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The once-mighty Belgian team ended up on the ropes again, with team leader Tim Merlier managing a distant 14th place, and Fabio Jakobsen did not finish.
After the race, director sportif Tom Steels stood outside the team bus and analyzed the team’s situation.
Like many inside the Quick-Step bus, Steels, himself won Gent-Wevelgem back in 1996 and 1999, is searching for answers for the Belgian team ahead of the all-important Holy Week with the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.
Steels warned that his so-called “Wolfpack” isn’t throwing in the towel just yet.
“We’re vulnerable. It’s a big gap with the top three, but if our riders get beaten, then they stick together, and they’ll find a weapon to hit back,” Steels said.
For now, the team is unable to mix in during the spring classics and the Jumbo-Visma team has taken over the torch as leading force in these hard races.
“Our performances get noticed because it’s a stark contrast with the past when we dominated these races and that’s not the case now,” Steels said. “We need to be able to do better. It’s not like we’re super bad, but the gap with the top-3 is impossible to bridge for most teams at the moment.”
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Steels defended his haggard crew, but said riders like Tadej Pogačar, Wout Van Aert, and Mathieu Van der Poel are a step above the entire peloton, not just Soudal Quick-Step.
“Those three can do what they want,” he said. “Pogačar is a Tour de France winner while Van der Poel and Van Aert are winning monument after monument. They are on another level. That’s what we’re missing, that’s for sure.
“We have to try and make up for that as a team. We will always be a classics team,” Steels said. “We have to be critical but we don’t give up and the final verdict for this group will only be made after Roubaix.”
Never giving up hope
On paper, Soudal-Quick-Step double world champion Julian Alaphilippe and 2021 Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Kasper Asgreen should have the capabilities to fight up against the “three kings.”
After a crash in the Tour de Suisse in 2022, Asgreen never managed to get back at the highest level, and halfway through August the Danish rider ended his season.
Alaphilippe had a disappointing 2022 season and team manager Patrick Lefevere doesn’t hide that he expects more from his leaders, knowing the rest of the team will follow.
Steels confirms that the leaders are performing below par so far.
“The leader decides the strength of your midfield. We can’t hide that Kasper Asgreen has been out of competition for eight months. A comeback like that is always going with ups and downs,” he said.
“Julian wasn’t good on Friday. At a bad moment we had one or two sick then you feel that you’re vulnerable. Because all of that you’re never in a position to launch an offensive. You need to sacrifice riders and have them race in De Panne, for example. It’s those few percentages that you’re missing out on all the time. That’s our reality. It’s a matter of getting the team fresh again and fighting back.
“The races aren’t over yet but have to be realistic. We can’t waste any energy during the race. In the Ronde everybody will be in condition there but also fresh, which we missed a little bit in these kinds of races,” he said.
“It’s difficult to say how close we will come. I’m not talking about the top three riders but about the midfield of every team.”
— Soudal Quick-Step Pro Cycling Team (@soudalquickstep) March 26, 2023
During Gent-Wevelgem, the team had in-form sprinter Tim Merlier as team leader with men like Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal and Yves Lampaert riding in support of him.
They all struggled on the famous Kemmelberg climb, a steep cobbled hill which was climbed three times on Sunday. While the Jumbo-Visma train took off, the Soudal-Quick-Step train was riding backwards.
“After the second ascent of the Kemmelberg someone should’ve been in the second group and that wasn’t the case; then you’re vulnerable,” Steels said. “That’s when Kasper sacrificed his chances and closed the gap. It is what it is. The team leader was eventually up there in the second group.”
Merlier was unable to mix in for third place though and eventually crossed the line in a distant 14th.
Betting on success when it counts
Steels was confident the team would bounce back, expressing the hope that Yves Lampaert and Alaphilippe would get much stronger by next week.
“Yves rode De Panne, Harelbeke and now Gent-Wevelgem. That’s three very hard races in a row so you’re lacking a few percentages in each race to make the cut,” he said. “I don’t think Yves is going bad but he needs to get fresh again. We’re confident that Julian will ride a good race on Wednesday and then you’ll get closer to the rest.
“It’s a matter of having one or two riders who’re always there in the second wave. It’s not like we’re downhearted during the briefings. We’re doing our own thing. We’re racing in the way we’re able to race, and we see where that gets us.”