WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — Quick-Step isn’t going to change its tune ahead of Tour of Flanders.
“You never change a winning strategy,” said Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere. “We have several riders who can win this race. We don’t have to control the others, the others have to control us.”
Aggression has been working just fine for Quick-Step’s multi-pronged attack. It brings its fleet of captains — defending champion Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, and Yves Lampaert — as well as superb workers with Tim Declercq and Iljo Keisse. So far, Quick-Step has been paving over the pavé with lethal efficiency.
“The other teams will be looking to us,” Terpstra said. “We did pretty well in the other races. What do you think we’ll do?”
It’s always better to punch first in a street brawl. Quick-Step will race just as belligerently as it has been to try to keep its rivals off-balance.
So far, Quick-Step has been deploying its numerical advantage with frightening efficiency to out-gun its top rivals Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). It’s been sending riders up the road, and when it misses a move, it has the horsepower to chase from behind.
It will be interesting to see how Quick-Step manages the bounty Sunday. So far, it’s been Terpstra and Lampaert who have pressed their cases. Gilbert and Stybar have loyally played the team cards, yet both seem to have the legs to do more. It’s not hard to imagine defending champion Gilbert and eternal podium contender Stybar being less magnanimous this weekend.
“We need to be in the right moves,” Stybar said. “It doesn’t matter which of us is there, as long as one of us is.”
Sunday’s Ronde brings added pressure and prestige. The team’s esprit de corps could crumble under the weight of the huge stakes. There are no visible cracks but personal ambitions will be on full display once the race turns into the final hour of racing.
Defending champion Gilbert avoided the poor Belgian weather this week and hid out in Monaco. He’s back just as the forecast is turning sour, with cooler temperatures and more rain and wind than expected. Add 266km, and expectations are for a punishing, brutal race Sunday. The harder the better for Gilbert.
“The distance can be a help in the monuments,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s clear from the last races you can take 12-15 names, and the winner will come from that. We still have to win. You to be there.”
Quick-Step will be facing stiff competition from the usual suspects, with two rivals standing out. Van Avermaet is still on the hunt for an elusive Flanders win, the race the 2016 Olympic champion wants to win more than any other. Sagan, who took victory at Gent-Welgevem on Sunday, looks to be peaking at just the right time after a rather uneven spring campaign.
Their best plan could be to beat Quick-Step at its own game. Seven-man rosters this year have tweaked the race dynamics. Captains are loath to miss a move, and Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen blew up as the top names showed themselves early.
Something similar could happen Sunday. If Quick-Step’s rivals decide to take it to them, the peloton could be busted into shards with 70km to go. With fewer warmer bodies, it’s harder to chase, so no one wants to be left stranded.
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“It’s more difficult to control the start and you see that teammates are even more important,” Gilbert said of smaller teams. “You can see that the tactic has changed a little bit. At a certain moment, we will have to ride.”
Behind the likes of Sagan and Van Avermaet there are another half-dozen rivals who are poised for podium challenges. Everyone seems to agree that it is Quick-Step that will have to take control of the race.
How can you break the Quick-Step stranglehold? Retired classics star Johan Museeuw tipped Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) as his favorite.
“You can beat Quick-Step if you’re stronger,” Museeuw said. “I see Vanmarcke coming up. He will need to be clever to beat Quick-Step.”
Quick-Step has won seven of the past eight Belgian races it’s started. All that success will be for naught if it falls flat Sunday. Such is the power and intrigue of Flanders. There’s only one winner. Lefevere will only be satisfied if it’s one of his.