Are the halcyon days of Soudal - Quick-Step being the team to beat in the cobbled Classics gone for good? A look back at this year’s Classic season so far and in 2022 might indicate so. Aside from Fabio Jakobsen’s sprint win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last year, the blue jerseys that were once so common at the forefront of the bunch on the cobbles have mostly been lost in the jaws of the peloton in the last season’s worth of one-day Classics.
There have been some spirited attacks from Julian Alaphilippe and a win from Tim Merlier in semi-Classic Nokere-Koerse so far in 2023, as well as a couple of top-10 finishes from the likes of Davide Ballerini and Yves Lampaert, but these performances are a far cry from the former iterations of Quick-Step who used to dominate these races year on year. Take the 2021 season, for example, when the Belgian team won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders and Flèche Wallonne all in the same year. Are those days over? Will the Quick-Step of old ever return?
In the team’s recent press conference ahead of the Tour of Flanders this weekend, both riders and staff put on a brave show of confidence despite their recent run of poor results in home races. Team boss Patrick Lefevere commented that he didn’t believe it was a lack of physical strength causing the team’s downfall, but problems with the mentality of the riders.
“I'm very confident, they're the same team who won Nieuwsblad, Harelbeke, Flanders and Flèche two years ago. I don’t see a big difference, did Van Aert improve? Yes. Did his team become stronger? Yes. But I refuse to believe that some of the guys – we call them the yellows – are stronger than these people here,” Lefevere said to press from the HQ of Quick-Step Floors, the team’s longtime sponsor.
Tim Declercq leads the bunch at the E3 Saxo Classic (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
“For the moment, it’s a little bit in the mind. If we start like we are beaten already, maybe we should just play cards and stay at home. I don't wish anybody to crash, but [the Tour of Flanders] is so difficult, it is 270 km, one of the longest, full of concentration and everything can happen. The race is never over, it’s only over on the line. I remember two years ago when Kasper came to the finish line with Mathieu, the public opinion gave him, I think, three chances to win it. We had a nice meeting two days before where Kasper said: I can sprint. He convinced the team directors he could sprint and he won. Maybe the others learnt how to beat us, but I’m not feeling beaten before the start.”
Kasper Asgreen, whose win in the Tour of Flanders in 2021 Lefevere references, shares the sentiment of his team boss that Soudal - Quick-Step need to enter the race on Sunday with a positive mindset.
“We need to accept that we don't have the strength to necessarily dictate the race. I think once you accept that you can race in a different way, you can still be competitive and you can still end up winning the race. Right now, what's important is that we keep the confidence in that and that we don't let it get to us that we don't necessarily have the strength that we used to have,” Asgreen said.
“If we lose the faith in ourselves, then for sure, we will not have any results. We try to keep our morale high and I think there's still a belief in the group of riders and everybody that we can still do it.”
When it comes to making moves in the race itself, Asgreen argues that the team needs to attack earlier to avoid being caught out by the sudden accelerations from the likes of pre-race favourites such as Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
“I think for most of the bunch, you need to get ahead of the big accelerations from those three. When they go, they're on another level right now and we need to act accordingly. But when we will go, I'm not going to reveal that here,” Asgreen said, coyly.
Soudal-Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe will be the team's leader on Sunday (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
When it comes to their team leader, Soudal - Quick-Step’s best chance at victory this year appears to lie in former world champion Julian Alaphilippe. Out of all the team’s riders, the Frenchman has been closest to The Big Three in the races so far this week.
“My expectation is just to be ready to fight and to give my best,” Alaphilippe responded when asked what his approach would be to Flanders this year. “I'm focused on what I have to do and of course, we know the strongest riders, so we just have to be focused on our race and not look too much at the others.”
Winston Churchill once said “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” and it seems that this is the ethos being embodied by Soudal - Quick-Step ahead of what is one of the biggest races of the season for both them and their sponsors. There can be no arguing that mindset plays almost as much as a big role as physical strength in cycling, but will positive thinking really be enough for Quick-Step to turn things around and beat cycling’s latest super-talents? All eyes are on De Ronde.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix