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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Trek-Segafredo exploded from the gate with wins all over the map in January, but things haven’t gone so well for the American team over the past few weeks. As the meat of classics season gets underway this week in Belgium, Trek is hoping to turn things around.
“We’ve had a difficult time now in several races, especially stage races, but I was trying to stay calm. That’s what we have to do of course,” Trek sport director Dirk Demol told VeloNews at the start of Friday’s E3 Harelbeke.
Demol was planning for his riders to find their form during the weeklong races in France and Italy earlier this month. Instead, illness knocked John Degenkolb out of Paris-Nice and Giacomo Nizzolo abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico with an injury. They remained sidelined for Milano-Sanremo.
Nevertheless, Demol is keeping expectations high.
“With the team for the classics I was building up, we really pushed them in Tirreno, we see this as a step up to the next weeks. And for the guys who did Paris-Nice I gave the same message, but unluckily they got sick, John and Koen [de Kort],” he said. “But anyway we’ve been working towards this year and I think we are ready.”
The 1988 Paris-Roubaix champion, a veteran at the spring classics, says it’s been his job to keep his riders positive despite the rough patch.
“We talk a lot with them, and individually also. With the team yesterday we had a long meeting as usual. I have a feeling that the morale is for sure there,” Demol said.
Friday’s 206.4-kilometer ride in and around Harelbeke in West Flanders is more of a chance for riders to test there legs than it is to score a big result.
“For me, this is the first check to see how the shape is, how far I can go,” Degenkolb told VeloNews. “We’re going with Jasper as the leader for today, and we’re going to see for the next races.”
Although he’s uncertain about his fitness, having not raced since Paris-Nice, the German says he feels recovered from his upper respiratory troubles. He clarified that he was suffering from sinus problems and not bronchitis, a recurring issue for him late last year.
Degenkolb preferred not to hype up his own chances for the E3 Harelbeke, but he said his legs should be there for his big classics goals to come as long as the rest of his body cooperates. Health-wise, Demol expects him to be ready for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I think I have done my homework and I did good work over the whole winter, so that’s something I can benefit from,” Degenkolb said.
Stuyven, then, has a golden opportunity to lead the team in the WorldTour’s best Tour of Flanders dress rehearsal at E3, and will continue to be a protected rider in the races to come. Trek has been working to prep the young Belgian for years to be the classics man of the future. Demol says that future is now.
“With Jasper, we had a way we wanted to follow from the beginning,” Demol said of developing Stuyven into a bona fide classics contender. “I was protecting him from himself, sometimes he wanted too much, and we had to say, okay, everything starts when you’re 25, 26. So he could learn in the shadow of Fabian [Cancellara] in the beginning and now with John. But he’s 25, so now’s the moment and I think he’s ready.
“Last year he got sick after Sanremo but he finished fourth in Roubaix anyway. So far this year, everything has gone well. He was fourth in Het Nieuwsblad and 10th in Sanremo. He’s ready for the next step.
“I won’t say it’s going to be this year but for sure one day it will come.”
Trek spent years among the top teams of the classics, with Cancellara practically guaranteeing at least one big win on the cobbles a year when he was healthy. Since Cancellara’s retirement in 2016, the wins have been harder to come by in the springtime.
Demol couldn’t put a finger on exactly why things didn’t go to plan last season in the classics, but he thinks things have to turn around sooner or later.
“I don’t know, maybe some luck, I won’t say we had too much bad luck. When John came to our team we were all super happy to have him but it took time to come back from his big accident,” he said. “It’s still there, the quality is still there, and we are confident that it will come back one day. We keep doing our work and the luck will come back on our side one day. That’s how it’s always been. After rain there is sunshine.”
Demol is bullish on the team’s prospects moving forward. He feels that between Stuyven and Degenkolb, and a talented supporting cast that includes promising prospect Mads Pedersen, Trek already has the talent in place to get back to success in the near future.
“It’s a bit different [from riding for Cancellara]. We have a leader but we have a couple of riders we protect more. It’s different racing of course. With Fabian, you were almost sure to be in the final but now we have to wait a little bit,” he said.
“It’s completely different but the page is turned. I believe in this group also, especially John and Jasper, and the riders around them are good as well. We don’t have a Fabian, or a Sagan or Van Avermaet, but I’m sure we have a strong team.”