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The so-called “Wolfpack” packs one “W” across the opening month of racing of the lumpy and bumpy one-days the Belgian outfit typically dominates, with Fabio Jakobsen bringing home the flowers at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Missing out on more victories so far will only raise the stakes — and the intensity — inside the Quick-Step bus for Friday’s first big clash at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, and ahead of the major races at Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“It’s annoying we don’t win, but even the best riders, you lose more than you win,” said defending E3 champion Kasper Asgreen. “It’s difficult that we haven’t won anything yet and we’d like to. But that just gives us the motivation to keep on fighting and to try to improve.”
It’s not like Quick-Step is wallowing in the results sheet quicksand.
Patrick Lefevere’s boys in blue have delivered 14 wins so far in 2022, good enough for second in the WorldTour behind the unstoppable UAE Emirates, which boasts 21 victories.
The Quick-Step ethos: ‘We are here for winning’
For Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, the string of races across the bergs and pavé of northern Europe are the team’s Tour de France served out in one-day portions. Perhaps no team in the WorldTour is associated and connected to the classics as the Belgian outfit.
Anything less than victory and racing to win day-in and day-out is tantamount to a national travesty.
Jakobsen won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in the “opening weekend,” taking off the pressure early. Since then, things have been a bit rocky.
Media pressure and demands from Lefevere can be unrelenting during the spring classics window for the bunch inside the Quick-Step bus.
The spring classics are where and when the team shines. Everyone is well aware if things are not going well or the team isn’t delivering, they will hear about it from Lefevere and read about it in the headlines.
Veteran sport director Brian Holm said team boss Lefevere is no stranger at prodding his staffers to keep the pressure on.
“You know, with our boss, a week without winning, you can have some special messages from Lefevere,” Holm said. “No excuses. He doesn’t make it too complicated. If he’s not happy, it’s only three or four words. … We are here for winning.”
Also read: ‘We have no choice but to win’
The Belgian team boss was left fuming after a tepid performance from his team in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to open the classics calendar in February. According to Jakobsen, the riders felt the full force of Lefevere’s feelings at the team hotel that evening.
Florian Sénéchal was the team’s best-placed rider in Omloop with ninth on the line, hardly in the mix for the victory and far from the podium. Wout van Aert and his Jumbo-Visma teammates dominated the race with Quick-Step often on the back foot and forced to chase.
The Dutch rider effectively rescued Quick-Step’s pride by winning Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne the next day after quite a desperate chase to set up the sprinter.
“The opening weekend is important for our team, but also for a sprinter. I am very happy with this win. Also because we had a talk from our boss Patrick Lefevere on Saturday. I won’t go into too much detail about what was discussed there, but it was not a happy conversation,” Jakobsen told Wielerflits. “We were confronted with the fact that we were invisible in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He wanted us to show that we are a team. I don’t think we were the team we should be on Saturday. He has imprinted that in our heads with his West Flemish words.”
Crashes and illnesses could leave Quick-Step’s ranks depleted
Quick-Step hasn’t been firing at full cylinders other races across on the Belgian calendar. Remember, there is no minor race in Belgium, despite its relative UCI ranking. The team missed the podium at two semi-classics earlier this month at Danilith Nokere Koerse and Bredene Koksijde Classic.
For any other team, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for Quick-Step and its proud classics heritage, anything short of winning — or at least coming close by blowing up the race — is nothing short of crisis.
Illness and crashes have depleted the Quick-Step ranks all spring.
Mikkel Honoré was a late-hour DNS for E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday.
Several top riders have come down with COVID-19 at some point during the past six months, and Yves Lampaert and Tim Declercq, two essentials pieces of the Quick-Step classics puzzle, are both sidelined Friday for E3 Harelbeke.
Julian Alaphilippe is also steering clear of the Flemish classics in favor of the Ardennes this season, leaving the team without an explosive climber for the short but sharp bergs at such races as E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and especially at Flanders.
The team will be counting on the likes of veteran Zdenek Stybar, Sénéchal, who seems poised for a breakout win, and some of its younger, up-and-coming riders. All eyes will be on Asgreen to carry team colors over the next few weeks.
“E3 Harelbeke is usually a good test ahead of next week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen,” said sport director Tom Steels. “Harelbeke is also one of the hardest one-day races out there and we go there with last year’s winner in our ranks. Kasper has a good team around him, I think Florian proved in Milano-Sanremo he also has the condition he needs for this time of the year. We are curious to see how Zdenek is after his illness and what he is capable of doing.”
Asgreen, who rode to a morale-boosting third at Strade Bianche, admitted that the team is coming in a bit on the back foot into the most important races on the spring classics calendar.
“I will have to change my tactics compared to last year,” Asgreen said. “Last year, I benefitted a lot from having two teammates chasing behind me, and the guys knew as soon as they closed me down, we had another guy who was going to attack.
“I hope we have the same as we did last year and I can be up there, and I also hope my teammates will be up there,” Asgreen said. “I know I cannot go alone with 60-65km when Jumbo can use one of their helpers or co-leaders to close me down, and then [Wout van Aert] goes.
“I have to get them more ‘mano-a-mano’ like I did in Flanders,” he said. “When you’re one-on-one it’s a bit easier to manage. That was the trick for me last year.”
The Wolfpack has always raced with its “flood offense,” and played many cards in different scenarios.
The 2022 season is looking very different for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl. The next few weeks will prove decisive, and it all starts with E3, dubbed the “mini Tour of Flanders.”