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Despite the personnel shift, officials from the team are confident that the ‘Wolfpack’ will keep hunting on in 2020.
“On the count of winning, I think we’ll be pretty close to the same amount. We never really know,” longtime Sport Director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “It will be hard to replace Gilbert. But for sure, the way we ride tactically will be just the same, with or without him.”
Quick-Step has topped the leaderboard of race wins per season since 2013, but will lose some key faces in 2020. Along with head wolf Gilbert, Italian sprinter Elia Viviani and Spanish GC contender Enric Mas move on to pastures new, with Viviani moving to Cofidis and Mas to home team Movistar.
Holm joined the squad as a director in 2012, and has been one of the more vocal directors over the past few seasons. Midway through 2019, Holm announced he would take a step back from full-time directing in 2020. He will remain involved with the team, however.
2019 was a stellar year for the team, highlighted by victories at Milano-SanRemo (Julian Alaphilippe), Paris Roubaix (Gilbert), and a remarkable run through the Tour de France with Alaphilippe’s against-the-odds 14 days in the yellow jersey.
“Can we repeat [2019’s success]? Good question,” Holm said. “A year like that, with Phil winning Roubaix, it was quite something.”
Gilbert’s role on the team extended beyond winning races. He was equally important off the bike in uniting his riders and mentoring youngsters on the squad such as Remco Evenepoel and rising young sprinter Fabio Jakobsen.
“We need new leaders [after the departure of Gilbert],” Holm said. “But to actually replace Gilbert? No-one can do it. He was the alpha wolf.”
“A leader is not only about winning, but about motivating the young kids and encouraging the others,” Holm said. “We have someone like Michael Morkov to look after the kids. Of course, he’ll never be like Gilbert, but he will be good. Zdenek Stybar, Bob Jungels and Yves Lampaert will also make good lead roles.”
Though Quick-Step hasn’t tried to replace Gilbert with a similarly-seasoned classics veteran, Irish sprinter Sam Bennett is heavily rumored to be filling the sprint shoes of Viviani. Should the contract be signed, Holm is confident that the team has scooped not only a flat-out sprinter, but a rider who could bring the versatility of Gilbert to the team. Through his illustrious career, Gilbert flourished in both the hilly Ardennes classics and the heavy cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix, winning all the monuments except Milano-Sanremo.
While Bennett has yet to ink a contract with the team, Holm acknowledged that there is a chance the Irishman could end up on the team.
“It will be interesting with Bennett,” Holm said. “He can get over the small climbs also. It’s the first time in many years where we’ll be working with a sprinter who doesn’t need four or five riders to support him.”
Bennett’s two sprint wins at the Vuelta a España this summer are testament to his ability to stick it out over the lumpy ground, with both of his victories coming at the end of grippy, rolling stages.
“He’ll always get over those small climbs,” Holm said. “He could win Milano-Sanremo. I think he could win almost any classic on the cobblestones, Roubaix, Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem. He will always be quite close.”
“Bennett is like Sean Kelly, winning from the front. He’s much more than a normal sprinter. To be honest I think he could even win Paris-Roubaix or Flanders. And then with Alaphilippe, [Kasper] Asgreen, [Bob] Jungels, [Yves] Lampaert around him, it will be interesting. He’s good now and no rider comes here and gets worse.”
Though Bennett won’t be helped settle into the team by recently-departed alpha wolf Gilbert, Holm is confident team manager Patrick Lefevre will keep the pack together and hunting in the same direction.
“Patrick understands and supports the staff 110 percent, like his kids,” Holm said. “The whole spirit that we stick together comes from Patrick, he’s the godfather of the team. It will be strange without Gilbert, but the team will still be united under Patrick.”
With the team hoping Bennett will keep Quick-Step on sprint and classics podiums in 2020, will there be a push for a grand tour after Alaphilippe’s raid on the Tour de France in 2019? The versatile Frenchman has already said he’ll be targeting stages rather than the overall in France as he saves his energies for the Olympic road race, which falls just six days after the Tour.
Whether Alaphilippe has his eyes on yellow or not, the team still has GC options after the departure of young Spaniard Mas. Rising Brit James Knox looked set for a top-10 at the 2019 Vuelta before slipping down to 11th in the final weekend, and provides a wildcard option alongside the likes of Jungels.
“We’ll continue the same way in the stage races,” Holm said. “In the first few days you push, but if you start losing time, you sit up and lose more time and go for stage wins, that’s how we do it. Keep it flexible.”
Will 2020 see Quick-Step at the top of the race win league again? Nothing is set in stone. But you can be sure that they’ll be close.
“No race is too small, we’re always starting a race to win it,” Holm said. “That culture comes from the top. Patrick will keep us moving, even without Gilbert.”