With a former winner of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and last year's Tour of Flanders runner-up on their roster for the Opening Weekend, Trek-Segafredo came into the Classics with calibre and ambition. It could hardly have got off to a worse start, however, with a hugely disappointing showing last weekend.
Directeur sportif Steven de Jongh described the result as a "smack in the face" and admitted after Omloop that he was worried for the remainder of their campaign, saying his riders had a lot of work to do before they returned to the cobbles later this month.
The riders were moved to apologise to the team after the best they could manage at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was 40th with Jasper Stuyven and. While things did improve for the team the following day at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, with 14th for Edward Theuns, it was well below what they would have hoped for. Stuyven missed Kuurne after falling ill, and the team will hope that this was the reason for his below-par performance the day before.
The failure to fire adds a bit more pressure to a team that is in a crucial stage of development. Mercifully, the team didn't unleash their entire Classics arsenal at Opening Weekend, with former Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb not due to make his cobbles debut until the E3 BinckBank Classic at the end of March.
This year will be the team's third Classics campaign since losing their cobbles figurehead Fabian Cancellara to retirement. Indeed, the team have not won a major cobbled Classic since Cancellara's departure. Trek-Segafredo team manager Luca Guercilena says that it was always going to be hard to pick up where they left off.
"We know that Fabian was a leader of this team for many years, so obviously when you have a leader going away, you need to build up," Guercilena told Cyclingnews. "We started with some young riders and added John. So I think that it wasn't that difficult in respect of creating a group, but it was difficult because this team was set up on the personality of Fabian. When he left, we needed time to build up a different structure in the Classics group.
"When you consider that we got top 10 in [almost] all the Classics and second at Flanders last year, I believe that we have the power to win one, but we should be very attentive, and we need to try to win as soon as possible. You can win a Classic if you have the self-confidence of having won a race before. We can't just show up at the Classics hoping to win there."
Stuyven stepping up
Stuyven was the last rider to deliver the team to a Classics victory at the 2016 Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but that was when he was still an emerging rider and the pressure was on his more illustrious teammate Cancellara's shoulders. With the help of the incoming Degenkolb, Stuyven was expected to pick up the mantle from Cancellara in 2017, but he was still very young and it has taken time to settle into that role. Although he didn't take a podium placing last year, Stuyven managed the impressive feat of a top 10 in all but one of the Classics he took part in.
Speaking prior to last weekend, Stuyven said it has been a bit of a shift moving into the post-Cancellara era, but he has confidence in the line-up that the team's developed.
"It was all based on Fabian. After that, there was a bit of a shift and we had Alberto [Contador], and then last year we were in between, but maybe people did still expect us to win," Stuyven told Cyclingnews.
"Maybe two years ago, when I was sick in the Classics, there were question marks, but I have proven that I can be there, that I can be a good leader. At the moment, I don't feel that the pressure that was on Fabian is on me, or that even half of it is on me. I don't feel it that way; I feel like the team has confidence in me and I feel that I have a good vibe going, teammates and staff-wise, to achieve and work towards my goals."
While Stuyven was pleased with his run of top-10 places last season, he would gladly give them all back if he could get to the top of the rostrum this spring.
"I would sign up immediately to winning one race and not be in the top 10 for the other ones, if it had to be that black and white," he said. "I want to be up there again. I want to be competitive in the finales, and I believe that if I do the same as I did last year, and make a small step up, then I will be able to win one, and that's the goal. I believe that one day everything will come together, and I can take the win."
John Degenkolb was understandably excited after winning the Tour's 'Roubaix stage'
Degenkolb back on track
Although his last two Classics campaigns have been close to a write-off, Degenkolb is still the team's headline act in the Classics. The German is only the third rider to win Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same season. He had the cycling world at his feet until a training accident before the 2016 season almost ended his career.
On the outside, Degenkolb tried to remain positive, but the subsequent years have been tough on him as he tried to refind the form that earned him that rare San Remo/Roubaix double. But, through illness and injury, it has remained elusive. The toll was clear when he broke down in tears after winning the 'Roubaix stage' of last year's Tour de France.
With Degenkolb still to hit the cobbles this season, it remains to be seen if this is a true turning point for him, but he was certainly buoyed by his breakthrough when he spoke to Cyclingnews in December.
"I'm really sure that if I stay healthy through the winter and all the preparation, then I will be there to fight for the victories again. This brave riding, offensive riding, like I showed at the Tour, is something that I have to put into the Classics season, and then I'll be up there," Degenkolb told Cyclingnews.
Degenkolb has already got a victory on the board this season with a win on the final stage of the Tour de La Provence. The forthcoming Paris-Nice will be an opportunity to get back into the swing of things after a recent training camp in Spain.
The team have been bolstered by the return of Theuns over the winter after the Belgian spent a year racing with Team Sunweb. Meanwhile, they also have the breakthrough star of last year's Classics in Mads Pedersen. The 23-year-old from Denmark gave the team their only podium finish of their spring campaign when he finished a surprise second at the Tour of Flanders. Thanks to that result, he won't be able to hide quite so easily this season, but he has not quite got equal billing with Stuyven and Degenkolb just yet.
"I'm still the third wheel," Pedersen told Cyclingnews. "I've been given more opportunities, and if they have a bad day and I have a good day, then we switch, but I'm still the third wheel – I'm still the helper.
"I'm still young and I still have to learn, and just because of a second place in Flanders, it doesn't mean that you're the big star. I will continue helping them like I have in the last two years, but the thing is I can help them for longer now. If you're lucky, or they have a puncture or a bad day, or you attack at the right moment, you're gone and you're in the final.
"They know now that if things happen in that way, or if I'm sitting the break, then they can count on me to get a result. That makes the team even stronger."
There's no doubt that Trek-Segafredo have plenty of Classics talent, and, on paper at least, they have the capabilities to win on the cobbles this season. The team's riders appear to genuinely get along with each other and seem ready to sacrifice themselves for each other, but that'll count for nothing if they can't make a step forward in the coming weeks. There is time to turn things around, and they still have the Degenkolb card to play, but the pressure is now on for the Trek-Segafredo team.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.