Sign up for our newsletter

How to solve a problem like Deceuninck-QuickStep?

25 Mar 2019

Words: Joe Robinson

If I were Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet or anyone else with aspirations in the Cobbled Classics right now, I’d be at home pulling my hair out, trying to desperately think of a way to beat Deceuninck-QuickStep.

Because, at the moment, Patrick Lefevere’s boys in blue are unbeatable across one day of riding.

No matter the scenario, no matter the rider, no matter the parcours, this Belgian WorldTour team that was long regarded the greatest team in spring has bloomed to another level.

Their tally now stands at five one-day Classic wins in 21 days. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Le Samyn, Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo already in the bag and it’s still only March.

On Saturday, the team took their biggest win of the season so far in Milan-San Remo, the first Monument of the year, with Julian Alaphilippe the rider to take the top spot.

He was the race’s strongest rider and the deserving winner. In fact, Alaphilippe is probably the best rider in the world at the moment.

The Deceuninck team knew that. It’s why they rode in a lead-out formation, almost akin to a sprint team, into the base of the Poggio with Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert taking deadly pulls before letting Alaphilippe go alone.

Watching the race, I got the feeling that any of Lampaert, Stybar and Gilbert were in such a vein of form that they could have contested the win for themselves but the belief in Alaphilippe had been bought into to such an extent that their own opportunities really did not matter.

Such was the confidence, they even made the pace on the Poggio too hard for their sprinter Elia Viviani who quickly found himself jettisoned out the back, a ballsy move considering he is probably the fastest finisher in the world right now.

It was also a move that seemed to leave Viviani unfazed. Crossing the line, he rode straight over to a celebrating Alaphilippe to share the moment. Not a hint of jealousy or disappointment regarding his own sacrificed opportunities.

At the moment, the entire squad is riding high on a wave of confidence that goes beyond just their high paid stars. Everyone in that team, whether it be a mechanic, sports director or rider will be standing on the start line expecting a win at the end of the day.

Even the domestiques are beginning to believe in their own capabilities, as shown when Tim Declercq, the ultimate warhorse deployed hour upon hour at the front of the bunch, came within 250m of victory at Le Samyn. It makes for dangerous viewing for QuickStep’s rivals.

This air of invisibility whiffs of the New Zealand rugby union team, to me. Rugby fans will tell you of the aura that surrounds the All Blacks whenever they play, it’s unnerving.

Teams go to play the All Blacks and are effectively at a disadvantage before the game even begins. The scoreline has the opposition 7-nil down in minute one, already playing against the tide.

The lack of confidence shown by the opposition before the game even begins, the expectation that New Zealand will win, and with ease.

The professional peloton is taking to the start line of the Classics 7-nil down to Deceuninck-QuickStep right now, expecting to lose.

Van Avermaet was nowhere to be seen on the Poggio and admitted himself that poor positioning killed any chance he had. Something that would not have had happened to a rider brimming with belief.

The sprinters Gaviria, Kristoff, Ewan et al, simply didn’t have the legs and had no chance once the race had escaped at the Poggio summit.

John Degenkolb’s chain slipped on the Poggio descent and killed any chances of victory which you could put down to luck but would have unlikely happened to a poised Alaphilippe.

Even the ever-unflappable Sagan was noticeably flustered in the finale. Nine times out of ten, you back him from that reduced group but he looked noticeably nervous and twitchy before launching his own sprint, eventually fading to fourth.

The question is, with Deceuninck-QuickStep riding this high and the rest of the peloton seemingly on a low, how do you go about changing the tide, breaking the hold?

Firstly, you can try changing the narrative. A cringeworthy saying but apt. Sticking with the rugby comparison, this method often proves the rare undoing of the All Blacks when they lose, which isn’t often.

When a team actually takes the game to the All Blacks, playing with unmatchable intensity and accuracy from minute one, you see the rare chink in the armour.

Team Sky, CCC Team and Bora-Hansgrohe, the WorldTour elite, could try changing the narrative over the next few weeks.

Take the race to Deceuninck-QuickStep. Attack early on and try sending handy riders up the road earlier in the day or even use your best riders early on, it worked for Sagan at Paris-Roubaix last year, after all.

The issue with this is obvious. At the moment, it seems as if any Deceuninck-QuickStep rider has the legs for victory. Even if you attack early, you risk taking a boy in blue with you and, at the moment, they are likely to beat you in a sprint.

You could try waiting until the Deceuninck team beat themselves. By that I mean, with so much talent and so many riders able to win, surely the harmonious all-for-one, one-for-all ‘Wolfpack’ mentality will go.

If Stybar sees an opportunity at Roubaix or Gilbert thinks he has good legs at Flanders, it’s easy to see team orders going out of the window for personal ambition.

You only have to refer to last year’s Roubaix as an example. Niki Terpstra was the team’s best bet for victory yet self-serving attacks by Stybar and Gilbert far from the line left Terpstra alone and without the manpower needed when Sagan eventually attacked to victory.

Waiting for your rivals to unravel themselves is always a risky business and at the moment, the likelihood of infighting seems negligible considering how much the success is being shared around.

Your last option could happen to be your safest best. That’s waiting for Mathieu van der Poel. The cyclocross supremo, arguably the most talented bike rider in the world, could be the answer to the pro peloton’s QuickStep worries.

If there’s anybody who can match the confidence of Deceuninck right now it is Van der Poel.

He won everything on a \cross bike this winter, including a National, European and World Championship, and has transitioned that form onto the road already, winning the GP Denain this weekend gone despite a nasty crash at Nokere Koerse only a few days before.

When he lines up at Gent-Wevelgem this Sunday, Deceuninck-QuickStep maybe forced into a guessing game as to what Van der Poel can and will do.

Winning solo is just as much a part of his abilities as winning from a small group and we’ve already seen him win bunch kicks on a road bike.

He will also be unfazed by the Deceuninck team knowing firstly that he has nothing to lose - his season has already been a roaring success - and secondly, he has yet to be put to the sword by Deceuninck like his fellow rivals.

Van der Poel could be the solution to the peloton's Deceuninck-QuickStep headache but it's a lot to expect from one rider. Although, if anybody can, Mathieu probably can.