Last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix was the first edition that Patrick Lefevere’s Quick Step-Innergetic team failed to net a single rider in the top ten since its inception in 2001, when they split from the powerhouse Mapei team. In its lifetime, it has won Paris-Roubaix in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2008, and 2009 – the last three with their superstar Tom Boonen. Add to that victories in de Ronde in 2005, 2006 with Boonen, and in 2008, 2009 with Devolder, and finally, during that same period, a smattering of other classics such as MSR in 2003, Lombardia in 2006 and 2007 with Bettini, and a large assortment of semi-classics. 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 he proposed the formation of a Belgian super team, merging Lotto, Quick Step and OmegaPharma.
Occasionally Lefevere experiments with a General Classification rider for the Grand Tours, but they consistently falter and it appears that Lefevere has dropped that ambition for the time being to 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. Bettini had his contingent of Italians and Spaniards, and Boonen his Merry Band of Flemings. Despite a regularly star-studded roster, they’re rarely shy about sending their super-lieutenants from their well-stocked quiver: Nuyens and Pozzato both won big races to take advantage of the attention of the QSI captains, and it can be argued that Devolder has benefited similarly. Sylvain Chavanel’s long break in the 2009 RVV arguably set Devolder up for his second win, and Chavanel is ever more ready to take up the mantle of leader as he spectacularly demonstrated in last week’s 2011 RVV. That leaves Lefevere with the dilemma of having to balance not only the two stars, but also the level of support in recruitment.
In recent years however, Boonen’s band of supporters have dispersed. Weylandt went to Leopard-Trek, Hulsmans went to Donkers Coffee-Jelly 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 was welcomed back to the fold after a few seasons.
Lefevere may have been handling the media frenzy with his usual confidence and firm grip prior to PR, but the fact that they had to start newbies in the race was not a good sign. One can argue that it’s hard to justify keeping the supporters when their main star is injured or caught yet in another off-competition “fun doping” scandal. And perhaps the supporters themselves want to try their hand at winning. But it’s undeniable that being a marked rider means that a strong team has to apply pressure on the competition. Boonen himself knows this all too well.
What happens then at the QSI dinner table after Paris-Roubaix? Lefevere has helpfully suggested that Boonen has to “earn his wages” just as his contract expires in 2011. At the same time, Lefevere must, too – he had to find new financing only late last year, culminating with the high-profile recruitment of cyclocross World Champion Zdenek Stybar and leaving Lefevere with only 20% ownership in the team. All this only a few years after having to hustle to convince Quick Step to continue financing the team.
Of course, Boonen’s manager has helpfully suggested that other teams are interested in Boonen.
Lefevere can be a demanding boss – to wit, see how he castigated VDB after his “come back,” finishing second in the 2003 RVV behind a superhuman Peter van Petegem. He knows that winning is everything, and that superstar attention is ever hungry for results to justify the hype and expectation.
Will Lefevere continue to back Boonen or will he put more weight on the Chavanel stock? With Boonen’s spring season effectively over, it may be up to Chavanel to earn wins for the team, and the two of them may have to settle this question at the Grand Tours. Lefevere would love nothing more than a successful Tour de France, and so does Boonen – 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.