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The boss: Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere profile

James Witts
2 Jul 2019

Patrick Lefevere is arguably the most successful cycling manager in history. Cyclist heads to Belgium to meet the Wolfpack’s alpha male

This feature was originally published in Issue 88 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Sean Hardy

‘He’s the guiding spirit of the greatest team in his sport. Perhaps, pound for pound, the greatest team in any sport today.’ So said The Guardian’s Richard Williams in March 2019, but who was he talking about? Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola perhaps? Or the All Blacks’ Steve Hansen?

‘He exists in the modern world less as a reminder of a cherished past than as master of the present,’ Williams adds. The ‘master’ in question is Patrick Lefevere, manager of Belgian WorldTour team Deceuninck-QuickStep.

He’s a man whose racing and managerial palmarès stretches back four decades; a man who has cultivated the most successful team of modern times; but also a man who some feel is ill-informed and outdated.

In January, Lefevere was criticised for suggesting a woman was only after money after one of his riders, Ilio Keisse, was kicked off the Vuelta a San Juan for miming a sex act while posing with the female fan.

‘I’m straight. Sometimes too straight,’ Lefevere tells Cyclist when we meet him at the Deceuninck-QuickStep service course in an industrial estate in Flanders. ‘But you will never catch me lying. If I can’t say anything, I shut up. But I prefer my style than someone who’s gentle but inside is not gentle. They never say anything.’

Driven by success

QuickStep in their various forms have topped the UCI winning rankings for the past six seasons. It would have been seven but they drew with Sky in 2012 – taking 51 victories each – and the British team edged it thanks to 144 podium places versus 115.

Not that Lefevere cares. With 403 wins between 2012 and 2018, podium spots are mere footnotes. Lefevere is driven by winning. Second and third are simply indications that more is required – from his team and from him. After an astonishing Spring Classics campaign this year, it’s clear those demands have been met.

Heading into the Tour de France, Lefevere’s Deceuninck-QuickStep outfit has 39 victories in 2019, more than any other team.

But it’s the quality rather than the quantity of wins that has had many lauding the Belgian, who can boast two Monument wins – through Julian Alaphilippe at Milan-San Remo and Philippe Gilbert at Paris-Roubaix – among his team’s successes in 2019. That’s on top of further Classics wins at La Flèche Wallonne, Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Strade Bianche…

These victories come despite QuickStep having lost Fernando Gaviria, who had taken 31 wins in three seasons, to UAE Team Emirates this year to ease the wage bill. He also lost former Roubaix and Flanders winner Niki Terpstra, yet one of Lefevere’s greatest strengths is his knack for catalysing collective willpower to eclipse any shortage in firepower.

‘It comes down to me being a bookkeeper,’ Lefevere says. ‘I have to raise money while many of my competitors are supported by their governments: Lotto-Soudal, Astana, FDJ… 

‘If there’s a hole in our finances, I pay. And I’m not used to putting private money into my team. I should take money out! But I am used to playing with numbers, and making good calculations.

‘The riders are a balance sheet,’ he adds. ‘You have a sheet of paper with a column down the middle – debit on one side, credit on the other. You need to manage their strengths and weaknesses to keep the team in credit. Of course, I’d prefer to keep hold of our stronger riders and, where possible, have done. Tom [Boonen] spent 15 years with me, Johan [Museeuw] 11, Terpstra eight.’

But, says Lefevere, riders are temporary. Cycling’s notoriously fragile business model, hamstrung by a persistent lack of TV revenue, ticketing income and transfer funds, means contracts are usually for not longer than three years, and often are just for one. This is why, he adds, the permanent edifices of any team – the directeurs sportif, soigneurs, marketing team – are so invaluable.

‘The people around you are the structure of your house. If you build on sand, you collapse. If you have a good foundation, you’ll stay powerful. Wilfried [Peeters, former racer, now directeur sportif] has been with me for 25 years; Yvan [Vanmol, doctor] 26 years; Alessandro [Tagner, communication manager] 19 years.’

Stability in itself is no guarantee of success, of course. It needs to be aligned with tactical acumen, the support staff’s own racing experience and Lefevere’s instinct.

As an example, Lefevere reminisces about his time managing Domo-Farm Frites-Latexco. ‘It was December 2000 and the team was a mess. We had a World Champion, Romans Vainsteins, and he was 10kg overweight. Museeuw was recovering from a motorbike injury so was off form. Come Paris-Roubaix the following April we hadn’t registered one good result.

‘That day I was co-commentating for a Belgian television channel and we were located up the course. It was muddy on this stretch but at the start in Compiegne it was dry. We had a good number of riders in the front group of 20 or 25 and, with the rain, it was imperative to hit the wet cobbled section in front to avoid crashing.

‘So I called our DS and said, “Gas!” He said, “No, it’s too far out.” But I repeated it and said no one will come back, the race is done.’ The team obeyed orders. No one did come back, and Domo-Farm Frites-Latexco enjoyed a clean sweep of the podium, with Servais Knaven (who is now DS at Team Ineos) the winner.

Black sheep

There’s one thing about that story that doesn’t feel right. If Lefevere was the mastermind behind the team, why was he commentating at Roubaix for TV rather than directing from the team car?

‘I’d just had a pancreatic tumour removed,’ Lefevere replies. ‘It was diagnosed on the 21st September 2000 and I had the operation on the 7th November. Prior to the operation, Domo contacted me to become team manager and I said yes. The doctor said to me I should convalesce at home for six months.

‘Instead, I spent a month recovering at Leuven University Clinic and then headed to the team’s training camp. I wasn’t supposed to travel but my friend had a private plane and I flew from Wevelgem to Mallorca.

‘I remember being in the hospital, looking under the sheets, seeing all these pipes, but you can’t see your “little brother”,’ he laughs, nervously. ‘But it doesn’t help staying at home and complaining. I only went to Mallorca for two days but I reckon it helped my recovery 20 per cent. You have to work again because this is your life, this is your passion.’

Lefevere points to his head, indicating that he wrestles with the cancer to this day. ‘But I’ve always been brave,’ he says. That braveness expressed itself early on, with Lefevere forging a cycling career despite coming from a family involved in the car business. The black sheep, he says.

He turned professional at 21, won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and a stage of the Vuelta a España, and then, inexplicably, in 1980 at just 25, he retired. No injury, no health breakdown, Lefevere simply stopped.

‘I had the brains to win, which has helped me as a manager, but I didn’t have the legs to win the big races. I’d read about Eddy Merckx and his nice villa and I wanted that. But I could see that every year as a professional, my villa would shrink! I chose to become a professional, but I also chose to stop when I wanted to.’

Lefevere immediately morphed into directeur sportif at the team he’d just raced for, Marc VRD. Playing conductor to the cycling choristers beneath him, many of whom were older than him (including Bradley Wiggins’ father Gary), moulded Lefevere’s bloody-mindedness and strength of character.

When the team folded, Lefevere moved to Capri-Sonne in 1981. ‘But then they stopped so I became a full-time bookkeeper. I returned as DS for Lotto between 1985 and 1987, before moving to TVM in 1988. They proposed a three-year contract but I didn’t like the style of the house, so I left.’

Lefevere moved to Domex-Weinmann. ‘But it was tough. We were struggling to find money. Nothing changes,’ he says with a laugh.

It was his time at GB-MG from 1991 to 1994 that Lefevere says proved a pivotal period in his career. ‘I’d got Wilfried Peeters and Johan Museeuw to join the team. These were successful riders but we needed them to help Mario Cipollini in the lead out. ‘The collective mindset worked because we won a lot, not only Classics but stage races. We also finished third in the Tour.’

In 1995, Lefevere moved to Mapei, the Italian team that had become one of the strongest in the history of cycling. The year before, Swiss rider Tony Rominger won the Vuelta a España, but it would be the one-day arena where they would carve their reputation, racking up Classic after Classic, including Paris-Roubaix five times.

In 1998, Lefevere replaced Giuseppe Saronni as team manager. ‘That’s when I brought QuickStep in. I told them we’re the biggest team in cycling – join us.’

Further success followed, but then Mapei announced in 2002 that they were pulling out of cycling. Lefevere (who at the time was with Domo-Farm Frites-Latexco) says, ‘I remember the boss of QuickStep, Frans De Cock, asked what he should do. I said lots of people will call you [in search of sponsorship money], but I said we should forge our own team.’

Raising wolves

QuickStep has remained the team’s primary sponsor since then. But despite the many millions that the flooring company has poured into the team, it still hovers around a middling WorldTour budget.

That means maximising youth, rather than buying the finished article, which is why Lefevere has become so adept at spotting pearls amongst an ocean of oysters. Take Julian Alaphilippe, whose golden spring brought success at Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and La Flèche Wallonne. 

‘One day, one of my soigneurs said there’s this young guy who finished second in the World Junior Cyclocross Championships [2010]. He was 17, a huge talent. We kept an eye on him for a season and then signed him when he was racing for the Armée de Terre [a French ProContinental team sponsored by the French army that disbanded in 2017].’

Alaphilippe was nurtured in QuickStep’s development team, disbanded in 2016 after Lefevere became disillusioned with transforming juniors into professionals only to see teams with bigger budgets poach them for no financial recompense.

Then there’s Remco Evenepoel. The 19-year-old Belgian skipped the under-23 category to join QuickStep straight from dominating the junior ranks, winning 23 of the 35 races he entered in 2018 including double gold at the Europeans and the Worlds. He’s been dubbed by some as the new Eddy Merckx.

‘I’ve never seen anyone that good at his age,’ says Lefevere. ‘He won the Europeans by nearly 10 minutes, then at the Worlds he crashed, lost two minutes but continued to attack. He had this huge German [Marius Mayrhofer] on his wheel but – bam, bam, bam – he won by a minute!’

Lefevere explains how it became a bunfight to sign the young Belgian, including interest from Team Sky. But the man who knows everyone knew Remco’s father, Patrick. ‘He said Remco has one dream,’ Lefevere relays almost whimsically, ‘and that is to race for your team. We have a reputation. We signed him.’

That reputation is built on Lefevere’s ability to inspire loyalty for the team over the self. It’s the reason why the squad developed the nickname ‘Wolfpack’. ‘The name started as a joke but it has grown and grown,’ says Lefevere. ‘But the collective mentality has always been there. Man for man we might not beat Peter Sagan, but together we can.’

So how does Lefevere find and nurture the talent that makes up his winning team? ‘Every rider is different,’ he says. ‘We have physical tests, yes, but then psychological tests. We have a very good system to understand a rider’s character.’

Lefevere doesn’t reveal what these tests are, but the results are complemented by observation. And if the results aren’t positive, there’s only one outcome.

‘I never waste time on losers. If they have a loser’s personality, they’ll remain like that forever and are with me only for a short time. They cannot afford to be jealous. They also have to pass the UCI tests, the biological passport…’

Doping. It’s an unavoidable subject when you’ve been in the sport as long as Lefevere has. As a rider, Lefevere admitted to taking amphetamines. As manager, there have also been ‘incidents’. The team suspended Tom Boonen twice for testing positive for cocaine, while former rider Patrik Sinkewitz accused the team of systematic doping when he rode for them between 2003 and 2005.

No punishment was meted out to the team and Sinkewitz’s accusations were never proved. Nor was the high-profile case of 2007 where Belgian daily Het Laatse Nieuws published a report by three journalists entitled ‘Patrick Lefevere, 30 years of dope’. Lefevere denied its contents, it went to court and he was awarded €500,000.

‘But I lost €34 million,’ Lefevere says. ‘I had a pre-contract with Swiss coffee machine manufacturers Franke but that disappeared with these insults. I said to the journalists, “I’ll give you €50,000 if you can prove live on TV that I visited the clinic you claim I did.” But they didn’t. They started sweating.’

The newspaper’s parent company issued a retraction of the original story two weeks after it was published, leaving the two authors and editor responsible for damages. ‘They say, “We have children and we’ll lose our homes.” I said I have 55 people who have homes and kids and we’ve lost a contract. I want the money. Sell your houses – I don’t care.

‘In the end, the newspaper paid and saved their arses. I’m a good crisis manager as well as team manager.’ 

Life on the road

The highs and lows of Patrick Lefevere’s 43-year career

1955: Born on 6th January in Moorslede, Flanders.

1976: Wins a stage at the Vuelta a la Communidad after turning pro the previous year.

1978: Lefevere takes victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, then wins a stage at the Vuelta a España a month later.

1980: Makes the surprise decision to retire from riding aged just 25, but remains with the Marc VRD team as DS.

1985: Joins the newly formed Lotto team as DS, then switches to TVM in 1988 for one unhappy year.

1991: After three years struggling with Domex-Weinmann, moves to GB-MG, where a young Mario Cipollini takes four stage wins at the Vuelta.

1995: Switches to Mapei. Continues his run of success with 51 wins over the year, the highlight being Tony Rominger’s victory at the Giro d’Italia.

2002: When Mapei disbands, convinces sponsor QuickStep to start a new team from the ground up, with many former Mapei riders joining him.

2007: Linked to doping by a Belgian daily newspaper, but the case is dismissed in court and Lefevere is awarded €500,000.

2018: Despite QuickStep racking up 73 wins across the season, struggles to secure the team’s future until Deceuninck steps in as sponsor in October

Lefevere on…

… Mathieu van der Poel’s dad, Adri

‘We have good history. As well as racing for my team, I helped him get a driving job at Rabobank. He married Raymond Poulidor’s daughter and they had two children, David and Mathieu. When Mathieu was 10, Adri told me he could do everything. Every father is proud of his son, but he was right.’

… What makes a good manager

‘Great riders might not make good bosses. They don’t know how a “normal” rider feels. How can you explain to someone how they need to grow if you’ve never felt this pain? Yes, they’re suffering, but it’s different. Winning is easy. You have to fail before you can teach someone to win.’

… The greatest riders he’s worked with

‘Johan Museeuw was special and Tony Rominger worked like a machine – so strong. And Cipo [Mario Cipollini], well, everyone was afraid of him. He had that explosive character like Mark Cavendish did at the beginning.

‘But he only truly exploded when someone made a mistake and I only saw that twice. Veins were popping out his neck, both times at the Tour de France. But he was right both times. I don’t have a problem with strong characters.’