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Tour of Flanders tactics: How do you solve a problem like Quick-Step?

In all the newspaper pages and television clips this week devoted to the build-up to the Tour of Flanders, there's one word that has been written and spoken more than any other: Quick-Step.

The Belgian team have made themselves the number one theme of the 2018 cobbled classics, with six victories from seven races on Belgian soil over the past couple of weeks: Le Samyn, Dwars door West Vlaanderen, Handzame Classic, De Panne, E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen.

It's not just the fact they've racked up so many wins but the manner of the wins. They went one-two at Le Samyn and E3, on both occasions splitting the race and placing almost their whole team at the front. Even at the one they didn't win, Gent-Wevelgem, they had four riders in the front group.

So while all other teams line up for Flanders with at most one clear candidate, Quick-Step Floors have no fewer than four, in Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar. That's why, when asked who they saw as the favourite for Sunday, TIesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) both opted against giving the name of a rider and instead simply said: "Quick-Step".

The Belgian team were certainly revelling in their 'favourite status' as they gathered for their pre-Flanders press conference on Friday evening. "We did pretty well in the last races, so for sure it's over to us," said a nonchalant Terpstra.

So, with Quick-Step set to be the tactical pivot on Sunday, Cyclingnews spoke to a few team managers and directors to find out how they see things playing out.

BMC and Greg Van Avermaet at the 2018 Gent-Wevelgem, 

Fabio Baldato (DS, BMC Racing)

"I don't want to call it a problem. It's more a mental situation. Last year we won almost everything, this year it's them. When you start from the position that you can watch the others and put the pressure on the others, then it's better. Now they're in this situation. It's also about approach to the race, need to be able to understand and try to be patient. Don't go too crazy because otherwise they win again.

"For Greg, the main difficulty at the moment is being alone at the end with 12 or 13 riders and three or four of them are from Quick-Step. All the others in that situation put the pressure on Greg because they know he's one of the strongest.

"When the leader is good the team can give 110 per cent, they can give the extra bit that makes the difference. That means they work, they put Greg in front, and then they keep working. You can't say, 'Ok Greg is in the front, I'm done'. No, you keep fighting, to stay just behind, in the little group behind, the you come back and help Greg again. That's the situation you need to have, that's what I'm hoping for.

"I'm sure when Sagan is in the race, it's easier for Greg. He's a man they cannot forget, even for them. Then the focus for Quick-Step is split a little bit – they need to watch two strong men. It's maybe easier for Greg when all the contenders – Vanmarcke, Naesen, Sagan – are all up there, then he can have more opportunities because Quick-Step need to watch all these guys. They cannot forget about one of them."

Ralph Denk (Manager, Bora-Hansgrohe)

"We have not just Peter. We have also other riders in very good shape, like Marcus Burghardt, Daniel Oss and Maciej Bodnar. And I think we are on the same level. It will be pure racing. QS have had more success so far, and I think they're a team that has the responsibility, and we have to react, but be strong enough to do this.

"We have a clear plan. We think already we know the right moment. Maybe early. It depends on the wind. I think in the end we have four to eight riders fighting for victory. Peter can win from a group of 20, he can win alone. That's the good thing. Some riders can only win by going alone, but Peter doesn't have to.

"The problem for us is if they have more guys than us. But I don't think that will happen. I'm optimistic some other riders will be there from our team."

Peter Sagan rides to a solo win in the 2016 Tour of Flanders

Jonathan Vaughters (Manager, EF Education First-Drapac)

"Right now, the race is played up to be Quick-Step vs Sagan, right? That's the thing that could play in our favour. We're sort of like the unknown party off to the side. It suits us to let the Quick-Step vs Sagan battle play out, then you just see how many cards have been wasted by the end, and then hopefully you come to a situation where Sep's actually able to take advantage of that.

"Quick-Step have been very strong in the shorter ones, but tomorrow's a different beast. I'm not nearly as concerned. In Dwars and E3, over that distance, yeah they can play their numbers. Over 260 kilometres it won't be as successful. So I'm not actually as worried about them on Sunday. Paris-Roubaix you can start using the numbers again, but tomorrow I don't think their numbers will be quite as important."

Servais Knaven (DS, Team Sky)

"It's not easy to stop them. You have to have the legs and you have to have the numbers, and then you need to have the luck yourself, as well. Their strength can be an advantage but if you don't have anyone who can really make the difference it can also be hard to win the race tomorrow. If It comes together before the last Kwaremont then it's difficult for them to win – that's clear.

"If Quick-Step want to use their numbers they will go early. So I'm expecting an early race. Last year it was the Muur, this year maybe even earlier. If they make a hard race it's all about the legs and who can follow."

Paolo Bettini (Former world champion)

"I think it's important to try something, and not just with your leader. Just Sagan alone, it's hard to make the difference against a team like Quick-Step. It's important to have a strong team. Sagan is a phenomenon, but for him here the difficulty is making the difference all on his own."

Patrick Lefevere (Manager, Quick-Step Floors)

"In the past other teams have not always been willing to work with us, but I think it's in their interest to make the race hard with us, then bring the big motors to the front like Sagan, Van Avermaet. I hope everybody will take his responsibility from Antwerp to the bergs, and race with an open mind. We always have to make sure we don't have to chase the others, that the others have to chase us.

"Sagan is the world champion, and when you see how he managed all his last victories…I can't say he was anonymous because he's the world champion, but the other teams bring him to the finish – like in Went-Wevelgem, like in Worlds, nobody saw him. So chapeau to him.

"We don't want to take away the instinct of the riders – if they feel the moment they don't always have to ask the car 'can I attack'. If you look at Wednesday. Stybar attacked on the Taaienberg, he was alone for a while, then on the Trieu, Tiesj Benoot goes with Van Avermaet and Stybar is dropped. If he's not dropped, they are away with three – would that have been a good case for us? Probably not. So the fact he was dropped, they had to reorganise, Niki came back from behind, closed the gap on the Varent, and that permitted Lampaert to go in the break with Vanmarcke. The race changes so many times in such a short space of time.

"In modern cycling, you have only one or two bullets. If you shoot, it has to be in the forehead."

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