If you watched the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem and felt like something was missing, you were right.
Julian Alaphilippe was not there with his firecracker flair.
Alaphilippe returns to action for Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday in a final tune-up for the Tour of Flanders, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step is hoping “Juju” will pull the plug on Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert’s party.
“The good thing about Julian is he’s got the mentality to just take the responsibility to go into a race, whenever it is, and just take it up and race – and that’s often a good thing,” sport director Tom Steels told VeloNews. “He can totally change a race, and that’s what we need.”
The world champ will take center stage at both Dwars door Vlaanderen and this weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, headlining a team overflowing with talent that also includes E3 Saxo Bank winner Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert, and Zdeněk Štybar.
Although Deceuninck-Quick-Step reasserted its stranglehold on the classics at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday, van Aert’s Gent-Wevelgem triumph just 48 hours later made for a timely reminder that Patrick Lefevere’s squad won’t always have things its own way.
But having sat on the sidelines since Milano-Sanremo, trump card Alaphilippe is back and could be the key piece in Quick-Step’s puzzle of unlocking the supremacy of van Aert and van der Poel.
“In the classics, there are no rules, you go back more to your youth,” Steels said. “Of course, sometimes you have to think more in some races than other ones, but Julian is also somebody who likes to race, and especially the Flemish races. Riders don’t always know how to respond.”
Last year, Alaphilippe went on the move early in Flanders to make one of the key selections of the race, after trying to go solo from 50km out in a series of attacks that took many off-guard.
Could the world champ’s dynamism be Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s answer to the unstoppable power of van Aert and van der Poel this weekend?
Maybe, if the team lets it happen.
How Alaphilippe will fit into Quick-Step’s “all for one” strategy this week remains to be seen after Asgreen, Štybar, Lampaert, and Florian Sénéchal so effectively combined to flood the zone at E3.
However, with Alaphilippe poised as the squad’s closest one-on-one match with van der Poel and van Aert, the Frenchman is likely to be front and center.
“We saw last year at Flanders that Alaphilippe is one of the best on the climbs, but is not always faster [in a sprint] against van der Poel and van Aert,” Steels said. “Our main weapon against them is our tactics and the strength of the team.”
How Deceuninck-Quick-Step races at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday may give some clues as to its plans for De Ronde. But whether as a joker card in the Quick-Step pack or as a protected team leader, Alaphilippe will be looking to bury the demons of colliding with a moto during the denouement of last year’s race.
“Dwars door Vlaanderen brings another appointment with the cobbles and we’re looking forward to it,” Steels said this week. “It will be an important race for Julian before Flanders, the combination of short climbs, narrow roads, and nervousness of the bunch being just what he needs to get in the race mode for Sunday’s big rendezvous.”