LONG BEACH, California (VN) — Tour de France sprinters beware: The Quick-Step Floors team is coming for your stage wins.
On Sunday afternoon, Quick-Step’s Colombian phenom Fernando Gaviria snatched the opening stage of the Amgen Tour of California, a pan-flat circuit around downtown Long Beach. The margin of victory was slim: Gaviria pipped Australian fireplug Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) by barely the width of a bike tire.
When rating each man’s lead-out train, however, Gaviria and Quick-Step won by a country mile. Mark Cavendish was isolated, so was Peter Sagan. Marcel Kittel lost his lead-out man’s wheel and bounced off of Alexander Kristoff. Ewan nearly got the job done, however, his Mitchelton-Scott teammates delivered him to the front surprisingly late in the race.
Gaviria, by contrast, was in the perfect spot as the peloton rumbled down Shoreline Drive in downtown Long Beach. When he started his kick, Gaviria still had Alvardo Hodeg and Max Richeze to punch a hole in the wind.
“I pay money for [the lead out train] — hiring the best riders and putting them in the place to do the job, that is what we do,” said Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere after the win. “It seems simple, but it is not simple.”
Gaviria’s win confirms that the Colombian is more than ready for the glitz of the Tour de France two months from now. The result is also a sign that Quick-Step’s sprint train is also ready. Richeze, one of Gaviria’s key lead-out men, said the Tour of California is always a crucial test. It allows the team to iron out its lead-out strategy and assess the strength of its rivals within a comparatively low-stress race. California race is the biggest in the U.S., but it’s not exactly the Tour.
“[California] is a chance to keep learning — we know them already, but to learn more — with all the Tour sprinters other than Greipel being here,” Richeze said. “We’re able to see how they’re going, and to see how well we can impose ourselves in the sprints.”
Impose they did. The Belgian team spent much of the day with its sprint team tucked in the peloton, sending just one rider to help with the chase. When Gaviria dropped back into the caravan later in the race, the team pedaled him back up to the bunch. And then, in the finale, Quick-Step’s coordination shone brightest. Iljo Keisse whipped up the pace in the final kilometers before swinging off, allowing Richeze and then Alvaro Hodeg to power Gaviria to the line. A few elbows from Hagens Berman-Axeon’s Jasper Philipsen did little to slow Gaviria’s victorious charge.
After the victory, team director Brian Holm said his team’s lead-out dominance requires practice, patience, and perhaps a specific psychological advantage. In those crazy final kilometers, the other riders all try to derail his team’s organization.
“It’s always a bunch of mad dogs coming in the bunch for them — there are suicide missions,” Holm said. “Luckily they are all a little bit crazy.”
They are also able to evolve. Last year Quick-Step’s sprint train came to California in service of German ace Marcel Kittel, whose stage 1 win in Sacramento was a harbinger of his five-stage haul at the Tour. The squad underwent a seismic shift in the offseason. Kittel departed for Katusha-Alpecin, rouleur Jack Bauer left for Mitchelton-Scott, and Gaviria became the new man for July.
New squad, same result.
So how does Quick-Step find ways to win the big sprints every year? The explanation is simple; the execution is nearly impeccable.
“It’s Max ahead of Gaviria, and then Hodeg in front of him, and then Iljo. They need so much faith in each other to just watch the wheel in front,” Holm said. “Sprinting is in our DNA. We know what we’re doing.”