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GENT, Belgium (VN) — If you think Quick-Step is racing differently without Tom Boonen, you’re right.
For years, Boonen was the gravitational center of Quick-Step across the spring classics. With “Tommeke” throwing shade on Peter Sagan from the sidelines before his first Roubaix in retirement, Quick-Step’s riders are taking full advantage of their new-found freedom.
Without a speedy finisher like Boonen or the injured Fernando Gaviria to play in the finale, Quick-Step is a new-look team. The only option to win is to attack.
“Not having Boonen changes the tactics,” said Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels. “If Gaviria was still here, we could race differently. If you have a fast guy behind, often you think to block the race in front and bring back the moves. Now we don’t have that chance, so we have to go.”
A Boonen-free Quick-Step doesn’t only mean freedom, but it means the team must race even more aggressively.
Steels said when Boonen was at his peak powers, the Belgian superstar was strong enough to win in brutal solo attacks or have the punch to win out of reduced bunch sprints.
Quick-Step’s current fleet of leaders simply does not have the finishing speed of Boonen or Gaviria, who was supposed to play a key role in this year’s northern classics before he broke his hand in a crash at Tirreno-Adriatico.
“Now we have to attack,” Steels said. “None of them really has the finishing speed of Gaviria or Boonen. That’s why we are pushing all of them at the front of the race.”
A Quick-Step without a fast-twitch sprinter has been a marvel to watch all spring.
The team has deployed its four-card flush with lethal efficiency. Niki Terpstra has emerged as the strong man of the classics and lines up as a favorite in Sunday’s climax at Paris-Roubaix. Yves Lampaert also won at Dwars door Vlaanderen with a deft late attack, while Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert are patiently waiting for their chance to fly.
The Belgian outfit is without peer and seems to be firing even smoother without former franchise rider Boonen, who retired at last year’s Paris-Roubaix.
Many have surmised that the team’s other riders are liberated simply because Boonen isn’t there anymore, but team boss Patrick Lefevere said that’s not true.
“We’ve always raced this way,” Lefevere said. “We’ve always had many leaders at the classics. What’s different this year is we don’t have a really fast sprinter to beat a guy like Sagan.”
So far, the team’s been able to avoid showdowns with much faster finishers as Van Avermaet and Sagan by pulverizing the peloton.
Gent-Wevelgem was the one major race it didn’t win. Instead, Sagan was victorious in the sprint. That was partly because Quick-Step could not entirely bust up the peloton and gap the speedier finishers. Also, its sprinter Elia Viviani found himself boxed in when the world champion accelerated to claim his third Gent-Wevelgem.
In nearly every other race, Quick-Step has taken control early and set a brutal pace to trim the front group to a dozen or so survivors.
“My job is simple. We want to make the race as hard as possible so we can drop some big names before the important part of the race,” said Quick-Step helper Iljo Keisse. “When there is a group of 15, we want to have our four leaders in there. And our rivals sometimes do not have anyone to help.”
Rivals have watched in exasperation as Quick-Step has been able to press that attack knowing they have reserves waiting to come over the top.
Terpstra knows what it’s like to lose a big race to faster finishers — he lost the 2015 Flanders to Alexander Kristoff — so he’s adroitly been able to power away from the pack in his wins at E3 Harelbeke and Ronde van Vlaanderen. Winning alone is always sweeter, but it also requires a big engine.
“There are not too many riders in the bunch who can win a race like Niki does,” Steels said. “Niki took that decision to attack [at Flanders], and it was the right moment. Stybie [Zdenek Stybar] had gone, and everyone was on their limit, so it was a good moment to go. Niki was suffering, but if you have that 1 percent extra, that’s when it’s time to go. Niki is a smart rider.”
Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix is a different kind of race than the Belgian classics. The cobblestones are rougher and luck plays a much bigger role. Every team wants to push their riders up the road early to keep their collective hopes alive.
“It’s always a big fight in Roubaix to have the right people in the front,” Steels said. “We just have to continue what we did during our last races. We cannot race differently.”
So far, Quick-Step has stayed loyal to one another. With its rivals growing ever desperate, and without a Boonen or Gaviria waiting in the bunch, the team knows the best and perhaps the only way to win is to attack.