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Quick-Step boldly pedals into post-Boonen era

For the first time since 2003, the Belgian-based team does not have Tom Boonen on its roster after the legendary rider retired.

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CALPE, Spain (VN) — Everything looked the same as Quick-Step Floors gathered for its annual pre-season training camp along Spain’s sunny Mediterranean Coast. Mechanics built bikes. Staffers huddled for scheduling meetings. VIPs hung around the bar. Riders put in some long rides to blow out the cobwebs.

It might have seemed like the venerable Belgian outfit was hitting the repeat button for its 16th year in the elite peloton, but something was fundamentally different. For the first time since 2003, Quick-Step will pedal into the racing season without Tom Boonen.

“We won a lot with Tom, and we won a lot without him,” said Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere. “Everyone knows what Tom meant to me and to cycling. There is no replacing him. That doesn’t mean we just go home. We keep fighting.”

The 63-year-old Lefevere walked a tight rope over the past 12 months trying to stitch together a sponsorship platform to keep the team alive for 2018 and beyond.

Most of the sponsors have been with Lefevere for years, but Boonen’s exit caused many of the Belgian-based businesses to reflect on their larger commitment to the sport. Boonen emerged as one of Belgium’s biggest sports stars, and everyone wanted to be hitched to his wagon. Cycling runs deep in Belgium, however, and that strong cultural link helped save the day. As one sponsor who’s been with Lefevere for 25 years said, “the longer I support cycling, the longer I will live.”

“There was a point last summer that I thought it was all over,” Lefevere admitted. “We made a big push because this team is special. And we have so many young, talented riders that I just didn’t want to let that all go away. Now we are on a good way.”

Tomeke’s retirement certainly didn’t come as a surprise. Lefevere knew well in advance that his marquee rider and superstar would be exiting at the Roubaix Velodrome last April. So he started planting the seeds a few years ago.

Along with Boonen, some other big names also exited. Marcel Kittel and Dan Martin each left for big-money contracts. Also out the door were Jack Bauer, Gianluca Brambila, David de la Cruz, Julian Vermote, and reliable Italian veteran Matteo Trentin.

The team shrinks by two riders, from 29 to 27, coming into 2018. That’s in large part due to new UCI rules reducing roster sizes in WorldTour races.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in new riders over the past few years,” Lefevere said. “Now it is their turn to ride at the front.”

Lefevere didn’t open his checkbook to sign a superstar to fill Boonen’s void. Elia Viviani, Michael Morkov, and budding classics star Florian Sénéchal are the only established pros new for 2018, but none of them are on the same level as Boonen. Four rookies round out the seven new recruits.

Instead of signing a slew of big names to try to fill Boonen’s shoes, Lefevere is giving his budding superstars a chance to step up.

Julian Alaphilippe, Bob Jungels, and Fernando Gaviria will have an open road going into 2018. All three will be at the Tour de France.

“I think Gaviria is a serial killer,” Lefevere said. “He wants to win everything. There is no limit to his ambition.”

Defending Tour of Flanders champion Philippe Gilbert is back for a second year as part of a two-year contract extension and helps add luster to the roster. Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar will also see more freedom, along with more pressure, now that Boonen is no longer the anchor for the northern classics.

“I still feel the same emotion and excitement at the start of a racing season,” Lefevere said with a twinkle in his eye. “Modern cycling has changed. What hasn’t changed is the thrill of winning. That’s what we work for.”

Boonen might not be a racer anymore, but the wheel keeps turning. Lefevere kept the wheels on the wagon, and his team will likely be a factor in just about any race it starts.