CALPE, Spain (VN) — There are a lot of teams claiming to be cycling’s best squad. Team Sky won two straight yellow jerseys. BMC Racing is solid across all disciplines. Movistar is the peloton’s most prolific. Oleg Tinkov has made it a personal mission to boast the virtues of Tinkoff-Saxo. All of them have bragging rights, but it’s perhaps Etixx-Quick-Step that is the peloton’s deepest, most balanced across all disciplines.
Northern classics? The team eats cobblestones for breakfast, with Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, Guido Trentin, and defending Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra lining up as the favorites across Flanders. Anything short of victory is a national disaster, at least in Belgium.
The Ardennes? Reigning world champion Michal Kwiatkowski is champing at the bit to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the stripes. Their lone chink is the grand tours, but rising prospect Rigoberto Urán, second in last year’s Giro d’Italia, is flying the team’s colors. Tony Martin is king of the clock. Almost lost in the galaxy of stars is Mark Cavendish, once, and aspiring again to be, the king of the sprints.
There’s no team that has such breadth and depth across all the disciplines as Etixx-Quick-Step. And it was that depth that helped the team post yet another successful season in 2014, despite hiccups from Cavendish and Boonen. The former crashed out of the Tour de France without winning a stage, while the latter was dogged by personal issues and came up short on the northern classics. Other riders, namely Niki Terpstra, Guido Trentin, and Rigoberto Urán, stepped up to fill the void.
“Our goals are the same as the last few years: winning a lot of races, but winning quality races,” said team boss Patrick Lefevere on Thursday. “We are ambitious, but we prefer to speak with the pedals.”
Don’t expect to see Lefevere preening on Twitter, à la Tinkov. The veteran Belgian manager runs a tight ship, and wants to pick up where the team left off last year. Sport director Rolf Aldag said the team aims to be present in just about every terrain the season offers.
“We want to extend our goals in the major stage races. We think the team is ready for a step up,” Aldag said Thursday in Spain. “We want to maintain our dominance in the classics, and we want to scout and develop young talent, both the riders we already have, and new ones we are looking for.”
For 2015, eight riders departed, including Wouter Poels (to Sky), Gert Steegmans (to Trek Factory Racing), and Jan Bakelandts (to Ag2r-La Mondiale). With an eye toward trimming the team’s lineup ahead of changes due in 2017, Lefevere only brought on five new riders, including Fabio Sabatini (Cannondale) and Maxime Bouet (Ag2r-La Mondiale). With so many major stars, the team needs a few workhorses to keep things balanced.
Etixx-Quick-Step has a stacked deck; here are the team’s aces and their respective top goals for 2015:
Tom Boonen, 34, Belgian: With four pavé trophies from Roubaix, and three more from Tour of Flanders, “Tomeke” is hoping to rebound from uneven, personally tragic, and ultimately unsatisfying 2014. “2014 was not a season to remember,” Boonen said. “I hope to stay healthy, avoid crashes, and have a bit of luck. You need all that to do well in the classics. And have the legs, of course.” Already tied with Roger De Vlaeminck with four Roubaix titles, Boonen is hoping to win a record fifth before contemplating retirement. After the classics, Boonen’s second major goal for 2015 will be the world title. It’s been 10 years since he won in Madrid, a victory at 25 years old that confirmed his status as one of cycling’s major players. “They say it suits the classics guys,” Boonen said of Richmond. “I don’t know if I will race the Vuelta or not. Right now, I don’t want to think too much about the worlds. First come the classics. After that, we can talk about the other stuff.”
Mark Cavendish, 29, British: For the first time since his Tour de France debut in 2007, Cavendish did not win a stage in the Tour. He crashed out before hitting the tape in the opening stage, and sport director Rolf Aldag said it will be his “year of settling scores, and the focus will be on the Tour de France.” Cavendish wasn’t in a chatty mood when talking to a pack of journalists Thursday, and refused to take the bait when asked about nemesis Marcel Kittel. “I concentrate on trying to win on bike races. I don’t concentrate on other bike riders. I concentrate on the finish line, and trying to cross it first,” Cavendish said.
An early-season goal will be Milano-Sanremo, which returns to the “classic” course finishing on the Via Roma. After that, it will be all about arriving at the Tour in top speed to try to recapture his title as the king of sprints. “Every rider is measured by the Tour,” Aldag said. “Mark has nothing to prove, but he wants to go back to the Tour and win.”
Tony Martin, 29, German: A quiet man, Martin fits in perfectly in Lefevere’s MO of letting the pedals do the talking. His three-year domination against the clock ended in September when Bradley Wiggins upended him for the world time trial title, something that’s already on his radar. First will come a revved-up GC effort, targeting such races as the Tour de Suisse or Paris-Nice. And the Tour? With an opening-day time trial on tap, Martin will be the five-star favorite to earn the yellow jersey. “Tony is super-motivated by two things this season,” Aldag said. “First, capturing the yellow jersey in the opening stage of the Tour. That stage is perfect for him. And then regaining his world time trial championship. It will be strange seeing Tony racing in time trials in his normal jerseys. I know he wants it back.”
Michal Kwiatkowski, 24, Polish: The young pole is handling the attention that comes with the rainbow stripes with calm confidence that defies his relative youth. His stunning victory in Ponferrada has catapulted him to superstar status in his native Poland, yet he’s smart enough to know that he’s only beginning. His major goal is to win one of the Ardennes classics in the rainbow jersey: “I want to keep progressing as a racer. I can still improve in everything. This year, I want to represent the world champion’s jersey, and be there in the decisive moments of the race. To choose one race to win? Liège.”
Rigoberto Urán, 27, Colombian: Urán enjoyed a breakout year in his move to Etixx-Quick-Step, riding to second overall at the Giro d’Italia, including an impressive time trial victory at Barolo that put him in pink. Controversy over the Stelvio perhaps foiled his chances to win the overall, but Urán is not one to linger on the past. For 2015, he will race both the Giro and the Tour for the first time in his career. A podium in the Giro, especially with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) riding to win, coupled with a stage win at the Tour would make him a very happy escarabajo. “Urán still has not reached his limit,” Aldag said. “The Giro is a perfect race for him, and this year, he will also race the Tour. Maybe it’s too much to try to think about GC in both, so why not do something like (Rafal) Majka last year? Lose a bunch of time early, then target mountain stages.”
Niki Terpstra, 30, Dutch: The team’s iconoclast, Terpstra fits into many roles. He can time trial, he can win smaller stage races, he can race on the boards (he won the Six Days of Rotterdam before flying to Spain), and he can clearly win in the classics. His daring attack at Paris-Roubaix out of an elite group of 10 (with two other Quick Step teammates) put an exclamation point on his palmares. For 2015, it will be all about hitting the repeat button. “Winning Roubaix was a dream come true, but I don’t want that to be the only thing that I accomplish in my career. There are other goals that I have, but of course, I would love to win Roubaix again.”
Zdenek Stybar, 29, Czech: Stybar has been knocking on the door of something big for the past few seasons. The three-time world cyclocross champion believes it’s only a question of time. “I would love to win one of the big classics,” Stybar said. “We are a strong team in the classics, and we are many who can win in the race, but like everyone saw last year [Terpstra’s victory at Roubaix], our strength gives everyone more chances to win.” Once again, the focus will be on the cobblestone classics. “This is the year for Stybar to get what he deserves,” Aldag said. “Everyone knows he would have won Eneco Tour if it wasn’t for that bad crash. Now he’s coming into the classics more motivated than ever.” After that, like much of the core classics team, Stybar will slip into “wait-and-see” mode. And the cyclocross worlds? Not this year.