Last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix was the first edition that Patrick Lefevere’s Quick Step-Innergetic teamÂ failed to net a single rider in the top ten since its inceptionÂ in 2001, when they split from the powerhouse Mapei team. Â In its lifetime, it has won Paris-Roubaix in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2008, andÂ 2009 – the last three with their superstar Tom Boonen. Add to that victories in de Ronde in 2005, 2006 with Boonen, and inÂ 2008, 2009 with Devolder, andÂ finally, during that same period, a smattering of otherÂ classics such as MSR in 2003, Lombardia in 2006 and 2007Â with Bettini, and a large assortment of semi-classics. Â Bottom line, this is a team built for the classics, and it’s experienced a decade of remarkable success.
Lefevere was sufficiently bullish that only last year heÂ proposed the formation of a Belgian super team, mergingÂ Lotto, Quick Step and OmegaPharma.
Occasionally Lefevere experiments with a General Classification rider for theÂ Grand Tours, but they consistently falter and it appears thatÂ Lefevere has dropped that ambition for the time being toÂ focus on races that Belgians care about: the Spring Classics. And as QSI’s roster of notable winners makes clear, they are a team that focuses on its star riders. BettiniÂ had his contingent of Italians and Spaniards, and BoonenÂ his Merry Band of Flemings. Despite a regularly star-studded roster, they’re rarely shy aboutÂ sending their super-lieutenants from their well-stocked quiver: Nuyens and Pozzato both won big races to takeÂ advantage of the attention of the QSI captains, and it canÂ be argued that Devolder has benefited similarly. Sylvain Chavanel’s long break in the 2009 RVV arguably setÂ Devolder up for his second win, and Chavanel is ever more readyÂ to take up the mantle of leader as he spectacularlyÂ demonstrated in last week’s 2011 RVV. That leavesÂ Lefevere with the dilemma of having to balance not onlyÂ the two stars, but also the level of support in recruitment.
In recent years however, Boonen’sÂ band of supporters have dispersed. Weylandt went toÂ Leopard-Trek, Hulsmans went to Donkers Coffee-JellyÂ Belly, Tosatto went to Saxo Bank-Sunguard, and of course Devolder went to Vacansoleil – a veritable exodus considering the departures a few years earlier of perennial classics potentials Nick Nuyens and Pippo Pozzato. Prodigal child Gerg Steegmans left, too – but he wasÂ welcomed back to the fold after a few seasons.
Lefevere may have beenÂ handling the media frenzy with his usual confidence andÂ firm grip prior to PR, but the fact that they had to startÂ newbies in the race was not a good sign. One can argue that it’s hard to justify keeping theÂ supporters when their main star is injured or caught yetÂ in another off-competition “fun doping” scandal. And perhapsÂ the supporters themselves want to try their hand at winning. But it’s undeniable that being a marked rider means thatÂ a strong team has to apply pressure on the competition. Â Boonen himself knows this all too well.
What happens then at the QSI dinner table after Paris-Roubaix?Â Lefevere has helpfully suggested that Boonen has toÂ “earn his wages” just as his contract expires in 2011. At the same time, Lefevere must, too – he had to find newÂ financing only late last year, culminating with theÂ high-profile recruitment of cyclocross World Champion Zdenek Stybar and leaving LefevereÂ with only 20% ownership in the team. All this only a few yearsÂ after having to hustle to convince Quick StepÂ to continue financing the team.
Of course, Boonen’s manager has helpfully suggested thatÂ other teams are interested in Boonen.
Lefevere can be a demanding boss – to wit, see how heÂ castigated VDB after his “come back,” finishing secondÂ in the 2003 RVV behind a superhuman Peter van Petegem. Â He knows that winning is everything, and that superstar attention is ever hungry for results to justify the hype andÂ expectation.
Will Lefevere continue to back Boonen or will he put moreÂ weight on the Chavanel stock? With Boonen’s springÂ season effectively over, it may be up to Chavanel to earnÂ wins for the team, and the two of them may have to settle this question at the Grand Tours. Lefevere would love nothingÂ more than a successful Tour de France, and so does Boonen -Â just in time for contract negotiations. Ominiously, neither Boonen, Steegmans, nor Chavanel are scheduled to start tomorrow’s Brabantse Pijl – a curious move. It’s hard to read that as anything but a retreat after a thoroughly defeated Spring campaign.