others who can profit from that out of long breakaways.”
So far, Etixx has had a mixed run through some of the early season races. Stybar took a brilliant victory at Strade Bianche, thanks to his good form, but the team seemed out of sync at such races as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Le Samyn. At Milano-Sanremo, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski and Stybar both crashed coming off the Poggio. Now that Flanders week is firmly underway, the team will be under the gun to deliver results.
Even without Boonen, Aldag said the team would not shirk from its role to control and be protagonists in the spring classics.
“This team lives for these races. It has more than 20 years of experience in the classics,” he said. “That won’t change.”