After struggling near the foot of the WorldTour rankings for much of last season, Omega Pharma-Quick Step begins 2012 with a significantly bolstered line-up. While Tom Boonen will again lead Patrick Lefevere’s squad at the classics, the team has made a significant investment in stage racing talent, snapping up Levi Leipheimer, Peter Velits and Tony Martin.
Speaking to Cyclingnews at the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team presentation in Vilvoorde recently, Lefevere dismissed the idea that he had ‘bought’ WorldTour points, and said that his new signings were made with a longer term picture in mind.
“Buying points – I don’t like that expression, because it’s as if you’re buying something but don’t believe in the rider and only take him because he has points,” Lefevere said. “Instead, we have given a very strong signal to the riders. We’ve signed Tony Martin for three years, which means that we believe in him and in his progression as a rider.”
Quick Step’s previous forays into the transfer market to secure stage racing talent have been mixed at best, with riders like José Rujano and Juan Miguel Mercado ultimately failing to live up to expectations at the team. Lefevere insists that his expanded budget for 2012 has allowed him to sign riders who offer greater guarantees of success.
“In the past it was more perhaps to try and buy a joker or a wildcard, because I didn’t have the money to buy somebody of value, someone who was sure of going in the top five,” he said. “Some of those guys disappointed me, but now really we have the potential to present a plan for the next few years.”
Lefevere hailed the meticulousness of Leipheimer and Martin, and hopes that their attention to the finer points of preparation will rub off on their younger teammates.
“I’m very pleased with the experience of Leipheimer – he’s not a professional, he’s a super professional,” Lefevere pointed out. “Then, Tony Martin with his German discipline will bring a lot of know-how to the team for the young guys. He can show them that it’s not only by going to sleep at 11 o’clock and doing some training that you will be a better rider. It’s a total concept about bikes and how your lifestyle is.”
Business as usual for Boonen?
While Leipheimer, Martin and Velits will lead the line in the stage races, Flemish fans will again turn to their eyes to Tom Boonen in the Classics. Although he won Gent-Wevelgem last season, the Belgian appeared someway short of his best and Lefevere acknowledged that his knee problems had compromised his 2010 and 2011 classics campaigns.
“Tom came across a super Cancellara two years ago, but he was also injured, he was maybe more injured than everybody thought,” Lefevere said. “Then last year he was coming back, and was good in Flanders when he was fourth after Sylvain [Chavanel] had been in the breakaway.”
Mechanical problems and crashes subsequently blunted the challenge of Boonen and Quick Step at Paris-Roubaix. “That was the most amazing race I ever saw in my life,” Lefevere said. “We were never so unlucky. At one point, I wanted to say to everyone on the radio, ‘stop and go to Roubaix at once. We cannot ride like this.’”
Looking ahead to the 2012 campaign, Lefevere acknowledged that BMC’s high-profile acquisition of Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd means that the landscape of the classics will be altered somewhat this April.
“Everybody knows how hungry Philippe Gilbert is and there are some races he hasn’t won in the past. He has a very big team with a huge budget,” he said.
“There are more strong collectives, but that shouldn’t be worse for us. It might be better. We don’t have to worry about having the whole responsibility for those races alone.”
Not that Omega Pharma-Quick Step are lacking in options themselves. Sylvain Chavanel will share responsibility at the Tour of Flanders with Tom Boonen, and Lefevere said that the Frenchman is unlikely to go on the offensive as early as he did in 2011.
“I think we have a really strong team. We’ll have Niki Terpstra, who we lost to a crash at De Panne last year, and a few other guys, so the team will be stronger,” he insisted. “That way, maybe Sylvain can concentrate more on the finale at Flanders. And as you know, the parcours is changed and it will be totally different.”
While the omission of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg in favour of three ascensions of the Oude Kwaremont and Patersberg has caused outrage among some traditionalists, Lefevere is approaching the innovation with an open mind.
“Let’s race first, because a lot of people just have a negative spirit and are saying ‘it will be worse, it will be bad.’ I try to be an optimistic man, and I say let’s go for it,” Lefevere smiled. “I say forget the crisis, let’s make cycling attractive to sponsors. I just hope that every big rider is in fantastic shape for the classics so the public will see a big spectacle.”