Philippe Gilbert, Enric Mas, Fernando Gaviria, Max Schachmann, Elia Viviani, Laurens de Plus – quite the list of riders.
These men all have one shared quirk: they have all left Deceuninck-Quick Step in the past three seasons. That's an emigration of talent that might sink most teams.
Yet, Quick Step remain the most dominant team in cycling, claiming 39 victories in 2020. It’s not quite the 68 wins of 2019, nor the 73 in 2018, a difference that largely be pinned on the global pandemic cancelling races. Ultimately, Quick Step continue to defeat their peers on an emphatic and consistent basis, despite losing star riders every year.
So, how do they keep pulling it off?
The key to their model is the recruitment of young, talented riders that have flown under the radar. Yves Lampaert, Kasper Asgreen, Rémi Cavagna and Fabio Jakobsen were all signed under the age of 25 and from a non-WorldTour squad. They all went on to take numerous wins for the Wolfpack. The most recent success story is the acquisition of Portugese rising star João Almeida.
Signed from the Axel Merckx-led Hagens Berman Axeon, Almeida joined in 2020 as a 21-year-old neo-pro. He spent the early months riding as a super-domestique for Remco Evenepoel, but after the Belgian crashed out at Il Lombardia, Almeida was given the chance to shine. It’s a chance he snatched with both hands.
He spent 15 days in the maglia rosa at the 2020 Giro d’Italia and placed in the top five on a stage seven times. After losing his grip on pink while climbing the revered Stelvio, Almeida battled on to end his first grand tour in 4th place overall.
Joao Almeida at the Giro d’Italia (Image credit: CorVos/SWpix.com)
When speaking ahead of his second professional year, Almeida explained, “I feel more confident about myself, but at the same time I put more pressure on myself. In the end, it’s good to have more motivation and to find even more confidence in the future”.
Almeida’s performance was met with astonishment. Should we really be surprised, though? Signing talented young riders with all the attributes required to transition to WorldTour racing is something this team does for fun.
In spite of that, this is a trump card Deceuninck need not play this year. With only one departure – Bob Jungels to AG2R Citroën – they only signed Josef Cerny and Mark Cavendish, aged 27 and 35 respectively. These two riders will add experience, but not the young verve coming from the likes of Almeida. Instead, the current young core will be given the time and opportunities to blossom further in 2021.
It is well known that CEO Patrick Lefevere hands out short-term deals with a low base salary, but a large bonus for wins. Just three Deceuninck riders have contracts beyond 2020, with the likes of Julian Alaphilippe and Sam Bennett up for renewal this year. It’s a risky strategy as it means riders are given more opportunities to walk away in search of a larger cheque. However, it does enable Deceuninck to build a squad with exceptional depth.
This is how Quick Step have always approached the cobbled classics. With the aforementioned Lampaert and Asgreen lining up alongside Zdeněk Štybar and Florian Sénéchal, they have the ability to deploy numerous leading-calibre riders in the same race.
Speaking at the pre-season training camp in Spain, Lampaert said, “I have a lot of confidence that we are really strong, we can force the races quite early, we don’t have to only look after our main leader, we can go many different ways to the finish line”. Asgreen added to the conversation, “Having numerous leaders has been the approach from our team for several years now and we’ve been very successful. So, I don’t see why we shouldn’t continue with this approach. I see it as a huge strength to have such good riders as my teammates instead of my competitors”.
Whether they will be able to cope with the generational talents of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in the Cobbled Classics this season is yet to be seen, though.
Image credit: ASO
That reminds us, they also have a young chap named Julian Alaphilippe… The World Champion will proudly don the rainbow brands in 2021, as he looks to bounce back from his crash with a moto that may well have robbed him of a Tour of Flanders podium.
When thinking back to the race during the Quick Step team presentation this week, Alaphilippe proclaimed, “bad memories, no! Only with the crash. Otherwise it was good memories because it was a great atmosphere in the team – it was my first time at the race. I think I was ready and in good shape and I was happy with the race I did. I’m now even more motivated to go back”.
Speaking about the rainbow jersey, Alaphippe added, “For me, it’s really nice to start the season with the rainbow jersey in France at the Tour de la Provence.”
A shrewd recruitment model enables the Deceuninck-Quick Step winning machine to keep chugging along, and we wouldn’t bet against them continuing to do exactly that in 2021.
Opening image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com