Deceuninck-QuickStep finished first, third and sixth in the stage 6 bunch sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico, but their biggest prize was outwitting their rivals in the final test before Milan-San Remo, confirming their strength, depth and tactical finesse for every possible kind of finish on Saturday.
Julian Alaphilippe won in Jesi on Monday after taking over sprinting duties from Elia Viviani, with the Italian fooling the rivals who were sitting on his wheel by letting his teammate open a decisive gap before he started to sprint. Viviani then kicked late to pass Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the final metres to finish third behind Alaphilippe and Davide Cimolai (Israel Cycling Academy).
In a perfect display of team racing, Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar rode hard all day to control the break and then Michael Mørkøv and Max Richeze did a superb job in the final kilometres, with the Argentinean confirming he is the best lead-out rider in the peloton despite recently turning 36.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep riders celebrated together as their rivals could only ride quietly to their team buses. They had been outfoxed and outsprinted and they are now unsure what tactics Deceuninck-QuickStep will use at Milan-San Remo.
Alaphilippe punched the air as he crossed the line and initially avoided revealing that Viviani had told him to go for the sprint. He soon confirmed that Deceuninck-QuickStep had ridden to set him up in the finale.
"It's a surprise for me that I could put my arms up and celebrate victory," Alaphilippe said.
"The first plan was to do the sprint for Elia, but it wasn't an easy day and in the final Elia asked me if I wanted to do the sprint. I said, 'Let's see what happens, but stay focused for the finale'. Richeze did a hard pull and I was on his wheel and so then went full gas to the line from 200 metres out. Nobody passed me and we won."
Viviani stopped to hug Alaphilippe after the finish line, happy for his teammate and happy how he had set a trap for his sprint rivals.
"It was great to win. It's great to see a finish like this. We mixed things up and that's a good signal for San Remo," Viviani said.
"Everyone's legs were what they were, so I kept Alaphilippe as my last man and we knew that Max could make the difference. When Sagan got in there, I thought that it was the right wheel. Greg Van Avermaet got the jump, but Richeze truly made the difference. You could see that Alaphilippe had two bikes on everyone before starting the sprint and he had the legs to keep it."
Alaphilippe suffered on the steep climbs of Le Marche over the weekend and was unable to win a stage. However, he showed his form is good and that he can also sprint for victory if needed. Deceuninck-QuickStep's rivals will fear them in any scenario, whether one gets away in a group on the Poggio or in a sprint during the finale of Milan-San Remo.
"We've still got the time trial here at Tirreno, but now the big goal for me and the team is Milan-San Remo. We've got a really strong team and we've got to give it everything. Our goal has to be to win," Alaphilippe said, still buzzing after his victory.
"My form is great and Elia also showed he can win the sprint. It's not a problem being the big favourite for Milan-San Remo. It's a big race for the team and me. I've won Strade Bianche and that's a special win for me, but Milan-San Remo is the first monument. Our goal is to do our best and win."
Equally strong Poggio attack and Via Roma sprint options
Deceuninck-QuickStep are perhaps the only team to have equally strong Poggio attack and Via Roma sprint options for Milan-San Remo.
Alaphilippe and perhaps even Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar can go with or even spark attacks on the last climb of the race, while Viviani, Richeze and Mørkøv can sit back in the peloton and wait for a late chase or sprint finish and then lead out Viviani.
"We have different riders who can win and so more options for Milan-San Remo," Viviani said. "When you have more cards to play you have more possibilities to win."
Deceuninck-QuickStep have used their depth to win the biggest Classics in recent years and plan to use that advantage again and again in this spring's Classics.
"We have more than one guy and nobody knows who the leader is," directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters said proudly. "That's true for Milano-San Remo, but also the other upcoming Classics. We win a lot of races like that."