In the 'Dream Team' series of features, Cyclingnews sits down with some of the sport's well-known personalities as they pick their dream nine-man teams from riders they've ridden or worked with. This week, former Paris-Roubaix winner and current Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif, Dirk Demol picks his perfect line-up for the Classics.
- Dream teams must feature nine riders, one of which can be the rider selecting the team, in which case they pick eight riders to join them.
- The riders picked must have all ridden with the person picking the team, or worked with them in a rider-directeur sportif capacity. That means you can’t just pick the eight or nine best riders of a generation.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo)
I'm spoilt for choice when it comes to picking a leader for my dream team. I could have Tom Boonen or Johan Museeuw, to name but two, but I have to go with Fabian. In my eyes he was a born leader and he could feel his way through races like no one else. His anticipation and his ability to focus were second to none.
There are many great memories we share but a few years ago – I think it was 2013 – we did the Tour of Austria and at the end of the race we rushed to the airport in order to fly home. We were sitting in the gate, waiting for our flight, and we'd learnt that Trek was going to take over the teams of Leopard and RadioShack. Fabian wanted to make sure that he had three riders on the team for him, along with his mechanic and myself. We were sitting there and he told us that it would be a three-year deal but that for him it would be his last contract as a rider. I said, 'come on Fabian, a lot can happen in three years, so don't make a hasty decision'. He said, "regardless of what I win, and what I don't win, I'm going to stop in 2016, but I would love to say goodbye with a gold medal in Rio'. Then, of course, that's exactly what he did. Incredible.
Fabian wasn't a rider who could focus on an entire season, but when he was entirely motivated and focused he was like no other. I was watching the Rio Olympics time trial, and I knew that he was going to win from almost the start. When I watched him on TV that day I suddenly remembered the chat we had in the airport.
For this team, I think it's important to have just one leader. When you've got several leaders it can sometimes work but, from all my time in cycling, the best has been when you've had one really strong leader. Then you surround him with super domestiques. Going back to the other riders, I've a lot of respect for someone like Tom Boonen – his palmares is beautiful – and I was Museeuw's roommate for five years, but I'm going for one leader, and it's Fabian.
Viatcheslav Ekimov (US Postal)
Whatever you asked Ekimov to do, he did it. He's been in breakaways and had chances of winning races but if we needed him to drop back he would do it – no questions asked. He was also a rider who could ride well in finals, because he was third in Roubaix one year and had that power you needed for races like that. He won a stage of the Tour de France, was fourth another year in Roubaix, won titles on the track, and of course the gold medal in the Olympics. I also saw what he could do for riders like Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France. He was like a machine – always there, always working, and always in good condition. There were never any arguments on tactics when I was his DS at Postal and Discovery. You'd sit down with him at the start of the year at a training camp, and you'd map out his season and say 'okay, Eki, I need you here, here and here', and you'd know from that exact moment he would always be ready.
You could argue that he could have done more with his career, especially when you consider his qualities as a time trialist. I remember my first ever time trial as a team director. It was at the Three Days of de Panne, and I was following Eki in the car. What I remember was just how smooth he was through the corners. I kept thinking 'fuck, he's going to fall, he's going to fall' but he just sailed through them perfectly. His style on the bike was as close to perfection as you can get. He could have won more if he was the leader on another team.
Stijn Devolder (Trek-Segafredo)
Like Ekimov, Devolder was another rider who could be there, deep into the finals of major races. When he was focused, you could really count on him. However, he was someone who, I think, always wasted a lot of energy. He wasn't great at riding in the peloton, always at the side or with his head in the wind and that cost him so much. I tried so many times to help him get over that, because he had so much quality, and won in so many impressive ways, but it never quite happened. He could have won a lot more than he did during his career but he couldn't change. It was a mental thing.
I remember one occasion that really impressed me. We went to California for a training camp, and it must have been in January, because it was freezing and before we had started racing. On the flight he didn't touch anything that was bad for him – not one ounce of chocolate – and on the plane I sat with him and he ate the bare minimum. He carried on like that all the way through the camp. It showed real dedication. Stijn was a rider who would gain weight easily if he didn't manage it so for three months or so, for that Classics period, he could really look after himself. That focus just couldn't be maintained for twelve months.
Image courtesy of Pro Cycling Trumps
George Hincapie (US Postal)
George would be my road captain. He came close to winning both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and he had a really long career on the road. Of course, he was my leader at Postal but he was a rider who could have won more races. For some reason it always went wrong for him the finals. But if you're talking about a Dream Team then you want Fabian surrounded by guys like George, Ekimov and Stijn. George was also someone who had a lot of knowledge about the parcours, and that's so important in the Classics races. A bit like Ekimov, he was always dependable and you'd know in the winter training camp that come the Classics, come the Tour de France, he'd always be ready. He could pull on the front of the peloton forever if you needed him to.
If George had a weakness it was perhaps his confidence. He was always strong enough to be in the finals but once he got there he took the wrong decisions. When he had the pressure of being the leader of the team it was very difficult for him. I remember the time Boonen beat Hoste to win Flanders. George was there, waiting and waiting, and he just lacked that confidence at times. He was always waiting, and that's why he never won Flanders or Roubaix. For sure, he had the qualities but he was a born road captain. He had great power, though. I remember the stage he won at the Tour de France in 2005, when he beat Oscar Pereiro [Hincapie was later stripped of the win as part of the USADA investigation -ed]. I was behind him that day in the car and we had Lance Armstrong's ex, Sheryl Crow in the car. She had a concert a few days after but she almost lost her voice because she was shouting so much support at George.
Steven de Jongh (Quick-Step)
I've known Steve a long time, but we only worked together for one year before he joined Trek-Segafredo and that was at Quick-Step in 2008. Like George, he was a born road captain for the Classics. I'd always have him on my team but people often forget that Steven was actually quite fast. He won Kuurne a couple of times, and while he didn't win that much, he was the perfect helper and captain. It's also not always the best riders who make the best directors. You need to have been a good rider, of course, but with the big champions of the sport, it's difficult for them to understand how riders can be dropped because it never happened to them. I struggle to think of one big rider who has been a highly successful team director other than Bjarne Riis in the last few years. He might be the exception. I remember, I rode for Roger De Vlaeminck for a while and he was a disaster as DS. That was in the Verandalux-Dries team in 1985, and he just couldn't understand when you'd struggle or lose contact with the bunch. It just didn't work.
Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack)
To kick off my super domestiques, I'm going to start with Popovych. If the Classics are like going to war then you need warriors, and that's exactly what Popovych was. No matter the conditions, he never complained and Fabian loved to follow him in the bunch. When we had Fabian in the team as our leader there was no doubt that Popovych would make the Classics selection, because Fabian just had so much confidence in him. You could blindfold Fabian, and as long as he could still be on Popovych's wheel, he'd be fine. They had a lot of faith in one another.
I will say, however, that Popovych didn't get everything out of his career. His capabilities were enormous and I remember watching him win the U23 version of Paris-Roubaix, because back then I was taking care of Boonen, who finished fourth. Popovych won by over a minute and immediately I was on the phone with Johan Bruyneel and saying, 'Johan, you have to take this kid – he's a machine'. He was under contract with Colnago and then spent two years at Lambouwkrediet-Colnago but after that he came to Postal and stayed there the whole time. As a U23 rider he won everything, but at a young age he made the decision that he wanted to be a domestique. I don't think he wanted the pressure of being the leader and, a bit like George, I don't think he wanted to handle all the stress that came with leading a team. As a rider for the team though, on or off the bike, he was super important.
Image courtesy of Pro Cycling Trumps
Gregory Rast (Trek-Segafredo)
You need guys who can work during the early hours of races, and that's why I've made the next two selections. Greg is an expert at taking care of a leader in a race and he's done that in one-day races and in Grand Tours. What's impressive is that he could do it from the gun. When you've got a rider like Fabian in your team you have to take control of the race almost from the start, and on many, many occasions. For that you need riders who can start fast.
Markel Irizar (Trek-Segafredo)
A few people will be surprised by this choice, but over the years I've seen what kind of value Markel brings to a team. In Flanders and races like Harelbeke, the work Markel would do would be enormous. He was a bit like Maes at Quick-Step – always covering all the early breaks and making sure his leader is protected. Like Rast, he could work in the early hours of the race but his mentality was always correct, both on and off the bike. Popo, Rast and Irizar would make up a really important part of the team because they were dependable, loyal and always strong.
I know that I've not picked any riders that I rode with, but maybe that's because it's a long time ago. I could make two or three teams from the guys I rode with but these guys I've chosen, I'm sure that they would have been unbeatable. I could have had a pure sprinter too because I was with Mario Cipollini, for example, but how many times do the Classics end in pure sprints? And besides, if I had this team, there's no way races would have ended in bunch sprints.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
So it looks like I'm not going to make the cut. Being honest with you, during my career I was a domestique and someone who would stay with the leader for as long as possible. My races almost always ended at the second feed zone. That was my best role but for the last guy I'm going to choose Jasper. He's a young rider who I really believe in, and we've not seen all of his capabilities yet. The way in which he won Kuurne last year was super impressive and I think that if he has a bit of luck on his side then he will win Paris-Roubaix or Flanders in the coming years. I don't think he's quite like a Tom Boonen, who was able to win the green jersey at the Tour de France, but Jasper will be a very good rider. I wanted one young rider on the team, because he's the future for the next few years.
Image courtesy of Pro Cycling Trumps
Jose De Cauwer (Team director)
Jose was with me when I won Paris-Roubaix, and we worked together for four years during my career. What stood out was his ability to create the best atmosphere possible and he had such a good influence on the team, constantly motivating the riders. In 1988, we had a good team with Eddy Planckaert, who was a good rider, Museeuw and Frank Van Den Abeele. We weren't one of the super favourites for the Classics, but Jose created a team that was able to win stages and races wherever we went. Eddy won Flanders that year and I won Roubaix, and a lot of that was down to Jose. He'd get us ready in the winter with a lot of training rides but his biggest quality was his ability to create a group. I've tried to use that in how I act as a manager. He was also really good with young riders. He would put an arm around them and explain to them about the mistakes he made as a rider. He was also the team manager at ADR when Greg LeMond won the Tour in 1989, when no one really believed in him.