It was, John Degenkolb said with a glint in his eye, a non-alcoholic beer. "I mean, we're athletes – we can't drink any alcohol," he protested, playfully. After Trek-Segafredo's calamitous showing at the E3 BinckBank Classic last Friday, Mads Pedersen suggested the team and staff assemble after dinner in a room in the Weinebrugge Hotel outside Bruges and try, for a moment at least, to forget about their low-key spring to this point.
"It was Mads' idea just to sit together after the race and have a beer together," Degenkolb explained at Trek-Segafredo's pre-Tour of Flanders press conference on Thursday. "We put the whole team together – not just the riders, but everyone who was there as part of the team. We said that we needed to keep on fighting and that we weren't going to give up after two or three races that weren't as successful as we were hoping for."
Trek-Segafredo's quartet of Classics leaders – Degenkolb, Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns – had fallen well short of expectations during Opening Weekend, at Milan-San Remo and again in Harelbeke, but they finally made a telling impact with an aggressive display at Gent-Wevelgem, culminating in Degenkolb's second-place finish behind UAE Team Emirates' Alexander Kristoff. A timely glimmer of hope just a week out from the Ronde.
"That result would not have been possible if we weren't there with this group of riders," Degenkolb said. "We took the initiative to split the race. We were up there in every split. Everyone played his part, and I was just the one who did the sprint and took the result home. That result was needed so much after some races without any results. That lifted the morale for us."
In his column in Het Nieuwsblad earlier this week, Stuyven reckoned his showing in Harelbeke – an anonymous 58th place – to be among the lowest points of his career to date. He spent an hour of the day between Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem in conversation with his sports psychologist, although one wonders if the Mads Pedersen school of team building had an equally telling effect.
"No – mostly I just talk bullshit, like right now," Pedersen interjected, while Degenkolb deadpanned: "He's a very good listener."
Pedersen placed a surprising second a year ago at the Tour of Flanders, but has struggled to make the same impression on the cobbles this time out. Still only 23 years of age and in just his third season at this level, perhaps a slump of sorts was only to be anticipated, but the Dane will hope for better at the Ronde.
"It's nice and exciting to be at the start line again, but we have to show something now," Pedersen said. "As John said, we did a good race last Sunday, but now we need to do it again this Sunday. The confidence could be higher, but I truly still believe we can do something good."
While Trek-Segafredo will, on paper at least, set out from Antwerp on Sunday morning with several options, Degenkolb admitted that it would be fanciful to expect all of their prospective leaders to be in the shake-up come the final haul over the Kwaremont and Paterberg. At some point, either in the pre-race briefing or during the Ronde itself, decisions will have to be made regarding the hierarchy.
"At a certain point, every team – not just us – has to make choices and decisions about which direction we go in, and who is going to be the guy who spends the least energy so he has something left for the last part of the race," said Degenkolb, who suggested that Stuyven and Pedersen would lead the line this Sunday while he takes the reins at his beloved Paris-Roubaix.
"Obviously, Flanders doesn't suit me as well as Roubaix. I will be not be the captain for Flanders. It's not decided yet, but mentally I'm more there to support the guys and help them as much as possible. But you never know what's going to happen. Last year nobody expected Mads to be up there and he stood on the podium at the end. Anything can happen."
Gent-Wevelgem was a case in point. After Zdenek Stybar's victory at the E3 BinckBank Classic, Deceuninck-QuickStep were beginning to appear all but unbeatable on the cobbles, but the aggression of Trek-Segafredo and Jumbo-Visma, in particular, forced the Belgian team onto the back foot at Gent-Wevelgem, dinting their sheen of invincibility in the process. Patrick Lefevere's men remain the team to beat, but the early onslaught at Gent-Wevelgem might have provided a template for their rivals to follow at the Ronde.
"It's definitely something you have to consider," Degenkolb said. "Everyone smells the chance now. Before, they were, like, unbeatable, but ultimately, they aren't. That was good to see. But they will also want to hit back now, for sure, so it won't be easy. It's a very important race for them too."
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