Deceuninck-QuickStep's winning streak in the Spring Classics, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and continuing over Milan-San Remo and the E3 BinckBank Classic, came to an end on Sunday afternoon at Gent-Wevelgem.
The Belgian team usually take the initiative in the Classics and force other teams to chase them, rather than having to chase themselves. It often puts them in a position where multiple riders from the team can win the race.
“It has been our winning tactic since the '90s, first with Museeuw and then with Boonen," said team general manager Patrick Lefevere. "We had a super Alaphilippe in San Remo, and Stybar was flying last week. One day everybody hopes: next time it’s mine. And that with more than 55 per cent less budget. I’m a bookkeeper, so I know what I’m talking about.”
Bookkeeper Lefevere also knew that Belgian champion Yves Lampaert received a new contract and that he’s paid to win. After the E3 BinckBank Classic in Harelbeke, Lefevere regretted that Lampaert nor Philippe Gilbert featured in the eight-rider group after the Paterberg, saying that bad positioning wasn’t an excuse as everybody knew where the Paterberg was. He also said that Lampaert should ‘turn things into gold himself’ thus get the wins too. Lampaert was unimpressed.
“It’s the first race of the season I’m taking part in that we didn’t win," Lampaert told Cyclingnews at the finish in Wevelgem. "We won a lot, so it’s no disgrace to get beaten for once. The rest is talk for the papers.”
During Gent-Wevelgem, Lampaert worked in front of the peloton when approaching the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, even though he’s regarded as a team leader too.
“I wasn’t told to work," he said. "The gap was about a minute on the group, Tim Declercq was gone and I didn’t feel super strong so I sacrificed my chances, hoping to keep as many men of our team as fresh as possible."
In Gent-Wevelgem, the ‘Wolfpack’ wasn’t howling. Early on, Deceuninck-QuickStep tried to form an echelon, but they were countered. A star-studded group of 20 riders broke away and only the team’s domestique Declercq featured among them.
“It was a bit difficult," Deceuninck-QuickStep's Zdenek Stybar told the media at the team bus after the race. "We figured we would come back, but we didn’t. We were briefly chasing but it didn’t work.”
Still, in the final kilometres of the fastest-ever edition of Gent-Wevelgem, the final breakaway attempts were neutralized. A group sprint would decide the race and the ‘Wolfpack’ still had in-form sprinter Elia Viviani in the group. Nevertheless, the Italian champion ended up being boxed in and lost out on a chance to test his legs against those of eventual winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).
After the race, the team’s riders and directors showed a mixture of disappointment and perspective.
“It was really hard, but we gave our best to set things straight," Stybar said. "It’s a pity that Elia got boxed in and was unable to sprint. That’s what’s to be regretted the most today.”
Director sportif Wilfried Peeters was content that one week ahead of the most important races, the team received a warning that they shouldn’t take winning for granted.
“I always say it’s a good wake-up call," Peeters said. "I think it’s good that someone else wins. If things are getting too easy, it’s obvious that the other teams are ready to hit back at us. That’s what they did. I’m well aware that there’ll be more blocks next week. I always think it’s good to bang your head against the wall, to get your feets back on the ground. I think that’s very, very important.
“I’m glad I don’t have to drink champagne for once,” Peeters said, referring laughingly about the team's habit of cracking a bottle of champagne after each of their 20 victories this year.
A missed opportunity for Viviani
Viviani freshened up in the team bus before heading back out to talk with the media. He clearly was still emotional and full of adrenaline after a disappointing end of the race. Last year, Viviani was even more emotional when he finished as runner-up and regretted not being able to pay his teammates back for their work. Viviani talked about how he experienced the sprint.
“Every sprint has its own story," he said. "Today the story is really a shit story. I’m focused on Kristoff’s wheel because I see he can be the strongest. From 5km to go I’m going ‘follow him, follow him’. The moment when he goes Fernando [Gaviria] comes from the left and he just comes on his wheel and he stops. Kristoff has a free way to go and I’m in the middle between Fernando and [Matej, Bahrain-Merida] Mohoric on the right, so I just stopped pedalling at 200 metres to go.
"You know that this is the risk when you do a home sprint," Viviani said. "After 250km the legs from everyone are probably a bit like that. The lucky or the good move is the winning one. Today was not our day."
Viviani said he didn’t believe his former teammate Gaviria did a foul move in the sprint.
“No, it’s just a positioning sprint," he said. "Nobody had a lead out. Just Jumbo had a few riders and they go on the right. Like I said, I don’t see a lot of movement because I was focused on Kristoff’s wheel. I see one Direct Energie rider trying to anticipate. Kristoff keeps his wheel so you can say that was perfect.
"When Kristoff goes at 200 metres to go I’m on his wheel. When I try to go to the left, Fernando comes from the back at double speed and they are teammates, so they played it well."
The Italian champion will now leave QuickStep's Classics team as his Spring Classics season is over. He will have to switch focus to the Giro d’Italia. Preparation starts after a week of rest and a build-up via the Tour de Romandie.
“I’m disappointed for the team and for another chance that’s gone after last year," he said. "Today was a confirmation that I can win this race. Everything needs to go in the right direction to win this race. We can try again in the next few years. The good point is that I’m in the best team to try and win this race. I just already failed two times. Probably the third one can be the good one."
With two wins already in the pocket, Stybar said he was looking forward to the big races.
“First we’ll see what happens on Wednesday in Dwars door Vlaanderen, then we’ll talk about the tactics for the Ronde," Stybar said. "I don’t care if I’m the favourite or not. Today I worked flat out for Elia to try and close the gap on the leaders. When I dropped back to recover, after 30 seconds Phil [Gilbert] was shouting to me, ‘One more time’. It seemed impossible to me at first but that’s what I did. The form is good if I can do that, and it’s nice to see what we do for each other as a team.”
Lefevere is well aware that the wins in previous races are no guarantee for the desired outcome at the races that really matters for him: Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I don’t make my balance now," Lefevere said. "We’re only halfway. Come back after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The big races still have to come."
With Gilbert, Stybar and Lampaert, Lefevere felt confident for the ‘Holy Week’.
“I’m not afraid to go to Flanders and Roubaix with these guys," he said.