It has been a trying start to the year for the Trek-Segafredo team, not least their Classics squad, but they turned things round dramatically at Gent-Wevelgem, where John Degenkolb claimed second place at the end of a day in which all their key riders finally delivered.
The Classics campaign got off the worst possible start as riders apologized to team management for their performances at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the start of the month. They hardly fared much better at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne the following day and it seemed the poor form had continued into the main cobbled classics period when they made no impact whatsoever at E3 BinckBank on Friday.
However, it looked like a different team Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. Not only did one rider step up; they all did. All four of their Classics specialists – Degenkolb, Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen, and Edward Theuns – made it into an elite 18-rider breakaway that went clear after only 50km and shaped the complexion of the whole race.
Though Degenkolb was dropped on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg - with Stuyven and Pedersen dropping back when Theuns went clear with Peter Sagan, Matteo Trentin, and Mike Teunissen - the German sat patiently in the main group and sprinted to his first Spring Classics podium since 2015.
Although he came so close to victory, there was no hint of disappointment, as he admitted Alexander Kristoff was the worthy winner and instead basked in a much-improved collective display.
“We take a lot of confidence from that. We turned the page after quite a few disappointments this year already. It’s the time to give the payback,” Degekolb told Cyclingnews in Wevelgem.
The key moment came when the race reached the North Sea coast after 50 or so kilometres, where stiff winds were blowing across the exposed landscape. Trek put their four leaders into an 18-rider group that contained the likes of Sagan, Trentin, Wout Van Aert, Niki Terpstra, Fernando Gaviria and Mathieu van der Poel. Crucially, there was only one QuickStep representative and it was pretty much their only rider not considered a threat: Tim Declercq, who’s usually the one tasked with chasing such breakaways, and who was also dropped on the Kemmelberg.
“I don’t think the wind was ever in that direction when I’ve done Gent-Wevelgem, so it was quite clear that at one moment or another it would split. I actually expected it earlier, like right from the start. It was just amazing that we were there with four guys and that we partly caused the split – that was great to see,” Degenkolb said.
“It brought us into that situation but then we also kept it going, and basically we were always one step ahead of the other teams, especially QuickStep. Everyone knows QuickStep are the team to beat. Since this moment they were just running behind the facts, so it was a good move.”
Though it looked good for Trek, it looked as though Degenkolb might not have a say when he was dropped after the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, the seventh of the 10 climbs on the parcours. However, Theuns’ presence in the eventual break of five that spent the best part of 50km out front, allowed him to sit in the main group, which came back to contest a sprint in Wevelgem.
“When the climbs came, I was dead. I was just fighting with myself, staying in that group,” Degenkolb said.
“The plugstreets [gravel tracks with 60km to go] were actually really good for me this time – similar to Paris-Roubaix. I could keep a good position there and that was playing in my favour. Afterwards I could recover because we had Eddy there in front in the group with Sagan. We only had to watch and other teams had to ride. It was a very, very good race from the team.”
Theuns himself was slightly disappointed, since he believed his break with Sagan, Trentin, and Teunissen was going all the way. However, he echoed Degenkolb’s sentiments that the performances as a whole was a huge step up.
“In a lot of years, the group I was in would go to the finish, but this year not,” the Belgian told Cyclingnews.
“But we can be really happy as a team. I think we needed that. It was already couple of races that the team was disappointed, but I think the riders were the most disappointed. We sat together with the team and the staff to have a good morale again and today we did a great race.
As for why they had previously been so far below-par: “It’s hard to say. As you can see, physically we are ok. We weren’t bad at E3 – just not good enough to be up there. Sometimes it’s just the puzzle pieces that don’t come together.
“I hope from now on they come together like they did today. For us, it’s important to keep those things in the past now. From now on we can be confident we’re on the right track.”