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Running with Wolves: Quick-Step Floors at the Tour de France

28 Feb 2019

This article was originally published in issue 83 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

Professional cycling is in a parlous state.

At the time of writing, Quick-Step Floors tops the UCI WorldTour rankings by a huge 3,604 points over nearest rivals Team Sky, having racked up an incredible 73 wins in 2018 (a tally that will rise to 90 by the end of the season).

Yet their perma-tanned, snow-haired general manager, Patrick Lefevere, spent the summer armed with a metaphorical begging bowl in search of a main sponsor for next season.

To rein in costs, Quick-Step has had to lose Niki Terpstra (who won both Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders for the team) to Direct Energie, and sprinter Fernando Gaviria (responsible for 11 wins in 2018) to UAE Team Emirates.

‘I’m worried most days,’ Lefevere tails off. Thankfully, they still have Julian Alaphilippe…

Morning preparations

It’s Tuesday 24th July 2018 on a steamy morning in southern France’s Languedoc area.

Inside the Hotel Mercure Carcassonne La Cité, Quick-Step riders consume the daily staples of omelettes, porridge and cherry juice.

Over breakfast, Cyclist discusses the day ahead with the team’s effortlessly cool directeur sportif, Brian Holm.

‘This is a day for Alaphilippe,’ he says.

‘He’s in the polka-dot jersey so we’ll keep keen an eye on Warren Barguil [mountains winner in 2017], but it will start with a breakaway.

‘Crosswinds and small roads are the perfect combination for someone to make headline news.’

Today’s route heads deep into the Pyrenees and is a mountain stage in the finest tradition, with two category four climbs followed by one category two and two category ones.

‘Our riders are free to race how they want,’ Holm adds. ‘They can stay in the bunch if they want as long as they focus on the mountains.’

There is growing excitement that the polka-dot climber’s jersey will remain on a Frenchman’s shoulders, and today’s profile should suit the 60kg Alaphilippe perfectly.

‘We’ll see how it goes,’ is Alaphilippe’s concise response when we ask him about his ambitions for the stage.

Alaphilippe’s punchy climbing skills are backed up by a strong team, including Terpstra, this year’s Liège winner Bob Jungels and Classics legend Philippe Gilbert.

This deep into the race, they’re one rider short of the full eight-pack – or should we say Wolfpack – as Gaviria is out.

The Colombian, who won Stages 1 and 4, was one of several sprinters to abandon on Stage 12 as the Alps took their toll.

‘There was disappointment, of course, but there are always concerns about the cut-off time before any Tour,’ Holm answers to the suggestion that the design of this year’s route killed the sprint competition.

‘Yes, Fernando will probably have a two-hour depression, and then he’ll head back to Colombia.

‘We’ll call him five or six times a week to ensure he’s good. We know how to look after our sprinters.’

A stream of dignitaries flows past, either executives of the team’s sponsors or, I suspect, simply friends of Lefevere.

Danish press officer Marc Ellegaard tells us it’s like this every day.

‘Yesterday’s rest day even included a mussels party,’ he says.

You suspect Lefevere won’t be shelling out for such frivolities if a main sponsor remains absent.

But whether it was the molluscs or not, key domestique Tim Declerq is ill.

‘If he pulls out today, we’ll have to drop you at the roadside,’ says my host for the day, soigneur Kurt van Roosbroeck.

I laugh. Van Roosbroeck doesn’t. He’s not joking.

The riders leave the hotel – thankfully including Declerq – and enter one of the two team buses.

For a team looking to save costs, two seems extravagant.

‘It’s an extra for support staff,’ says Ellegaard. ‘They can chill and reflect on the day.’

The riders can chill, too, as Ellegaard lifts the floor to reveal an ice bath for two.

‘The water’s at 13°C, which sounds warm but it feels like ice, especially after a hot day like today.’

Quick-Step plainly believe in the recuperative powers of an ice bath, although not all recovery theories are supported by the team.

When I ask Holm whether it’s true that riders need to keep riding on rest days to maintain performance, he replies, ‘All the bollocks of needing to spin your legs for 100km, it’s bullshit.

‘For us it’s about rest. Why would you ride your bicycle?’

Ready for the off

At the start line, in the shadow of Carcassonne’s medieval citadel, Alaphilippe is like a flame to moths.

The poster boy of French racing has attracted a crowd of fans who surround him as he tries to go about his pre-race business.

I’m enjoying the spectacle when Van Roosbroeck calls over.

‘We’ve got to go,’ he says, and so we climb into one of the team’s Peugeots and take off for the long drive ahead of the race.

Even for a team that averages a win every four race days, boredom is unavoidable.

Unlike most professions, however, cycling possesses the ability to punctuate monotony with moments of pure pleasure.

‘I’ve covered this race 11 or 12 times,’ says Van Roosbroeck as we drive the parcours around 45 minutes ahead of the riders.

‘The first nine years I worked every Tour. Then the wife said it might be time to go on holiday with the kids. So the next nine years I was on holiday.

‘Now the kids are grown up, it’s time for the Tour again. It’s weird as you miss it when you’re not here, and often you want to go home when you are here.’

Van Roosbroeck is a walking cycling compendium. He cites Tom Boonen as his favourite cyclist, but arguably the most eccentric was British rider Sean Yates.

‘I worked with Sean at Discovery. I remember we went on a training camp in California and the riders went out for six hours.

‘The next day was a rest day, so Yates, who was a DS, rented a bike from a local shop.

‘He didn’t have bike shoes, so just wore running shoes, and completed the same route in seven hours.

‘Later in the day, everyone’s like, “Has anyone seen Sean?” He then appears in the darkness!’

The radio crackles that, 25km in, Barguil has taken maximum points on the first climb, although Alaphilippe is on his tail.

With each mountain point doubled in the final week, every summit counts.

We drive on to the halfway mark, where our soigneurs will deposit the standard musettes of choice: water, electrolytes, gels and energy bars.

On the way, the occasional farmhouse is the only sign of humanity.

Cattle and sheep graze on the swathes of countryside that flank us either side.

The backdrop is beautifully serene – until the Pyrenees hone into view beneath dark clouds. It looks like the peloton’s cycling into a storm.

‘The race has stopped,’ our radio crackles once more.

It seems protesting farmers have blocked the road, and the gendarmerie has shown its usual diplomacy by attempting to disperse them using pepper spray.

Only the police officers have neglected to check the wind direction, and the spray has wafted into the faces of the peloton, leaving the likes of Geraint Thomas and Peter Sagan rinsing their eyes with water.

Time passes, and then there’s another message on the radio.

‘The race has resumed.’ And so does Van Roosbroeck’s tour through the history of the sport.

‘I forgot to mention that we passed an important hotel back there.

That’s where TVM were busted and I was staying close by.’

Reflecting on the past; pondering the future

TVM was a Dutch team.

On 19th July 1998, the day after Festina had been booted off the Tour, French daily Aujourd’hui reported that police had found 104 ampules of EPO in a vehicle belonging to TVM during a routine customs check.

Four days later, on the same day of the Festina arrests, French police raided the Hotel de la Rocade in Pamier, where TVM were staying.

‘There were loads of journalists there,’ says Van Roosbroeck. ‘There was clearly a tip-off.’

Six TVM riders, including Steven de Jongh and current DS at Team Sky Servais Knaven, were taken to a hospital where they gave blood, hair and urine samples.

The depleted team would eventually pull out of the Tour.

We stop briefly at a cafe in Le Mas d’Azil, where we enjoy a coffee to the melodic French-jazz version of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

Then we continue to the feed zone of Saint-Girons about 124km in.

With the main mountains to come, all is quiet in the peloton.

Alaphilippe, according to the radio, is looking strong, which prompts further reflection from Van Roosbroeck.

‘We used to have a youth team and, unbelievably, all of the juniors went on to race in pro teams.

‘Most recently, there were around 18 to 20 with six or seven riding for us.

‘That included Alaphilippe and a lad called Petr Vakoc, who broke his back earlier this year.

‘His contract was up but Lefevere kindly extended it a year to give him a chance to recover. I digress…

‘Two years ago the youth team stopped because we were spending all this time and resource on developing riders and then teams would come along and take them for nothing.

‘Now there’s a partnership with Axel Merckx’s team in the US, but it’s not the same.

‘It’s such a flawed system. Basically, if you have a big budget, you can just poach the best riders.’

I can sense the frustration in his voice, and it isn’t helped when news comes over the radio that Declerq has had to pull out of the race.

I fear that I’m facing a long walk home, but thankfully the team will squeeze me into one of their ‘dignitary’ minibuses at the feedzone.

We proceed onwards to the first major climb of the day, the Col de Portet d’Aspet.

The ascent is stiff but it’s the technical descent and walled corners that are truly fearful.

At the base of the climb, a small crowd has gathered so we pull over.

‘We stop here to pay our respects,’ says Sigfrid Eggers, a photographer who’s following the team this season.

It was here in 1995 that Italian cyclist Fabio Casartelli died after crashing into a concrete barrier.

A permanent memorial remembers a life cut short and acts as a reminder that this is a dangerous sport that should always be respected.

It’s a moment that’s brought into sharp focus an hour later.

Philippe Gilbert breaks away on the ascent of the Col de Porter-d’Aspet and forges a one-minute advantage.

He leads down the descent, but loses control on a corner, hits a low wall and flips over into the trees below.

Eggers buries his head into his hands when news arrives, but thankfully Gilbert rises again.

As Holm later tells us, ‘He was swearing, which is always a good sign.

Someone angry and loud is a much better sign than silence.’

Gilbert carries on, his clothing and knee in shreds, but he will require a hospital visit and later discovers he has broken his knee cap.

Which makes the day bittersweet for Quick-Step, as Alaphilippe takes full advantage of leader Adam Yates’ slip on the descent of the Col de Portillon to win his second stage of the race.

The Frenchman will go on to wear the polka-dot jersey all the way to Paris.

‘Today it was a crazy day,’ Alaphilippe says at the hotel later that night.

‘I had a lot of pain, but I knew the finale, especially the last climb and the downhill, because I’d done a recon.

‘I will never forget this day. It was extraordinary.’

And off he goes to his hotel room looking like a cross between a musketeer and a star of music hall, his flipped-up cap and jaunty walk at odds with his growing superstar status.

As for Holm, despite the incident-packed stage he remains cool as ever.

‘The farmers’ strike, Gilbert’s crash, Alaphilippe’s win… you could say it was a bit of a rollercoaster.’

Just like life in the precarious world of professional cycling.

Update: Lefevere’s team since secured a new title sponsor and are now known as Deceuninck-Quick-Step in 2019