Sign up for our newsletter

Cobbled conveyor belt: How Deceuninck-QuickStep continue to dominate the Spring Classics

In-depth
29 Jan 2020
Advertisement

Words: Joe Robinson

Consistent sporting success is something to be admired. The ability to perform time and time again, setting the same goals, achieving the same results. Within the most impressive and successful institutions, the protagonists will change but the outcomes will not.

Look at the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby union team, and arguably the greatest sporting team of all time. Since debuting in 1903, they have hovered along at a win rate of 80 per cent. In the last decade, they played 133 times, losing just 13 times, drawing four times, winning the remaining 116 games. In that time, the All Blacks won two consecutive World Cups and seven of 10 Rugby Championships.

Persistent success as, all the while, players retire, suffer from long-term injury and adapt to coaching changes.

Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team are similar. An era that saw 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues and countless domestic trophies despite the constant changing of players and personnel.

Cycling has a fair few of these institutions too. Love them or hate them, Team Sky/Ineos have transformed into an unstoppable force of nature at the Tour de France, guiding four different riders to seven yellow jersey in the space of eight years.

But arguably cycling’s biggest success story is that of Patrick Lefevere and his QuickStep Cobbled Classics dynasty. A team now 18 seasons long in the tooth, they count seven Flanders titles and six Roubaix cobbles among their collective palmares alongside more than 20 semi-Classics.

The last time a QuickStep rider was not on the podium of either Flanders or Roubaix races was Flanders in 2016. The last time they missed the top 10 was Flanders in 2013. In fact, more often than not, more than one QuickStep rider will finish in the top 10 and a lot of the time, two riders will make the podium.

For almost two decades, Patrick Lefevere has built and then rebuilt an almost unstoppable force for spring. From the early days of Johan Museeuw to the Tom Boonen era, the resurgence of Philippe Gilbert and the modern age with Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert.

As time changes, so does cycling. Riders fade away, teams find new goals. But in a world of constant change, QuickStep’s obsession with the cobbles remains and so does the team's dominance.

And here are the secrets of how Deceuninck-QuickStep are so good at the Spring Classics from those at the heart of the team.

Built for success

When a team manager sits down at the end of a season to look at the year ahead, he will have a primary goal in mind for the team. For Dave Brailsford at Team Ineos, that’s likely to be the Tour de France. For Ralph Denk at Bora-Hansgrohe, it’s likely to be how to get the best out of his German contingent as well as Peter Sagan.

For Patrick Lefevere, the aims are just as clear: how can we win every race in the Spring Classics.

It’s the main objective of the team each year and it never changes. And so when the wise old head of QuickStep pieces together his team, it stays front and centre in his mind.

Lefevere will also call upon the opinion of two guys in particular: Wilfried Peeters and Tom Steels. Two of the team’s sports directors, both Belgian, both former riders, both former Classics men.

Wilfried Peeters riding through the Arenberg Forest during the 2001 Paris-Roubaix. Photo: Offside

Peeters, twice a Roubaix podium finisher, and Steels, a previous Het Volk and Gent-Wevelgem champion, have since made a name for themselves in retirement as two of the best directors in the game when it comes to the cobbles.

So when Lefevere, Steels and Peeters assess the market, they assess certain characteristics in a rider and whether they will ultimately work towards the greater goal of Classics success.

It’s quite simplistic to just say that the big guys fare well on the cobbles but it’s true. Just stand a Classics racer next to your Grand Tour climbers and you’ll notice a difference.

Their shoulders are wide, thighs chunky. Sometimes there’s even a thin layer of fat on them. Their faces tend to be weathered after years of riding in the cold and damp, having usually hailed from the gnarlier parts of the world.

They are a diesel engine that can churn away for hours on end before suddenly switching to a rocket ship when the racing gets serious. And, for Peeters, they need to be robust.

‘They need to be good in the cold and rain,' Peeters explains. 'If you cannot do that you will not win. You need to know how to save energy in this weather. You need a tough body that can take illness. Look at Davide Ballerini, one of our new riders, he is a big guy, built big, can power over the small climbs.’

Peeters says this then needs to be partnered with an ability to repeat multiple explosive efforts while also having that engine to tick away for almost seven hours in the saddle, something they once did with the now-departed Tony Martin in 2016.

Steels then adds that, ‘you need 10 bunch sprints a race to stay in position. Then on the cobbles, you have to concentrate not to crash and manage the incredible intensity you get before hitting every cobbled section or climb, you need to have the mentality for that.’

Riding smart is also a huge part of success in Flanders and Roubaix. Brute strength is necessary but it’ll only get you so far. What’s needed is a racing nous. An instinct that tells you when to sit in the wheels, stay out of sight and then when to light the ignition.

Knowing how well a particular rider can read a race is quite hard to do unless you are working with them closely but it’s something that Steels and Peeters are constantly looking for in their Classics roster.

Racers who have that instinct, a talent you’re born with. For Steels, this is something they are constantly looking for among their Classics riders.

‘You have to feel the race and have the instinct,' explains Steels. ‘Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert were two of the smartest riders I’ve worked with but by far, Niki Terpstra was the smartest. You wouldn’t see him for 200km of the race, he would be sitting in the wheels, hiding away, staying out of people’s minds and then when it starts getting serious, suddenly he would always be there.’

An intuition that earned Terpstra wins at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. But for both Steels and Peeters, when they are searching for the next Boonen or Gilbert, there is a particular property in a rider that trumps all else.

'Working to find whether a rider has the physical talent is not hard. The hard part is seeing whether they will be good for the cobbles from their attitude,’ says Steels.

‘It comes down to whether you love or hate riding on the cobbles. If you love it, you will go fast, then you can add the power and experience but nothing will beat loving riding the cobbles.’

A team sport won by individuals

There is something to be said about QuickStep’s structure in all this, too. We may laugh at the corniness of the ‘Wolfpack’ but ultimately, it’s the belief in this pack mentality that has helped spurn such success. This ‘all for one, one for all’ spirit that means whoever is racing for the victory on that particular day, is given the full and unwavering support of his entire team and staff.

After all, what other teams routinely get to the pointy end of the Cobbled Classics with more than one rider in the mix for victory?

For Peeters and Steels, this spirit boils down to the squad viewing cycling as a team sport won by all riders and not the individual. Sure, Peter Sagan will tell you how important his six teammates are to his success but how much is he really using them? And if one of his riders is grossly out of form, then what? QuickStep, however, seem to view on a completely different level, akin to football.

‘The days are over that a rider can win without a team, it’s like football,’ says Steels. ‘We need our 100km riders to control the race like a defence, then we need our midfielders who are smart tactically and good at navigating the leaders into position and then the leaders, the attackers, finishing it off at the end.

‘Winning alone is not possible anymore, you need all seven guys contributing to win a race like Flanders or Roubaix.’

And furthering this football-led approach, QuickStep has even worked hard at building a team that’s more than just the seven guys who earn selection, but in fact a pool of riders that allow the eventual team to be picked on form rather than reputation.

‘When we look at the plan for the day, we will say to one rider “you ride the first 120km, then you guys for the middle, then you guys for the final”,’ explains Peeters.

'But we have more than just one guy who can do all these rolls. We can use around 12 riders for seven slots which means we can rotate our riders to do the same job meaning we can pick off of form.’

Gameday

Having a group of 12 or so riders to pick from for the Classics certainly increases the chances of doing well, especially when one or two of them will have already done the business before. But just because your talent roster is deep does not guarantee you success. Picking the team is only half the job for Peeters and Steels.

‘The biggest work is done before in studying the course, talking through the tactics with riders in the morning, letting the riders leave the team bus with a clear plan for the day in their head,’ explains Steels.

For every classic, all seven riders will roll off of the startline knowing full well what job they have for that day and what is expected of them. They will also know that at any moment, that job could change, something Steels says is also key to any success.

‘Things can change in these races quickly, so Wilfried and I will always be reviewing the situation and giving the riders information and advice on things they cannot see. But, of course, the smarter the rider, the less you have to say.

‘It also helps hugely that Wilfried and I understand these races. We have done so many as a rider and in the car, learning with everyone so that experience can be really important on the day and gives us a true advantage.’

And the recent crop?

The 2020 season presents a quite unique challenge for QuickStep as for the first time in the team's 18-year history, there are no riders within the roster who has previously won at Flanders or Roubaix.

With the departure of Gilbert, the only two cobbled Monuments within the team departed. That, for a lot of teams, would be enough to put them into a rebuilding process that would rule them out of any significant success for at least the next few seasons.

But because of this structure, QuickStep is not worried at all and are looking forward to just promoting from within the next crop of riders that have already proven their worth as domestiques or even B team players.

Hardly a ‘B team’, but now the likes of former Liege-Bastogne-Liege champion Bob Jungels and three-time cyclocross World Champion and E3 Harelbeke winner Zdenek Stybar will be given clear leadership roles.

There’s also Belgian rider, Yves Lampaert. Born from farming stock in rural Flanders, he is a rider that has worked selflessly for others and been vital for the likes of Gilbert previously. Now he will be afforded his own opportunities according to Steels.

‘Lampaert is more than capable of winning. He does a lot of the work for others in the most crucial moments which can be missed sometimes,’ says Steels. ‘But he even has the capacity to set up the team for victory and get a result himself, like he did getting third at Roubaix while helping Gilbert win.’

And then there’s Kasper Asgreen, a 24-year-old Dane drafted into the fold in 2018 when the team was struggling with substantial injuries and illnesses. He was down to play a bit part in the 2019 Classics season and was only called into the Tour of Flanders team as a last-minute selection.

By the end of the day, Asgreen was standing one step down from eventual winner Alberto Bettiol on the podium, the latest in a long line of QuickStep Classics talent.

Granted, falling upon Asgreen was partly luck but talking to him, you realise that all of the things Steels and Peeters look for in spring he has and it is certainly no coincidence.

‘I never expected that result when I work up in the morning. I was selected to ride quite late so I just turned up with the duty of doing my job and serving my leader but then, in the end, I managed to hold on to the finish and ended up coming second,’ says Asgreen.

‘Last year I got my first chance to taste the Classics and it was even more fun than watching it, it was great. The whole race I was smiling and having fun. I always knew I’d like those style of races because I like to race and the stress of what a one-day race throws at you.

‘The physical effort is massive. It’s harder physically than mentally because I was just having fun. It’s brutal but when you’re enjoying it, the pain doesn’t matter.’

If Asgreen keeps smiling he is likely to succeed, proving that after 18 years the QuickStep cobbled conveyor belt is running as well as ever.