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Cycling kingpin Patrick Lefevere has negotiated deals with some of cycling’s biggest stars during his three decades in the bunch. Tom Boonen, Johan Museeuw, Mark Cavendish, and Paolo Bettini are just a few of the marquee names that have come down the pike.
Yet which rider has put pen to paper in the longest deal ever in Lefevere’s career as cycling’s Svengali? Remco Evenepoel.
In what’s a blockbuster deal, the 21-year-old Belgian star signaled that he has no intention of leaving the self-styled Wolfpack after signing a five-year deal Tuesday to remain with the squad through 2026.
The contract is the longest-ever signed by cycling stalwart Lefevere, and reveals how Lefevere’s future as well as the entire DQS team is hitched to the prospects of Belgium’s next cycling superstar.
By signing Evenepoel to the long-term deal — he will be 26 when it’s over – Lefevere does two things: it helps help push ongoing sponsorship negotiations across the finish line. And it fends off would-be suitors who try to steal away the diamond-in-the-rough that joined DQS straight from the junior ranks in 2019.
Evenepoel was already tied to the squad until 2023, after penning an extension in 2019, but other teams were already sniffing around the promising 21-year-old. Throughout Evenepoel’s young career, Lefevere has had to move quickly to prevent him from being snapped up by wealthier teams with the draw of a hugely lucrative contract and this is another example of his skill as a negotiator.
In March, Bora-Hansgrohe team manager Ralph Denk reportedly offered to buy out the entire outfit just to get his hands on Evenepoel. The new deal won’t stop other squads flashing their cash and trying to lure him away, but it’s going to take something major at this point to get him to turn his back on his current set-up.
It’s a big contract for Evenepoel, who is still on the comeback in the wake of his horrific crash at Il Lombardia in 2020, and will give him a good level of stability as he continues to develop as a rider. Feeling too comfortable can cause an athlete to step off the gas and slow down, but it can also be healthy for a young rider.
Evenepoel is linchpin in Lefevere’s sponsor search
As important as it is for Evenepoel, the deal is arguably an even bigger one for team manager Lefevere as he tries to nail down the future of his team.
As things stand, Lefevere is still working to secure sponsorship for his team beyond the 2021 season. His self-imposed deadline of March 31 for getting the current sponsors onboard has come and gone, but nothing has been officially signed.
Is this extended relationship with Evenepoel a signal that a deal has been done with sponsors and Lefevere has money to burn? Not so, says the Belgian.
“Normally, I always sign the sponsors first and then the riders, but with Remco, we have nothing to lose. With him we opt for the long term,” he told Sporza.
Though it may not be an indication that Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s future is secure, it could certainly prove a sweetener to get it over the finish line. The hype around Evenepoel is big in cycling circles, but it pales in comparison to the buzz in Belgium. Think Tom Boonen and you wouldn’t be far off.
Even as a junior, his star was such that he was a minor celebrity in his home country. Evenepoel is a rare gem in cycling, a rider that has been able to immediately translate his success as a youth into WorldTour success. He won the Clásica San Sebastian in his debut season and reaffirmed himself as a serious stage race contender by winning the overall classification in every week-long race he entered in 2020.
His meteoric rise hit a speed bump after he broke his pelvis at Il Lombardia last season, which has seen him sidelined as he works through rehab and recovery. He’s scheduled to do make his 2021 debut at the Giro d’Italia next month, a baptism of fire for his first-ever grand tour appearance.
“I have no specific ambitions and expectations I’m riding the Giro in preparation for the summer. The intention is that I will be on an upward trend in Italy for three weeks,” Evenepoel told the Belgian press in February.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step is synonymous with the cobbled classics, but Lefevere will be hoping to achieve good things in three-week races with Evenepoel’s skillset. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that Evenepoel will be on the podium of a grand tour, perhaps even the top step.
Purse strings might be tight due to the coronavirus pandemic but any sponsor, particularly a Belgian one, would be mad to pass up an opportunity to have their name on his chest when he does so — at least that’s what Lefevere is banking on. Evenepoel will be Belgian cycling’s poster boy for the next decade, and maybe more. Securing a spot on the Evenepoel bandwagon now could prove hugely fruitful in the years to come.
The other pieces of the ‘Wolfpack’ puzzle
Keeping Evenepoel at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, or whatever it will be called next year, is a major piece of the puzzle that is the team’s future, but the picture is not yet complete.
In addition to finding some funding for the 2022 season, Lefevere has a number of star riders out of contract at the end of the year. World champion Julian Alaphilippe is one of those, though the team reportedly has an option to extend with the Frenchman beyond 2021.
João Almeida, Sam Bennett, Fabio Jakobsen, and Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen are also due to be out of contract by the end of the year. Lefevere would probably like to keep all of them within his stable going into the new season but not all negotiations may prove as fruitful as that with Evenepoel.
“Almost our entire team is at the end of our contract and the hunting season now seems to have really started. Agents are juggling offers for my riders, offering millions at a time. Ineos salaries are the norm, we are the paupers,” Lefevere wrote in his Het Niewsblad column last month.
The result of his discussions with sponsors and the amount he is able to squeeze out of them will dictate what he can offer his riders and how easy it will be for other teams to tempt them away.
Then, of course, there is the question of Peter Sagan. Lefevere has shot down the idea of bringing in the superstar as a “fudge,” telling reporters not to call him about it, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Lefevere has been economical with the truth about his rider negotiations only to deliver a blockbuster down the line.
Lefevere is cycling’s consummate player, but his deal with Evenepoel may be his biggest coup yet.