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Not like other years: QuickStep's travails continue ahead of Tour of Flanders

Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) during Gent-Wevelgem
Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) during Gent-Wevelgem (Image credit: DIRK WAEMBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images)

This spring, Koers, the cycling museum in Roeselare, is hosting a temporary exhibition to mark the 20th anniversary of QuickStep's sponsorship of Belgium's leading team. There are relics, like Frank Vandenbroucke's bike from the 2003 Tour of Flanders. There are curiosities, like the open bottle of wine that symbolises the partnership between team manager Patrick Lefevere and his long-time patron Frans De Cock.

But above all, there are prizes. The walls are effectively papered with jerseys – rainbow, pink, yellow and green. Trophies of all shapes and sizes from races across the world sit gathering dust. The landmark victories from men like Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini, Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra are immortalised in diligently-captioned photographs.

The retrospective comes at a delicate time for QuickStep-AlphaVinyl. Although they remain resolutely in the winning business – this season alone, they have already notched 17 victories – they find themselves in the unfamiliar position of struggling to make an impact in the cobbled Classics, the very races that have always been their raison d'être.

A stone's throw from the museum on Wednesday morning, Directeur Sportif Wilfried Peeters was rallying his troops for the latest instalment of the Spring campaign at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Illness has been an issue for multiple teams in the WorldTour this season, but QuickStep's Classics unit has been particularly affected.

Mainstays Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert have been playing catch-up since illness forced them to abandon Paris-Nice two weeks ago, while Tim Declercq only returned to action at Dwars door Vlaanderen after spending over a month out of action with pericarditis. Kasper Asgreen, who overcame COVID-19 in February, was the team's best finisher at both E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem, placing 10th and 32nd, respectively.

"We can field only the riders who are fresh and not sick. We cannot do it like other years," Peeters told Cyclingnews. "This is a special year. Last year it was Covid, this year it's that there are a lot of sick guys. OK, it's like this and we will try to live with this. We will try to handle it on the highest level."

Alaphilippe

A little over four hours later, Dwars door Vlaanderen seemed to confirm what the races to date had already suggested. In this corner of the world, for this year at least, the terms of engagement are not being dictated by the men in blue jerseys. When the decisive move featuring Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) went clear on Berg Ten Houte with 70km to go, there was no QuickStep rider among their number.

Stybar made a spirited attempt to get across on the following Kanarieberg, but it would prove a forlorn effort and he would finish in 61st. Another Flemish race played out without any significant impact from QuickStep. Their best finisher in Waregem was Jannik Steimle, who came in 3:48 down on Van der Poel in 14th place.

"We are just not on full force and it is what it is. We have to survive," said Lampaert, who was further back, in 27th place. He admitted that he is still feeling the effects of his recent illness. "It's not bad but it's not good also, it's a little bit in between. With every hard effort, I'm a bit blocked so it's going to take some time."

Lampaert, winner of his home race in 2017 and 2018, saw little point in sugar-coating his assessment of QuickStep's performance. In defeat as in victory, the Izegem native is given to plain speaking. "If 15 men are riding away and there is no one from the team with them, then you are not good enough," he said.

At this juncture, the team's hopes at the Ronde seem to hang squarely on the shoulders of the defending champion Asgreen, who has been their most assured performer in recent weeks. Since recovering from COVID-19, he placed an impressive third at Strade Bianche and he also caught the eye at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, though – tellingly – he was heavily outnumbered by Wout van Aert's Jumbo-Visma squad in the decisive selection.

"I think we have to hope Kasper has a good day and then the rest will need to help him," said Lampaert. For once, it looks as though QuickStep will be devoted to a lone leader at the Ronde rather than a collective onslaught.

And yet, and yet. On Tuesday afternoon, photographs emerged of Julian Alaphilippe training on the Tour of Flanders course in the company of Asgreen. The world champion, who crashed out of the winning move at the Ronde in 2020, has long insisted he would skip the cobbled Classics this year in order to focus on the Ardennes, and he is scheduled to ride the Tour of the Basque Country from next Monday.

Alaphilippe's presence in Flanders this week, however, suggested that QuickStep-AlphaVinyl were preparing to break glass in case of emergency. The team's pre-race press conference on Thursday afternoon will end the speculation one way or another.

"He has a house in Ronse, and he met Kasper yesterday to train. Now he goes to Pays Basque," said Peeters, who insisted that, as of Wednesday morning, Alaphilippe's participation in the Ronde was not in QuickStep's plans. 

"In life, you never know. The race is on Sunday. But for now, no."

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Barry Ryan

Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.