At the recent Deceuninck-QuickStep team presentation, manager Patrick Lefevere expressed his regret at the departure of Max Richeze – a rider he placed among the best lead-out men in the professional peloton. In four years at the team, Richeze piloted an array of sprinters to victory, including Tom Boonen, Alvaro Hodeg and Elia Viviani, but he opted to leave for UAE Team Emirates ahead of the 2020 campaign.
Lefevere's unwillingness to offer more than a 12-month contract to a rider approaching his 37th birthday was undoubtedly a factor in Richeze's decision, but so, too, was the insistence of Fernando Gaviria.
When QuickStep snapped up Gaviria in late 2015, they quickly added Richeze to serve as his lead-out man. The South American pairing enjoyed a fruitful partnership until Gaviria extricated himself from his contract with QuickStep to join UAE Team Emirates last year. Gaviria's first season at his new team was blighted by a knee injury, but marked, too, by the absence of his closest confidant in the peloton.
"At QuickStep, I had the best years of my career up to now, I felt at home there," Richeze said at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina this week. "This was a decision that I took above all because of my friendship with Fernando. I also had good relations with other people on the team, like [manager] Matxin [Joxean Fernandez]. That was what pushed me to make the decision to change. In the end, I had four great years there, but I preferred to follow my heart and join Fernando."
Each day at the Vuelta a San Juan, Richeze is constantly in Gaviria's orbit in the peloton, and in the evenings, he is his roommate. Away from racing, they are regular training partners: Gaviria and Richeze occupy apartments in the same block in Monaco.
"You can do the job without being friends," Richeze said. "But when you have that relationship off the bike, you always manage to give a little bit more for your teammate – or, in this case, my friend."
A seamless partnership between a sprinter and lead-out man is not based on friendship alone, however. Richeze maintains that their shared track background helps them to understand one another almost intuitively amid the tumult of a frenetic run-in. It certainly means that they have some very similar instincts when it comes to positioning themselves in the peloton.
"We have the same racing mentality, and we see it in the same way, so in the finale we never talk much. He just needs to call out 'Max' and I understand what he wants," Richeze said. "When he calls my name, I understand that he's lost the wheel or we're not in the right position, and then we look to change a bit. In the finale of a race, we each have an understanding.
"From the first race, we understood one another. Fernando has a special character; it can take time to gain his confidence, but, with me, from the first race we did together, the Tour de San Luis, he trusted me blindly."
A native of Bella Vista, near Buenos Aires, Richeze hails from a cycling family and is a product of Argentina's longstanding track tradition. Around the capital, track cycling is the most popular form of the sport. Only the western province of San Juan, Richeze explained, has a full calendar of road races.
Richeze's desire to race on the road brought him to Italy as an amateur, and he turned professional with Panaria in 2006. His career was interrupted by a two-year doping ban following his 2008 positive test for Stanozolol – a steroid – but he returned to race with Team Nippo before stepping up to the WorldTour with Lampre-Merida in 2013.
At that juncture, Richeze was still nominally a sprinter – he has 17 wins to his name – but during his tenure at Lampre, he was gradually repurposed as a lead-out man.
"A sprinter is stubborn, but they made me understand that I should change," Richeze laughed. "When I was at Lampre with Matxin, he started to talk to me about it. As a sprinter, sure, I won three or four races a year, but a sprinter needs to win 10 or more if he's on a big team. Matxin said if I wanted to extend my career, I should think about being a lead-out man."
Initially at least, the change in rank was not easily digested. A sprinter is compelled to think only of himself and compete until the finish line. The lead-out man is required to develop an altruistic streak and adapt to racing only as far as an invisible target with 200 metres or so to go.
"I had to change mentality, but it wasn't easy at first," Richeze admitted.
He has tasted victory since his change of vocation – he is the reigning Argentinian and Pan-American road race champion – but not with the same frequency as in his days as a sprinter. Instead, his success is now measured by the achievements of others. The sensation is different to that of standing atop the podium, but rewarding in its own way.
"It's not exactly the same but the emotion is very strong," Richeze said. "There are goals I would never have reached if I had continued to be a sprinter myself, like when Fernando took the yellow jersey at the 2018 Tour de France.
"For me to lead out the sprint for Fernando in his first Tour de France and watch him take the yellow jersey, that was a very strong emotion. At that finish line, I felt like I had won myself because I was a part of that victory."
When Gaviria won his first stage at this Vuelta a San Juan in Pocito on Monday, Richeze was absent in the finale, having fallen victim to a crash with 13km to go.
"I'll win a lot more with him than without him," Gaviria said afterwards, and stage 4 to San Agustin del Valle Fertil on Wednesday evening seemed to prove his point. After Richeze had powered to his personal finish line with 200 metres to go, Gaviria swooped for his second victory of the week.
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