Quick-Step Floors team manager Patrick Lefevere was at the Dubai Tour last week and liked what he saw as his riders produced some powerful lead-outs and Marcel Kittel finished off their work, winning three stages and securing overall victory for a second consecutive year.
The Dubai Tour might not offer WorldTour points and is only the first of many clashes between Kittel, Mark Cavendish, Elia Viviani, John Degenkolb and other fast men. However, Lefevere was happy to see his riders so successful, so strong and so impressive in the high-speed lead-outs early in the season.
Bob Jungels and neo-pro Maximilian Schachmann did long stints on the front of the peloton chasing down breaks while Matteo Trentin and Fabio Sabatini were exemplary in the final kilometre, almost always out-gunning Dimension Data, Trek-Segafredo, LottoNL-Jumbo and Team Sky.
The veteran Belgian manager is working to secure sponsorship of the team for 2018 and so is no doubt keen to rack up victories early in the season to convince potential new sponsors to come on board. The 2017 season is only three weeks old but Quick-Step Floors riders have already won ten races – far more than any other squad at any level.
New signing Jack Bauer won the first by taking the New Zealand national time trial title on January 6, then Fernando Gaviria, Tom Boonen and Max Richeze won five stages between them at the Vuelta a San Juan. Kittel was the protected sprinter for the Dubai Tour and his three stage victories and overall victory put Quick-Step Floors into double figures, while many teams have yet to win a single race.
Quick-Step Floors were hardly seen at the WorldTour-level Tour Down Under in Australia but Lefevere is more bothered about the quantity of victories rather the quality in the early season. Quality will be important on home turf in the cobbled Classics.
"I'm happy. We've started the season off very well and by winning races," Lefevere told Cyclingnews in his deep, gravelly Belgian accent.
"The team and the riders know that I like to start every season in the right way. Some teams struggle to win in the early months and you can see the stress becoming bigger and bigger, like a weight on their shoulders. I like to avoid stress in my own life and in my team. Stress is not good for anyone.
"On the other hand, success is very important and very good for the team. When you start winning races immediately I think it helps you go on to win even more. Success breeds success and motivates everyone in the team. Sprinters guarantee you victories – that's mathematically proven. That's why I've always liked to have successful sprinters in my teams."
Gaviria and Kittel on different race programmes
Lefevere watched Kittel win his three stages from just past the finish line, celebrating with his team staff and long-time team doctor Yvan van Mol. He decided to drive the second team car on stage three when Andrey Grivko lashed out at Kittel in the echelon. He was quick to tweet about it from the car and gave Kittel the okay to speak out and call for the Astana rider to be banned but jokingly suggested to Cyclingnews he was becoming too old for the drama of the team car.
Lefevere is more effective from afar. He worked hard to convince Kittel to move to his team during the second half of 2015, convinced he could help the German get his career back on track after illness and issues at Giant-Alpecin. Lefevere preferred to let Cavendish go, betting that Kittel could fill the gap and win the big sprints throughout the season – all for a lower salary.
Tom Boonen's retirement after a final spring campaign will make the next three months a special moment for Quick-Step Floors and Lefevere. He invested wisely for the future, and Fernando Gaviria could well emerge as the rider to take on and beat Peter Sagan in the sprints and Classics in the years to come.
With Gaviria and Kittel in the blue and white Quick-Step Floors colours, Lefevere knows he has two talented sprinters and is trying to avoid any internal rivalry. Gaviria is expected to target Milan-San Remo and stages at the Giro d'Italia, while Kittel will target stages at the Tour de France, sharing team leadership with Dan Martin and his overall ambitions.
"We're going to avoid putting them together, but they probably will race together a few times," Lefevere revealed. "When it has to happen, the important thing is that both are in good shape and fast. Then we'll plan things like we did in Argentina when Gaviria and Boonen shared the sprint opportunities and Richeze came good too and was also able to win."
Lefevere is confident Kittel can be as successful as he was in 2016. Of course, more sprint wins - especially at the Tour de France - will always be welcome.
"Marcel won 14 races in 2016, including stages in the Giro, a stage in the Tour, and Scheldeprijs. If he can repeat that, I'll be happy," Lefevere said.
"He was not that bad in the Tour de France. We could have perhaps won more, but he and we were perhaps just a little bit unlucky. The team was a little nervous, he was a little nervous, and when you're nervous, you make mistakes."
Wins so far in 2017
|3||BMC Racing Team||6|
|10||UAE Abu Dhabi||2|
|13||AG2R La Mondiale||0|
|14||Astana Pro Team||0|
*Only victories in 1.2 and 2.2 categorised races and above have been included.