#14 – Quick Step
I hate to say it, but Quick Step’s not even the best team in Belgium anymore. Thanks to Philippe Gilbert, Jurgen Van den Broeck, and the rest of Omega Pharma-Lotto, they’re now the “other guys” of Belgian Cycling. Need further proof? Patrick Lefevere sold a majority stake in the team to two Czech millionaires in order to raise the money necessary to guarantee the team’s existence for at least another 3 years—and to buy the contract of Czech cyclocross star Zdenek Stybar. If that’s not desperation, then I don’t know what is.
That said, despite a rough 2010 and an arguably rough transfer season for the team, there’s still a lot of firepower left in the stable. Tom Boonen is one of the sport’s most dominant superstars when he’s on his game—Tommeke was shut out during last year’s classics after winning at least one in five of the prior six seasons. And while Stijn Devolder left for Vacansoleil, Sylvain Chavanel could prove to be an even better replacement as he’s shown an ability to perform well in Flanders and on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix—a race in which Devolder failed to impress.
Quick Step’s offseason imports include Gerald Ciolek and Francesco Chicchi, two sprinters who will look to score stage wins in minor stage races and Grand Tours, with Ciolek an outside bet to win one at the Tour should he and Boonen get their lead-out right. And don’t forget Niki Terpstra—the reigning Dutch champ progressed steadily during his time at Milram. With a stronger team and at a least a slightly protected role, he could be a surprise winner of one of this spring’s semi-classics. Last but not least, Gert Steegmans returns to Quick Step for 2011, hoping to repeat some of the success he had while riding for the team three years ago. If he stays healthy through February and March, he’ll be yet another card for Quick Step to play in April.
As far as GC riders are concerned, there was talk of Kevin Seeldraeyers joining VDBeke to form a new generation of Belgian Grand Tour contenders, but he failed miserably in 2010—he’ll have to pull a good result at some point this year to avoid being labeled as Belgium’s Remi DiGregorio. Luckily, he’s only 24—there’s still time for a turnaround.
But in the end, the success of Quick Step’s season will again be determined by mid- April. Should Boonen find himself on the top step at either Roubaix or Flanders (I’d prefer to see him take a third Ronde), all will be right with the wereld. After all, yellow jerseys and Tour stages are nice, but considering how the team’s imports have been the ones earning them, they’re hollow victories to most of the team’s home fans.
Man of the Hour: Sylvain Chavanel was the darling of last year’s Tour de France, fighting valiantly to take two stages and the yellow jersey. Chavanel’s July success underscored his talent—talent that went largely absent during the cobbled classics early in the season. But without Stijn Devolder, Chavanel will have the support and freedom to function as Tom Boonen’s first lieutenant—a role he often lacked thanks to the presence of two talented Belgians above him on the totem pole. Chava’s currently targeting Paris-Nice—a race in which he’s performed well in the past. Should things go well there, expect the Frenchman to contend from Dwars door Vlaanderen through Paris-Roubaix.
On the Hot Seat: 2010 was arguably Tom Boonen’s most lackluster season since becoming a professional. The season started well enough with second-place finishes in Milan-San Remo, the E3 Prijs, and the Tour of Flanders (and fifth in Roubaix). But for Tom Boonen, second place isn’t good enough—especially in the classics. With a stage win already in Qatar, Boonen looks to have shaken-off the effects of his knee injury from last year’s ATOC. But rest assured, with powerful teams like LEOPARD TREK and Garmin-Cervelo ready to challenge Quick Step in the classics and compatriot Philippe Gilbert enjoying “most popular rider” status in Belgium, Boonen will be feeling the heat this spring.
Up-and-Comer: Should Boonen, Ciolek, and Steegmans head to this year’s Tour healthy and in-form, Quick Step will have the makings of one of the race’s most up-and-coming lead-out trains. Boonen and Steegmans have won Tour field sprints in the past—they might be better served at this point in their careers pulling for the younger, faster Ciolek.
Best Pick-Up: My gut tells me Niki Terpstra is about to enjoy a breakout season. At 26, the Dutchman’s entering his prime, a fact indicated by consistent performance in last year’s cobbled classics (highlighted by third-place finish in Dwars door Vlaanderen while riding for a relatively underpowered Milram squad). This year he gets to ride for a team that knows how to win these races, while having the added benefit of a team captain who will attract most of the attention. Dwars, Harelbeke, and the Brabantsepijl—watch for Terpstra’s red, white, and blue jersey.
Biggest Loss: Carlos Barredo and Stijn Devolder are bigger names, but Quick Step lost two valuable domestiques in Kevin Hulsmans and Maarten Wijnants this past off-season—men that will be missed in the classics. Hulsmans is the biggest loss—one of Boonen’s most reliable assistants, the Belgian had been with Quick Step since 2000 and knows every centimeter of road in Belgium and northern France. Wijnants is younger, but no less valuable—he finished inside the top-15 in E3, the Ronde, and Paris-Roubaix last year, results that likely caught the eye of Rabobank, his new employer.
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