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Rivals search for ways to crack Quick-Step code ahead of Flanders

Rivals are flummoxed by Deceuninck-Quick-Step's control of the classics, but longer, harder races like Roubaix and Flanders may offer new chances.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Despite a hiccup in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, Deceuninck-Quick-Step rolls into the Ronde van Vlaanderen as the team to beat.

The Belgian super team continues to swarm and control the one-days in a way that Team Sky dominates the Tour de France, confounding rivals at every turn. They do this with a mix of elements, from collective tactics and a deep bench to a historical pedigree and an unflinching pressure to win on home roads. How to beat them is another story.

Teams and rivals pedal into the Tour of Flanders searching for answers on how to crack to the Deceuninck-Quick-Step (DQS) code.

“They are so motivated, so organized — what can we do against them?” said veteran sport director Dirk Demol of Katusha-Alpecin. “It looks like they are almost unbeatable, and they always have one, two, or three big leaders in every scenario.”

Rivals agree that it’s the team’s collective depth that makes it so challenging to beat Quick-Step.

Patrick Lefevere’s self-styled “Wolfpack” brings such leaders as Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, or Philippe Gilbert, backed by a deep supporting cast with enough firepower to field two classics squads. That means DQS can cover moves and send riders on the attack, and leave at least one of their captains marking the wheels. The team played that tactical card perfectly in a sublime victory at E3 BinckBank Classic, sending Bob Jungels up the road, leaving eventual winner Stybar to save his legs for the reduced-bunch sprint.

That kind of numerical advantage often knocks rival teams on their heels and leaves them searching for ways to unravel the tactical puzzle.

“Quick-Step is a factor in every team bus meeting before the race,” said ex-pro Erik Zabel, who is working as performance director at Katusha-Alpecin. “That group rides like a block. If we just have our leader there, Quick-Step still has four or five riders in the game. That’s why it is so hard to race against them.”

Luxembourg champion Bob Jungels romped through E3 Harelbeke, riding off the front in a perfect move that set up his teammate Zdenek Stybar (second from R) for the win. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Dating back to the 1990s, DQS boss Lefevere has consistently built up a strong classics legacy that controls the tempo and tactics of the major one-day races on the Flemish calendar. Ex-pro Fabian Cancellara was the only rider during the Tom Boonen era who could single-handedly derail the Quick-Step train.

Many thought that Boonen’s retirement in 2017 might offer an opening for rivals. Instead, Boonen’s exit seems to have released an even more effective all-for-one, one-for-all communal tactic. Rather than racing around one big leader like Boonen, the team now goes into the classics with two or three would-be winners for every scenario in every major race.

Lefevere keeps the collective wheels turning by paying his riders well and by adhering to the notion that it’s the team that must win, not the individual.

“You see the riders do not attack each other because they know that if they are doing their job, one day now or later, they will have their chance,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Laurenzo Lapage. “They know that if one day they are the one in position to win, they will have the entire team working for them.”

Of course, rivals are not just taking it lying down. At Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, teams threw their collective might at DQS to catch them out in an early move. Trek-Segafredo, Bora-Hansgrohe, and Jumbo-Visma all had numbers off the front, putting pressure on Lefevere’s troops to lead the chase. Even when the scales are tipped against them, however, DQS can battle back still holding a card to play for the victory. Only a botched sprint by Elia Viviani cost DQS a chance to win in Wevelgem.

That opening Sunday, coupled with hints of superlative strength from Greg Van Avermaet and Wout van Aert in Friday’s E3 BinckBank Classic, are giving rivals hopes of glory in Oudenaarde.

“I see great things from Quick-Step riders, but honestly, man against man, I don’t think they are so much better than the others,” said Zabel. “Man against man, I would say they are equal, but if you have one against three, then it is hard. But if you can isolate them, I think they are beatable.”

That divide-and-conquer strategy is what rivals see is their best chance to beat DQS at its own game. When it’s mano-a-mano, several teams believe they have stronger individual riders that what Quick-Step is packing.

“You cannot wait for Quick-Step to move, otherwise you are playing their card,” Lapage said. “You have to race your own race and try to put your leader against theirs. It is not easy, but they are not unbeatable.”

It’s in the longest and most important races such as Flanders and Paris-Roubaix where DQS’s numerical advantage might fall apart. There are only a few select riders who can go the “monument” distance, and still have the legs to try to win races at distances more than 250km.

Rival teams such as CCC Team or Bora-Hansgrohe line up with one singular leader, Van Avermaet or Peter Sagan, respectively. These riders know that in the sixth hour, their individual strength can still overcome the unified force of Quick-Step.

“In the last hour of a big race, I am very confident in myself,” Sagan said. “But anything can happen. A puncture or a technical problem, it could go from a very good day to a very bad day.”

CCC’s Van Avermaet expressed dismay at how Gent-Wevelgem played out tactically, but he is also confident that his legs can deliver the big win Sunday at Flanders.

“Flanders is another race, the legs count and the strongest will win there,” said CCC sport director Valerio Piva. “Greg needs to stay calm; he’s strong. He just doesn’t have to spend energy early, but just be there in the final when the favorites battle each other.”

Jumbo-Visma also lines up with a strong team rallied around van Aert, who’s been knocking at the door of victory with podiums at Harelbeke and Strade Bianche.

“I think individually, Wout is as strong as anyone in the peloton right now,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels. “It’s not easy to race against Quick-Step, but in Flanders, it always comes down to who is the strongest riders. We believe Wout will be there.”

To win Sunday, rival teams need to put pressure on DQS early and try to make the race as selective and aggressive as possible to create the scenario when the Van Avermaet’s and Sagan’s of the peloton are racing one-on-one against just one of Quick-Step’s arsenal of riders. But if the Wolfpack runs as one again on Sunday, Flanders could be theirs.