Until recently, Etixx-QuickStep could rely on a trump card at the Tour of Flanders. Tom Boonen was the benchmark for all others at the Ronde: stronger than anybody who was faster than him, and faster than anybody who was stronger than him.
After an arduous recovery from the head injury he sustained at October’s Abu Dhabi Tour, Boonen arrives at the first Sunday of April in the unfamiliar role of outsider. While his Etixx-QuickStep team remains a redoubtable force, their collective power is diminished by the lack of a bankable leader like the Boonen of old.
As ever, the blue jerseys of Etixx-QuickStep have been prominent at the front in all of the cobbled races to date, but they have failed to land even a podium place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. For manager Patrick Lefevere, the difference between success and failure at this level is marginal.
“Today, I think we have the strongest team but there are maybe two or three riders who one or two per cent more than everyone else – Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet – but the others aren’t any stronger than us,” Lefevere said at Etixx-QuickStep’s pre-Tour of Flanders press conference on Friday.
At E3 Harelbeke last week, Etixx-QuickStep delegated Zdenek Stybar, rather than Boonen, as the man to track the moves of the principal favourites in the finale, but he found himself unable to match eventual winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) when they forged clear on the Karnemelkbeekstraat.
Stybar was only just edged out by Cancellara at Strade Bianche and was an impressive stage winner at Pomarance during Tirreno-Adriatico, but his Italian campaign ended with a crash at Milan-San Remo and he said he was still suffering the effects last week.
“I worked hard enough to be on a good level in these weeks. But maybe I missed a little after the crash in San Remo, I lacked a bit of energy last week,” Stybar said. “It’s all about the little details as you can see. Everybody is so close to each other. But I’ll be 100 per cent on Sunday for Flanders.”
Such was the strength of Cancellara and Sagan on the Kemmelberg at Gent-Wevelgem that many teams have spoken this week of the need to anticipate their seemingly inevitable move on the final time up the Oude Kwaremont on Sunday. Stybar would not be drawn on his approach.
“You can have 100 scenarios, it’s so difficult to predict before the race,” he said. “But if I see some moment to go, I will just go.”
Niki Terpstra carried the mantle of leadership a year ago, and while he fulfilled his brief by tracking Alexander Kristoff’s winning move, he was powerless to prevent the Norwegian from claiming victory in the two-up sprint in Oudenaarde. He noted that Etixx-QuickStep had been forced onto the back foot in recent weeks.
“For sure I don’t want to be chasing again. We have a strong block and we’ll have to work together to the final,” he said. “I really like having Tom [Boonen] with me in the race. He’s still a big leader. For sure in the final he’ll be there. With his experience, he keeps us calm at the right moments.”
Isolating the others
Boonen, Stybar and Terpstra line out as part of an Etixx-QuickStep team that also includes Stijn Vandenbergh, Matteo Trentin and debutant Tony Martin. As the final selection begins to take shape after the Koppenberg, Lefevere will expect a sizeable smattering of blue jerseys in the front group.
“For me, we haven’t been beaten tactically. We’ve been beaten physically but I haven’t seen any team that’s stronger than us,” Lefevere said. “With the strength of the team we have, we need to isolate the other leaders. The more riders you have up there, the more chances you have.”
QuickStep has more often than not been the controlling force in the Tour of Flanders peloton over the years, stretching back to the team’s previous iteration as Domo and its genesis as Mapei. This year, Lefevere said the responsibility will fall to Trek-Segafredo and Tinkoff.
“Cancellara and Sagan are above the others and it’s up to them to take responsibility,” he said. “If they don’t, they won’t win.”
While Sunday will certainly be Cancellara’s final Tour of Flanders, as he prepares to retire at the end of the season, there is speculation, too, that Boonen might also be about to exit the stage.
When Belgian’s Francophone television station RTBF asked Lefevere if the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders would be Boonen’s last, he responded in English: “Only God knows.”