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Flanders Roundtable: Has Quick-Step’s dominance dulled the classics?

Terpstra and team Quick-Step Floors does it again at Tour of Flanders, taking two spots on the podium. We sound off on the action.

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Sunday’s Tour of Flanders delivered another year of cobblestones and chaos. Niki Terpstra won. Quick-Step dominated. Flemish cycling fans rejoiced. Let’s roundtable!

As a viewer, what is your opinion of team Quick-Step’s dominance at this year’s cobbled classics?

Fred Dreier @freddreier: I’m fine with it this year. Quick-Step needs a dominating show every few years to justify its existence. It does give Quick-Step a particular Death Star/WWE bad guy vibe. I think they should play this up as much as possible.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegsIt’s exciting to talk about but boring to watch. E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and now Tour of Flanders have all been very subdued races. There are only two hits: Quick-Step hitting the peloton, and the peloton hitting the floor. The exception there being Gent when Sagan won the sprint.

Dane Cash @danecash: If it were like this every year I’d probably get pretty bored. One classics season of Quick-Step dominance has been interesting enough to watch though. They’ve had a ton of talent for so long but struggled to put it together in recent years, so I’ve been able to stay intrigued for this spring at least. Ask me again after Roubaix — another Quick-Step win might push me into boring territory.

Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: How can the classics be boring? That’s heresy. If you think the classics aren’t exciting enough, go watch curling. It’s been fascinating to watch the world’s best cobbled riders like Van Avermaet and Sagan get foiled at every turn by Quick-Step’s four-card tactic. Every season is different. Last year, it was Van Avermaet dominating. The year before was Sagan’s. This year, Quick-Step is back in control.

Peter Sagan
Sagan tried a solo move on the run-in to the Flanders finish, but it came to nothing. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

What team’s tactics at Flanders was particularly puzzling?

Fred: It wasn’t strange to see Van Avermaet attack on the Taaienberg with 38km to go. It was puzzling to see how little of an impact his move had on the race. Sure, he pulled out a group of seven riders at the top, but the peloton behind quickly shut things down, and no stars were dropped. And Van Avermaet wasn’t the same after that move. It looked like he shot his one bullet off at the wrong time and paid for it.

Spencer: When Quick-Step was sending Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra up the road on that oddly flat piece of road in between cobbled climbs, I was scratching my head. But then Terpstra did the exact thing he did at Roubaix 2014 and powered away to win. So I guess that is one reason why I’m not a pro cyclist or a sport director!

Dane: Not especially, but instead of giving no answer for this I’ll get a little nit-picky. Arnaud Démare has looked pretty good this year. However, he’s only really got a shot in a sprint. Why did Groupama-FDJ do any work at all on Sunday? The quieter the race, the better for Démare.

Andy: You have to say it was another missed chance for Sagan. Terpstra’s acceleration was sublime and caught Sagan off guard. By the time Sagan gave chase, it was too late and no one else had the legs to contribute. Sagan complains a lot that everyone marks his moves, but that didn’t stop Van Avermaet from winning four of the five big classics last year. Sagan likes to improvise and race on instinct. It’s a delight to watch but we can only hope he can manage to win a few more monuments before he gets bored with all this bike racing business.

How does Terpstra’s Flanders win impact his overall legacy?

Fred: Sorry Niki, you’re no Boonen. A Niki Terpstra win is always a Quick-Step win, so Sunday’s win adds equally to the legacies of Niki Terpstra and Patrick Lefevere. You can’t really say that about Tom Boonen or Johan Museeuw, because many of their victories were due more to monster individual performances than team efforts. Niki Terpstra will be remembered as Quick-Step’s most successful foot soldier, and Sunday is proof.

Spencer: Paris-Roubaix is far more of a lottery than Tour of Flanders. Go down the list of winners and you see some outliers, whereas the Flanders winners are nearly all great champions. Winning Sunday really helps Terpstra confirm the fact that he’s a bonafide classics star, albeit one that doesn’t really capture the imagination or grab headlines like a Sagan or a Boonen, or even a Cancellara. That said, his win at Flanders was a near carbon-copy of how the tactics worked in his Roubaix win — escape as a dark horse while his star Quick-Step teammates control the chase.

Dane: When he won Roubaix, some people attributed it to Boonen being in the group behind. I didn’t love that take on his victory then because it was clear Boonen was in his twilight years by that point. Terpstra benefitted from a strong team again at De Ronde, but he was all by himself in front of a pretty powerful chase group for quite a while. His rivals were never close to catching him. He proved he deserves to be seen as a legit classics heavyweight.

Andy: Very much so. It’s the first Dutch win at Flanders since 1986 and it puts him in elite company as Flanders-Roubaix winners. His victories this year at Harelbeke and Flanders revealed how tactically smart he can be. His attacks came at just the right moment not only to neutralize his rivals but also his teammates. With his form now, he will start Sunday as the big favorite. To become the 11th rider to win both in one year would cement his legacy even more.

Niki Terpstra
Niki Terpstra’s (Quick-Step Floor) eventual winning move came off of an attack by Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

What strategy/tactics could the other teams have employed to break Quick-Step’s stranglehold?

Fred: Not much. The only hope they had was to quell the Quick-Step attacks and hope for a sprint, and with the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, that’s not realistic. With Lampaert, Terpstra, Stybar, and Gilbert making the front group, nothing short of a Fabian Cancellara-style monster ride was going to dethrone Quick-Step. The peloton seems to be without a man of that level of individual strength.

Spencer: In my dream scenario — revisionist Flanders history — Nibali is able to ride with Terpstra when that escape goes with about 25km left. Then, another strong rider, perhaps Greg Van Avermaet, follows Sagan on the final trip up the Paterberg, leading to a thrilling pursuit into the final 10km. If one or both of those things happened, Quick-Step would have had to do more than disrupt the chase and sit in the wheels.

Dane: You could say Sagan or Van Avermaet should have been on Terpstra’s wheel but you can’t mark every single Quick-Step attack. My only solution to the conundrum is beating them to the punch with an earlier attack and relying on sheer power to stay clear. Easier said than done, but I think peak Cancellara could have won Sunday by attacking from a ways out. None of the big names really seemed to have that power this weekend. Sagan complained about his rivals after the race, but he did get clear of them at one point in his attempt to bridge. He didn’t even come close to closing the gap. The teams hoping to take on Quick-Step could have used someone with a massive engine going all-in with a big attack. Someone like, well, Niki Terpstra.

Andy: The time to move was right when Terpstra accelerated behind Nibali. The only way to neutralize Quick-Step is to follow their moves from their inception. So far, no one’s had the legs to do it. Of course, having Gilbert marking every move stifles any chase. Terpstra is emerging as the strongest rider in the cobbled classics so the other favorites should have been all over him when he jumped. Terpstra was smart to ride straight through the breakaway group and his gamble to ride solo to the line paid off. Having Gilbert and Stybar in the chase group was the insurance policy he needed. The only way to break it is to jump when Quick-Step makes the first punch. And then hope to have the legs to hang on. It’s worth the risk because so far the alternative isn’t working.