A cold wind blows across Flanders’ fields. The sunshine of Ghent-Wevelgem is gone and the kinderkopjes have been coated with a veneer of wet snow, one last paroxysm of winter before spring ushers it out of the door.
It gives cycling’s heartland a feeling of February, not April. And if Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl had the option to hit rewind to the very beginning of the spring campaign, they would probably take it.
Since Fabio Jakobsen won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on the Opening Weekend, the famous Belgian team of Classics howitzers has been firing duds. The only place to see a Quick-Step win in Belgium these days is the Koers cycling museum in Roeselaere, where a retrospective exhibition celebrates 20 years of the team and its many past victories.
Defending Tour of Flanders champion Kasper Asgreen was their best placed finisher at E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent Wevelgem, but he wound up 10th and 32nd respectively and goes into the biggest Belgian one-day race as an outside favourite, his third place at Strade Bianche feeling like a very long time ago.
The Belgian press has declared a state of emergency. Het Nieuwsblad has announced ‘code orange’ at the team (mimicking the name of Belgium’s Covid-19 measures). It also notes a peculiarly Belgian flavour to Quick-Step’s problems; the team sits second only to UAE Team Emirates in the overall season’s victory tally (17 already) but down on Intermarché Wanty Groupe Gobert and Alpecin-Fenix when it comes to wins in Belgium (just one).
Fabio Jakobsen has taken Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl's sole win in Belgium in 2022 (Credit: Getty Images)
This weekend it’s the cup final. Flanders’ Finest, the home tie. But as happens once in a blue moon, Quick-Step are the underdogs.
The team manager Patrick Lefevere is not known for hiding his fury but for now the hairdryer is unplugged, the barbed emails saved in drafts. This is despite an abject showing in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, where Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl riders had no role in the race’s decisive manoeuvres. “I was there and they were not that bad,” he said.
Rather than infuriating tactical blunders (remember Ian Stannard at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2015?) or no-shows, the team simply puts its struggles down to extenuating circumstances. Yves Lampaert and Zdeněk Štybar caught the bug that swept through the peloton at Paris-Nice, which now keeps Lefevere himself housebound in West Flanders. Tim ‘the Tractor’ Declercq has just returned from pericarditis and is short of race kilometres. Asgreen had Covid-19 in February. Florian Sénéchal crashed and abandoned Gent-Wevelgem, though returns for De Ronde.
“It’s very disappointing, that’s for sure, but there are no miracles in cycling,” explained team DS Tom Steels. “If you’re physically not 100%, even at 95%, then it’s very tough. At the moment 60 or 70% of the team is at 90 to 95%.
“You can’t force a rider that was ill. You just have to give them the mental peace that they are allowed to be less than 100%, and then in the race you adjust the tactics and you see what happens.”
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
So it is that Kasper Asgreen takes Quick-Step into Flanders as the team’s sole leader, the lone wolf at the so-called wolfpack. “Last year with Julian coming here as the world champion the leadership was a bit more shared,” Asgreen explained. “But in the end it’s the legs that will decide who’s up there in the final just like last year.”
Despite being spotted training in Flanders, the team’s rainbow bullet is being saved for the Ardennes. His absence will be keenly felt for a squad whose one-day modus operandi involves a multi-pronged attack, but perhaps worse is the loss of the swagger which usually accompanies Loulou and his pack. The team’s riders and management all admit that the race will be dictated by Mathieu van der Poel and Jumbo-Visma and there’s little they can do about it.
“We never focus on the wheel of somebody else,” said Lefevere. “[But] you have to be intelligent to know when you can take the race into your hands and when you cannot.
“We are not used to going on the defensive. We are used to aggressive racing.”
It’s probably as close as we’ll get to an admission of defeat; the 2022 Tour of Flanders simply comes too soon for Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl. But success overseas will soften the blow of leaving the Belgian spring empty handed and this year, with Paris-Roubaix coming an exceptional two weeks after the De Ronde, time will soon be on their side.
“I remember 2001 [with Domo-Farm Frites] we didn’t win one result and then in Paris-Roubaix we did 1-2-3,” Lefevere said. “So you never know.”