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How Trek-Segafredo’s bet on young talent propelled team back to top of classics hierarchy

Milano-Sanremo was franchise's first spring monument since Fabian Cancellara won Tour of Flanders in 2014.

Trek-Segafredo is roaring into the northern classics with an extra kick in the pedal strokes.

Jasper Stuyven’s dramatic victory Saturday at Milano-Sanremo gives the U.S.-registered team a jolt of newfound confidence ahead of the season’s major dates in Belgium and France, starting Friday with E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem.

The team is looking to revive its glory days across the cobbles from the Fabian Cancellara era, and rejoins the ranks of the pre-race favorites in this year’s spring classics campaign.

“In the past, when we went from being in the front line with Fabian to being where you are struggling, of course, that was frustrating,” Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews. “You need to build up again, and there is a moment when you need to start from scratch.”

Also read: Stuyven’s ‘all-or-nothing’ bet delivers San Remo jackpot

That patient and methodical rebuilding process in the wake of Cancellara’s retirement in 2016 is starting to pay off. Riders like Stuyven and 2019 world champion Mads Pedersen lead the revived Trek-Segafredo colors into the northern classics.

“2019 was a turning point, when Mads won the world title,” Guercilena said. “We knew that the young guys we were investing in were coming up.”

Filling the Cancellara void

John Degenkolb took an emotional stage victory during the 2018 Tour de France over the cobblestones as part of his three-year stint on the team. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

The team’s legacy was forever linked to the northern classics and Cancellara since its founding as a team under the Leopard-Trek banner in 2011. Until “Spartacus” retired in 2016, the team always lined up as a favorite in any of the major one-days.

Cancellara, of course, was in a class of his own, winning seven monuments, two Olympic gold medals and four world time trial titles during the arc of his career.

Cancellara’s Flanders victory in 2014, however, was the last of the team’s northern monuments. Bauke Mollema won the 2019 Il Lombardia, and the team won a host of other major races, including Strade Bianche, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Gent-Wevelgem, but winning one of the cobblestone monuments remained elusive.

From the archives: Degenkolb among injured riders in head-on collision in Spain

The team hired John Degenkolb in 2017 to fill the hole left by Cancellara, but the German star was coming off serious injury from a head-on collision with a vehicle that plowed into a group of Giant-Alpecin riders during a team camp in early 2016. Though he managed top-10s at Flanders and Roubaix in 2017, his only major win during a three-year stint in Trek colors was his emotional victory over the pavé in stage 9 at the 2018 Tour de France.

“When we knew we hired John, he was coming off any injury, but he was not recovering as fast as we had hoped,” Guercilena said in a telephone call. “We had a few years when we were struggling to be in the top game.”

In the meantime, Guercilena and his staff were rebuilding from the bottom, and brought on a fleet of highly touted but inexperienced younger riders who could develop and mature in the shadow of such marquee riders as Mollema and Degenkolb.

Stuyven, 28, joined in 2014, and has slowly emerged as a force in the classics. The 25-year-old Pedersen signed on in 2017, and has seen a faster progression, finishing second in the 2018 Flanders and winning the 2019 world title. Last fall, he won Gent-Wevelgem and is hot into 2021 with victory at Kuurne and second at Bredene Koksijde Classic.

Edward Theuns, another tent pole in the team’s classics ambitions, joined in 2016. All three will be at the sharp end of Trek-Segafredo’s classics stick.

Stuyven’s San Remo victory was payback on the early investments and patience from the team’s staffers and sponsors.

“When you are investing in young riders, you always hoping they will return the good results,” Guercilena said. “With Jasper, it is a deeper relationship with the team and the brand. And this San Remo victory is paying back all the confidence in the past.

“And it’s the same thing with Mads Pedersen, and we are now seeing the payback from the way we work, with the confidence we put in the young riders, and giving them time to develop into champions.”

Swarming the zone

Mads Pedersen played smart tactics to win Gent-Wevelgem in October. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

With experienced sport director Steven De Jongh outlining the tactics, the team will bring perhaps its deepest block of riders since the Cancellara heyday.

Joining Pedersen, Theuns and Stuyven will be others such as Alex Kirsch, Koen de Kort, and Matteo Moschetti, another fast finisher who won Per Sempre Alfredo last weekend. Americans Quinn Simmons and Kiel Reijnen will also see action in select races, with Simmons slated for a starring role in the future.

Guercilena is so confident that he’s hoping the team can follow the template deployed with success by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and flood the zone with multiple options going into the decisive final hour of racing.

“The real idea is to be in the final with numbers, with two or maybe three, instead of just one,” Guercilena said. “That is the only option to beat the other riders. It’s the same plan that Deceuninck used, and that is the best way to win the races.”

And what about the hulking masses of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert; can Trek-Segafredo play David versus these Goliaths?

Trek-Segafredo is one of the few teams that’s proven what it takes to beat them, with surgical victories last year at Gent-Wevelgem and again at San Remo.

Guercilena said the team’s tactics against van der Poel and van Aert will reflect the same values that got them back into the frame in the first place — patience and opportunity.

“You have to find a moment when you can take advantage and make a move,” he said. “We know they are super-strong, but we have been able to show that we can also win races like Gent-Wevelgem and now San Remo.

“You have to be smart in using the power you have, and be humble, and keep your feet on the ground,” he said. “And that is the way to beat those big guys.”