Cycling’s imagery means that thoughts of spring don’t always turn to blooming flowers and warmer weather but instead generate dark images of leaden skies and muddy fields, Belgium at its most dismal. Another theme is the omnipresence of the Etixx-Quickstep team. The name has changed over the years but story remains the same, a team expected to deliver big results ahead of every other team. While some squads are delighted with a podium placing this one risk being blasted for “losing” the race should a rider come second.
It’s habitual, traditional. Once upon a time it was called the Mapei team then the Belgian component split to become Domo-Farm Frites before Quick Step appeared as a sponsor and this become Omega Pharma-Quick Step and today’s Etixx-Quick Step. Listing their results would take too long but two stats tell plenty: they’ve had 12 wins in Paris-Roubaix and eight in the Ronde van Vlaanderen since 1994: 20 wins in the last 20 years.
A picture paints a thousand words and the Mapei 1-2-3 in the Roubaix velodrome has become iconic. In fact the team has taken a 1-2-3 three times in 1996, 1998 and 1999. The team has delivered like no other outfit and it’s become the reference point such that if someone else wins then the Belgian media talk about Quick Step “losing” the race.
The pressure on the team to win is enormous and now ratchets up even more. Time is running out for the cobbled specialists: once Paris-Roubaix is done in ten days’ time that’s it for 2015. It marks one of the rare cliff-edges on the calendar where teams and riders can’t shrug and hope for a result next weekend. Feverish Flemish newspapers track every move, route recon rides make the evening news bulletins, private lives are made public in gossip rags.
The team need that big win and soon. Gianni Meersman’s victory in the Handzame Classic isn’t enough and the team’s 1-2-3 in the Ronde Van Zeeland Seaports almost invokes pity; once the team could get a 1-2-3 in Paris-Roubaix, now it’s in a modest 1.1 race. Yet this again shows the standards by which the team is judged.
Normal vs pas normal
Interestingly if Quick Step do place three riders up the road it’s normal, expected and almost unremarkable. Gewiss-Ballan’s Flèche Wallonne triple is seen as symbolic of the rise of EPO but Mapei’s tripled triple in Roubaix rarely invited the same questions and over the years Quick Step has skipped over doping stories with the same ease they ride a pavé sector. Let’s stress it’s not because of any current topics, rather a past where they signed Richard Virenque or saw Paolo Bettini win every hilly classic going for years, surely on a diet of more than bread and water. Yet nobody seems to ask Patrick Lefevere the same questions that get regularly put to others. Today we expect three Quicksteppers in the front of a cobbled classic but should another squad manage it what chance Twitter might erupt with conspiracy theories? I don’t want this piece to disappear too far down the dopage rabbithole but again it’s another take on how the team is seen and the expectations, no?
Back on surer ground Stijn Vandenbergh makes an instructive case study. Fourth in the Ronde and the E3 Harelbeke in 2014 he can hang with the best in the hardest spring classics. Yet he’s absent for the rest of the year; there was only one other top-10 in 2014 and that was in the Tour of Qatar, a proxy Belgian race. It’s the same in previous years, a stalwart of the top-10 in the Flemish classics but almost never in the top-50 for the rest of the year, chart the results over the year and April looks so different. He’s a classics specialist, that most narrow of niches.
The specialism is visible. At 1.99m Vandenbergh, one of the tallest in the peloton. His team mates are often taller than the rest too so much so you’d back the Quick Step team to win a World Tour basketball tournament. Niki Terpstra is 1.85m. Tom Boonen 1.92m. Guillaume van Keirsbulck 1.92m. Zdeněk Štybar looks small in comparison but he’s still an above average 1.83m. This isn’t by accident, tall and heavy riders can pound the cobbles rather than take a pounding but such bulk is a penalty for so many other races.
The Future (short term)
With two big targets remaining Etixx-Quick Step need that big win to ensure the spring of 2015 isn’t defined by losses to Ian Stannard and Luca Paolini. It’s tempting to spot a case of “too many chiefs and not enough indians” where the team has numerical superiority in the finish of a race but hasn’t turned this into a win. Having numbers in the finish is a comfortable position, it increases the odds of winning and almost guarantees a podium place, a position every other team would love to have. Yet Quick Step risk being blasted for “losing” the race because of this, once again an example of how they’re held to higher standards.
Looking ahead Niki Terpstra seems the team’s best bet but everyone is wise to his tactics of going solo late in the race. Can he risk a sprint? He did beat Geraint Thomas in Wevelgem but that was after Thomas had been softened up by Vandenbergh and after an exceptional day too. If Terpstra is a diesel Vandenbergh is a truck, often strong but with no evident acceleration or punch. Meanwhile Štybar is the golden protégé of team owner Zdeněk Bakala but his wins so far have come on hilly days, he’s much more than a flatland specialist. All are invaluable but now let’s imagine these three riders make it to the final 10km of Paris-Roubaix in a move with Geraint Thomas, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke and John Degenkolb. Sudddenly a win would be a giant result. Tom Boonen is missed and, no, he won’t be riding Paris-Roubaix. He’s only just started riding again after his Paris-Nice crash.
The Future (long term)
Images of Mapei 1-2-3s stick in the mind and they’re reinforced by Boonen’s prolific success in recent years but that’s the past. Can the team continue to deliver? Yes because the team has an economic rationale to perform in March and April. There’s self-sustaining business cycle where landing results in the spring classics brings valuable publicity – TV audience shares can be 75% for a race in Flanders – so the team rationally invests in specialist riders for the spring classics. Focussing on the cobbled classics pays real dividends for this team in a way that it wouldn’t for others. Take FDJ’s Marc Madiot who loves the spring classics but a win in Le Tour des Flandres would be almost unnoticed in France; the race isn’t even shown on public TV; Ditto Geraint Thomas’s recent success which, scanning the British newspapers, didn’t generate much interest. As long as the Belgian media give lavish coverage to these races it will pay to be omnipresent.
Etixx-Quickstep wins races all year round but when it comes to March and April it’s held to higher standards than the rest thanks to a rich history of wins and a local base. This focus is deliberate, the team knows that meeting domestic demands brings a publicity pay day. Etixx-Quickstep’s focus on the cobbled classics is like no other and reaches the point where expectations are piled so high they become almost impossible to meet, finishing on the podium gets described as losing in next day’s newspapers. Win or risk looking like the fools of April.