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Quick-Step’s next challenge to keep it together

Despite the arrival of new sponsor Deceuninck, Patrick Lefevere faces a challenge of keeping talented riders on his powerhouse Belgian team.

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Quick-Step’s 2018 franchise record haul hit the crest of the wave over the weekend. Barely hours after its icing on the cake win at Guangxi — bringing its 2018 haul to 73 wins — the team is hoping to keep the wheels from coming off.

With rumored and confirmed departures of key riders, the big question is can Patrick Lefevere and co. keep its winning lineup together even with the arrival of a new title sponsor Deceuninck for 2019.

“It’s simple — you always have to keep fighting,” said team boss Patrick Lefevere. “We have had a big year because we have developed our riders. We have many riders who are winning races.”

By any measure, Quick-Step has had a tremendous season. It topped its franchise-record wins from a previous team-best of 71 wins in the Mapei glory days in 2000. Quick-Step’s 73 wins this year come close to the Columbia-HTC’s recent team-record of 85 wins in 2009 when the team was flying high with Mark Cavendish and André Greipel.

Quick-Step was competitive across the entire season, winning from the season-opener in the Santos Tour Down Under and taking “Ws” in the season-closer at the Tour of Guangxi. In between it won stage races, reached the podium in grand tours, and dominated the northern classics.

Quick-Step put three of its riders atop the most-win lists for the season. Elia Viviani led the way with 18 victories, with Julian Alaphillipe ranked fourth with 12. Fernando Gaviria won nine races to be tied for eighth on the season’s wins list.

Quick-Step’s bounty with 73 wins dwarfs the rest of the peloton. Team Sky ranked second with 43 wins and Mitchelton-Scott was third with 37.

There is a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in the peloton. Quick-Step’s 73 wins equal the season-long-haul of the bottom five teams. Ag2r La Mondiale, Sunweb, UAE-Emirates, EF Education First-Drapac, and Katusha had a combined season total of 57 victories. Quick-Step runs on a budget of around $18 million per year, while Team Sky leads the WorldTour with a budget estimated more than $35 million per year.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and not all of them are purely financial. Sky has cycling’s biggest budget but UAE-Emirates, with one of the largest pocketbooks in the peloton, won 12 races in 2018. Quick-Step’s budget is middle of the pack, but it won thanks to a mix of veterans and emerging youthful talent.

Not many teams have invested as much in developing young riders as Quick-Step. Leading the way as talent scout was Matxin Fernández, now lead sport director at UAE-Emirates. Fernández helped recruit many of the young stars making an impact at Quick-Step today.

Lefevere and team owner Zdenek Bakala invested heavily in youth, and it paid off handsomely in 2018. Many of the team’s big winners this year came through the Klein Constantia development team that started in 2013.

Though it shuttered in late 2016, the team produced impressive talent during its four-year run, including Alaphilippe, Florian Sénéchel, Petr Vakoc, Patrik Konrad (now Bora-Hansgrohe), Schachman, Enric Mas, Remi Cavagna, and Ivan Garcia (now Bahrain-Merida).

“We are always developing young talent,” Lefevere said. “I remember when [Johan Museeuw] left, everyone said you are in trouble. Then we had the same thing when [Tom] Boonen retired. The team is here always.”

Thankfully for Lefevere, Deceuninck stepped up as a new sponsorship partner to assure the team’s immediate and near future.

The irony for Lefevere is that he is losing much of his team’s punch just when he finally appears to have some money in the bank.

Leading the exits is Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie in 2019), a winner of three races this year including Ronde van Vlaanderen, who is a beast in the classics when he’s on form. Other confirmed departures include budding Belgian stage racer Laurens De Plus (LottoNL-Jumbo in 2019), German sprinter Maximilian Schachman (Bora-Hansgrohe in 2019), with three wins in 2018, and Ecuadoran climbing promise Jhonathan Narvaez (Sky in 2019). Between those riders, the team won six races in 2018.

“I don’t have a chest to draw out money when I would like,” Lefevere told Sporza last month.

Rumors are flying thick that Fernando Gaviria is poised to join UAE-Emirates. The Colombian is a proven winner across stage races, with nine wins this year including two stages in the Tour de France despite an early season injury that kept him out of the spring classics. Gaviria, 24, is poised for greatness, but it appears there isn’t enough room on the Quick-Step roster for both Gaviria and Elia Viviani.

Another rider on the rumor list was Enric Mas, who rode to second overall at the Vuelta a España, but he re-upped with the team through 2019.

“If we do lose Fernando [Gaviria], we will still have Elia [Viviani],” Lefevere told Het Laaste Nieuws. “And it is now time for our young sprinters to step forward as well.”

The challenge now for Lefevere is to keep the wheels on the cart just when things are rolling along smoother than ever before.