With no newspapers on sale in Belgium on Easter Monday, editors had an additional 24 hours to compose their headlines to mark Niki Terpstra's Tour of Flanders victory, though the extra time was hardly necessary: once again this Spring, the story of a major Classic has been written in blue ink.
Unsurprisingly, Quick-Step Floors' collective dominance was the prevailing theme in the Flemish press on Tuesday morning. "Mighty Terpstra, almighty Quick-Step," ran the headline in Het Nieuwsblad, which singled out Patrick Lefevere's managerial skills for particular praise. Sunday's Ronde victory was Lefevere's 10th as a team manager, a sequence stretching back to Johan Museeuw's maiden triumph back in 1993.
"Even if the team of Lefevere took a collective holiday on Sunday in Roubaix, the title of the 'team of the spring' is already theirs," read Het Nieuwsblad's lead article. "Lefevere is many things: a CEO, a bon vivant, a big talker, and also an excellent people manager."
It was a topic also touched upon by Het Laatste Nieuws, who highlighted how Philippe Gilbert was deemed incompatible with Greg Van Avermaet at BMC over the years but has since proven himself to be selflessly dedicated to the cause at a Quick-Step team that operated without one fixed leader, but rather a gang of four in the shape of Gilbert, Terpstra, Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar.
"There is a mentality on Lefevere's team that says you can win Classics without a leader, that riders with egos as big as those of Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar or Niki Terpstra have to be prepared to put their own ambitions aside for the team," Het Laatste Nieuws wrote.
"At BMC, the world was not big enough for Van Avermaet and Gilbert together, but now you can ask the same Philippe Gilbert to step aside in the Tour of Flanders, and without the explicit promise that next Sunday everyone will ride for him in Roubaix."
The francophone newspaper La Dernière Heure was in agreement with the consensus – "Terpstra's Tour of Flanders victory: The law of the strongest" – and expressed a hopeful note about Gilbert's prospects next weekend as he makes his first Paris-Roubaix appearance since 2007. "From model teammate at the Tour of Flanders to winner at Paris-Roubaix?"
Terpstra's reputation as an individualist and his inclination towards plain-speaking were revisited in Tuesday's newspapers, with the headline on Het Nieuwsblad's profile seeming to sum up Belgian attitudes towards the Dutchman who has made himself so at home on Quick-Step over the past eight years: "Big mouth, great rider." The photograph accompanying the spread was of Terpstra seeming to wink to the camera in the finishing straight.
Terpstra, Het Nieuwsblad continued, was a "wolf in sheep's clothing," with teammate Iljo Keisse insisting that the Dutchman's reputation in the peloton has improved over the years. "In the past, Niki has said and done things that gave him a certain image," said Keisse, "but he doesn't deserve that name at all anymore."
The Belgian challenge
Amid all the praise heaped upon Quick-Step and Terpstra, there was criticism, too, for the failure of the other favourites to make any concerted effort to temper their dominance. Only Ronde debutant Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) seemed to escape censure, thanks to his attack on the Kruisberg in the finale.
The Belgian press focused the bulk of their scrutiny on the home riders, relegating Peter Sagan's complaints of heavy marking to the margins of their coverage. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), who was in his 'Gouden Greg' pomp a year ago, has not made the same impression in 2018, though not for want of trying. 5th place on Sunday was Van Avermaet's seventh top 10 finish in the Ronde, but a single surge on the Taaienberg aside, he never looked like breaking Quick-Step's hold on the race.
"This year, Greg Van Avermaet has simply returned to the level which he has had almost his entire career," Het Nieuwsblad suggested. "He is very good, always in the final, and on a good day capable of winning – even now in Roubaix – but not the rider who takes all the big victories."
Looking at the Classics campaign as a whole, Het Laatste Nieuws praised Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) for their performances and their wins at Strade Bianche and Dwars door Vlaanderen, respectively, but was more critical of the older Belgian riders such as Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac).
There was sympathy, meanwhile, for the ongoing ill fortune of Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), who had to overcome yet another crash to place 11th at the Ronde. "What came out of mouth wasn't Catholic, and on Easter too," Naesen joked to Het Nieuwsblad of his fall on Sunday. "As well as being Belgian champion on the road, I am unfortunately also the Belgian champion of crashes."
The most rapturous praise was reserved for three-time cyclo-cross world champion Wout Van Aert (Veranda's Willems-Crelan), who placed a very assured 9th on his Ronde debut to continue a most remarkable sequence of results in his first-ever Classics campaign. "It wouldn't surprise us if wins the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix in the future," enthused Het Nieuwsblad.
Sven Nys, Van Aert's predecessor as the biggest star in Belgian cyclo-cross, admitted to surprise at how readily Van Aert has adapted to the road. He suggested that Van Aert might yet defy conventional thinking by continuing to combine his cyclo-cross and road activities rather than focus completely on the road as Zdenek Stybar has done.
"If he wants to – and I emphasize the word 'if' – then he can leave his mark on both disciplines in the coming years: cyclo-cross and road. That is clear now. Why does he have to copy what others have done?" Nys told Het Laatste Nieuws, brushing off the comparison with past dual stars like Adrie van der Poel and Roger De Vlaeminck. "They rode a maximum of fifteen crosses before they started their Spring, Wout has more than thirty behind it. That's an immense difference, although I am convinced that he has also surprised himself."
Tom Boonen has been a busy man since retiring a year ago this week, and one of many hats he has been trying on for size is that of a columnist for Het Laatste Nieuws. After picking his former teammate Terpstra as a favourite for the Ronde, Boonen is backing the Dutchman to complete the double at Paris-Roubaix.
"My top favourite, once again, is Terpstra. I consider Niki as the only remaining 'pur sang' cobblestone specialist in this peloton," wrote Boonen, who also heaped praise upon 22-year-old Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) after the Danish champion placed second at the Ronde, having held off an elite chasing group.
When it came to breaking down the key moment of the Ronde, Terpstra's attack on the false flat over the top of the Kruisberg, Boonen offered a most succinct analysis: "Why didn't Van Avermaet, Sagan and company not go with Nibali and/or Terpstra. It's very simple: they couldn't."