Tom Steels is no stranger when it comes to competing for Tour de France selection with rival sprinters.
During his prime at Patrick Lefevere’s Mapei squad, the Belgian went up against the likes of Jan Svorada and Stefano Zanini when it came to roster selection.
These days Steels is part of Lefevere’s management structure, but his experience and knowledge in relation to building programs around sprinters is second to none.
So when he tells VeloNews that it’s not viable to bring to two sprinters to the Tour de France, it’s worth listening to.
And this time around the debate over which sprinter QuickStep should bring to the Tour de France is as close as it’s been in years, with Fabio Jakobsen and Mark Cavendish both battling for one single sprint place.
“The key is, and it’s why we always have a lot of sprinters in the team, is that winning is the best boost you can have,” Steels tells VeloNews when we ask him what the trick is to managing several top level sprinters.
“It keeps the momentum rolling and that’s why you need a lot of sprinters,” he said. “Of course, the better that they get, they more difficult it gets and you always end up with the same discussions about the big tours.
“But you need at least two or three good sprinters. It also gives the other guys a task at every race. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but they need something to do. There’s nothing worse, and I talked riders who come from other teams and sometimes you just ride until you get dropped. That’s the worst you can have. At least here you have a goal. There’s always a task.”
When you set a race-plan as a team & execute it almost to perfection, Victory feels much more than just winning.
To win @uae_tour in Abu Dhabi is particularly special to me. Such a privilege to race with all the young guys, both in @qst_alphavinyl & in other teams.
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) February 22, 2022
This year both Cavendish and Jakobsen have hit the ground running with both riders winning at a canter. The initial talk from within the camp was that Jakobsen had been penciled in for the Tour, with Cavendish set to be dispatched to the Giro d’Italia.
There has been a degree of walking back on that stance in the last week or two, with both Lefevere, sport director Brian Holm and Steels all indicating that nothing has been set in stone.
Whether that’s because Cavendish has started the season stronger than expected or because the hierarchy realize that edging each sprinter to excel merely helps racks up the wins, isn’t clear.
“You have to see it at positive motivation. You have to be sharp and you have to be the best you can be,” Steels said. “Once we went to the Tour with two sprinters, and I can’t say that it was easy. You just have to keep it positive and at the end you always try and give every ride a good program. That’s the goal. Even if you take at rider away from one race, you try and make sure that he has another opportunity somewhere else.
“You just stay out of each other’s way but also I must say that I won a sprint in the Tour because of Svorada. It just depends on the situation. The best thing for us in that race was that we both won stages quickly in the Tour. I won one, he won one.
“Nowadays you can’t take two sprinters to the Tour de France. The battle is different now. You almost need a full team or three quarters of a team to control the race, especially for us because we’re always there to control from the beginning. You need everybody.”
The reduction of Tour rosters from nine starters to eight doesn’t help, either.
It’s not clear how Cavendish or Jakobsen can put distance between each other in the race for a Tour de France spot if both riders keep winning with such proficiencies. It’s a good problem for Lefevere and Steels to wrestle with, but for now it looks like Jakobsen at least has a head start in the most importance race of his season.
So what does Cavendish have to do to take the lead?
“We have to see. It’s still a long way and a lot can happen. It’s still not in our program,” Steels said. “I must say that they are both riding well and they’re both on a high level. For the moment we’re just trying to win as many races as we can with the both. For the moment it’s not even a discussion. For now, for both we just say win races and be ready.”