‘Wolfpack’ comes out swinging with dramatic weekend sweep

With back-to-back wins in Belgian opener, Deceuninck-Quick-Step puts classics rivals on notice.

Photo: Getty Images

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Cycling’s self-styled “Wolfpack” came out swinging in Belgium’s opening weekend with a dramatic one-two punch that sets the tone going into the 2019 spring classics campaign.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step (DQS) showed no signs of letting off the gas following its dominant run through the northern classics in 2018. Zdenek Stybar and Bob Jungels delivered emotional victories with well-timed late-race attacks as the team swept Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in dominant fashion.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Omloop victory was the first by a rider from the Quick-Step franchise since 2005. The sweep also marked the first time one team won both of the races during the prestigious Belgian opening weekend in 35 years. Team boss Patrick Lefevere was clearly satisfied with how both races turned out.

“I said [Sunday] morning that it was possible to sweep the opening weekend,” Lefevere said. “This was a group effort, but no one was stronger than Jungels. He truly knows what it’s like to die on the bike. He did not steal this victory.”

In what they call a team of equals, Stybar came out blasting. The classics perennial favorite’s win — a first by a Czech rider to win a cobblestone classic — served as confirmation for the popular former cyclocross world champion.

Stybar’s win was a long time in coming; even more surprising was Jungels’s victory Sunday in the more sprinter-friendly KBK. The tall, well-coifed Luxembourger typically shines in the Ardennes, where he is the defending champion at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He uncorked an impressive acceleration that caught out the speediest finishers in the elite finishing group.

“Winning races like this is the hardest way to do it,” Jungels said. “We had a plan today and we fulfilled it, but it’s a win I wasn’t expecting at all, as the original plan at the start of the classics campaign was to gain experience on the cobbles and adapt to the style of racing, which is so different and more nervous than that of the Ardennes races.”

Lefevere confirmed that Jungels, 26, would race Ronde van Vlaanderen for the first time ahead of his Liège defense. The versatile Jungels gives the already deep team bench ever more options.

With a deep roster of top riders, Deceuninck is again the team to beat on the cobblestones. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

With the weekend sweep, it’s obvious DQS is returning to the familiar card it played in last year’s spring classics: strength in numbers. Following the retirement of Tom Boonen in 2017, the team evolved from being centered around “Tomeke” to spreading its options and racing more aggressively. In both races last weekend, the team had plenty of familiar jerseys pressing the action. Jungels was prowling the front chase group at Omloop on Saturday along with Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert, while Lampaert and Florian Sénéchel were trolling the waters at the tip of the wave Sunday at Kuurne.

With those kinds of numbers, it’s harder for rivals to shake a DQS rider without having another saving their matches and following wheels. Each scenario allowed DQS to send different riders on the attack when rival teams often just had one or perhaps two cards to play.

At Omloop, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) lamented a missed chance Saturday when he did not follow Stybar after he closed a gap to Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) earlier. Going up against a stacked DQS, Van Avermaet knows he needs to race flawlessly in order to win.

“In this kind of final, if you have five guys with you, it’s normally the fastest guy who has to close the gaps and this killed me a little in the end,” Van Avermaet said. “I’m happy with how I raced. I saw guys suffering and I was still feeling pretty fresh.”

Stybar attacked the Muur in the closing kilometers of Omloop. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Coming into this weekend, there were growing questions of just how the team would react and if it could match its dominating run in last year’s classics that delivered victory at Tour of Flanders and Liège, as well as a host of other important one-day races across Belgium.

Despite the departure of defending Flanders champion Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) and Colombian speedster Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), who is expected to be a factor this spring in the bunch finales at such races as Milano-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem, DQS appears to be filling the void.

In fact, expected team leader Fabio Jakobsen was a final-hour DNS for Kuurne due to illness and will line up again at Paris-Nice. That opened the door for Jungels to pull the unexpected ace from his sleeve. He attacked with about 15km to go, and went into time-trial mode as his teammates stymied efforts in the chase group.

“The guys did an outstanding job protecting me from behind, we have a wonderful spirit in this team and it’s a real pleasure to be part of this squad,” Jungels said. “I thought it was a bit of a mission impossible, but I always say that you have to listen to your gut.”

DQS carries momentum into the heart of the spring classics. Determined rivals, including the absent Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), certainly won’t be rolling out the red carpet.

Up next are Le Samyn (March 5), Strade Bianche (March 9) ahead of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and the season’s first monument at Milano-Sanremo (March 23). No one in a Lefevere-managed jersey has won down the Via Roma in Sanremo since Filippo Pozzato in 2006. Lefevere has Elia Viviani, off to a hot start in 2019, waiting in the wings. The ‘Wolfpack’ should be omnipresent during the 2019 classics.

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