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Etixx-Quick-Step with little to celebrate in cobbled classics

With merely one win during their spring campaign so far — at a semi-classic, no less — The Belgian squad is hungry for results

GENT, Belgium (VN) — The cobbled classics season is drawing to a close, and Belgium’s biggest team has little to cheer about. Etixx-Quick-Step has yet to reach the top step of the podium in this spring’s one-day WorldTour action. Niki Terpstra came close twice, but settled for silver medals, one at Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the other at Gent-Wevelgem.

The 30-year-old Dutchman rode with Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) in the final of yesterday’s Belgian monument. They covered three climbs and 28 kilometers together, but Etixx’s leader could not shake Kristoff.

The 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner saved everything he had for one big punch, a sprint from 250 meters. He sat behind Kristoff for the final three kilometers, but when it came time to go, he had nothing to stop his rival from claiming Flanders’ biggest bike race.

It could have been worse. Stijn Vandenbergh crashed twice, once hitting a tree and fracturing his nose. Etixx’s co-leader, Zdenek Stybar had to take out his false teeth and could not eat for the final 70 kilometers.

Tom Boonen, the team’s star and Belgian’s cycling hero, could not even start. He crashed in the Paris-Nice stage race in March, dislocated his shoulder and required surgery.

“I’m able to make peace with these results, especially because we were at the start without our strong leader,” said general manager, Patrick Lefevere.

“Other teams would weep from here to Tokyo and back if they had start in Bruges in those circumstances, but we had a combative team.”

Boonen won three editions of ‘De Ronde’ and four Paris-Roubaix races. He trained with the team Thursday before the Ronde, but will not do so ahead of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.

“I still have many problems with my injury,” Boonen said Friday. “Especially on climbs and on the cobble sectors when I pull on my handlebars.”

Without Boonen, even the team realizes its chances are limited.

“With all due respect to my riders,” Lefevere added, “Tom’s record is greater than that of the whole team together.”

The Ronde only highlighted what has been an off classics season for the Belgian super-team.

British sprinter Mark Cavendish is responsible for the team’s only major win so far in northern Europe, and that came in what some label a semi-classic: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. The day before, on February 28, it was as though an atomic bomb fell on Flanders. Sky’s Ian Stannard took on and, one-by-one, conquered three Etixx racers to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Although not a cobblestone classic, Stybar can be credited for winning Italy’s Strade Bianche in early March, with a vicious attack at the end of a long day of rough dirt roads. Team boosters might also cite the Etixx podium sweep at Ronde van Zeeland, but that came the day before Milano-Sanremo, which is a far higher priority for classics specialists.

In the first monument of the season, Milano-Sanremo, Cavendish’s chain fell off at a crucial moment. Then, Stybar and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski crashed on the descent of the Poggio.

Back in Belgium, three days later, Kwiatkowski appeared the strongest in Dwars door Vlaanderen, but Professional Continental team, Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise out-maneuvered him with smart tactics, relegating the Pole to third place.

Stybar lost to Brit Geraint Thomas in E3 Harelbeke, and Terpstra could not catch Italian Luca Paolini in Gent-Wevelgem. In Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, where the team usually picks up a stage win, it came home empty-handed.

“I won’t complain, we aren’t the only team who had bad luck. Look at team Trek, they only had one leader, Fabian Cancellara, and they lost him,” Lefevere told VeloNews.

“My sponsors are already happy with what we’ve done. We are there, and we are playing an important role since the first race of the season. From Dubai to Paris-Nice, we’ve been playing for the win. We have the most wins [18] of any team.

“Let’s talk again after Paris-Roubaix.”