Soudal Quick-Step reeling after E3 Saxo Classic fiasco: ‘Right now we don’t have a leader’

Alarm bells ringing as longtime Belgian classics dominator on the back foot: 'We're in a situation that we're not used to.'

Photo: Gruber Photos/VeloNews

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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — What was clear before the E3 Saxo Classic became even more obvious after the race finished: the Soudal Quick-Step team is in the hurt box.

The Belgian team run by manager Patrick Lefevere used to be the team to watch at the spring classics. On Friday, the “Wolfpack” was nowhere to be seen as Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tadej Pogačar were on another level.

“It’s even worse than last year,” said team boss Lefevere. “There’s no explanation for this. I’m not going to discuss those three guys up front, they’re phenomenons. They don’t have to ride tactically because they go when they want to go. The others are dangling at the back.”

Long gone are the days that Lefevere and his Quick-Step troops were dominating and controlling the action in the one-days that the team ruled for the better part of two decades.

On paper, the so-called “Wolfpack” still looks strong with former world champion Julian Alaphilippe, former Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Kasper Asgreen, double Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert, and other specialists like Davide Ballerini and French champion Florian Sénéchal.

In reality they are dangling in the ropes when the three giants kicked off their party in the Flemish Ardennes.

In Harelbeke, Lampaert was the first rider from Quick-Step colors at the finish in 16th place at 2:12 from Van Aert.

The team was leading the peloton on the climbs before the often decisive Taaienberg but then disappeared from the front. Sénéchal was spotted in a crash at the foot of the Stationsberg while the others were unable to fight back. At the team bus in Harelbeke the spirit wasn’t very uplifting.

“The riders are expecting more as well. Julian wasn’t 100 percent so we’re missing our most important rider,” said sport director Tom Steels. “We were a bit unlucky in the crash with Florian and ‘Ballero’ who were good. These guys were unable to defend their chances. Kasper was good but suddenly the light went out. We’ll have to see what Sunday brings for him. He didn’t seem to be going really bad but certainly not great either.

“Julian didn’t feel great this morning. He wasn’t top,” Steels said. “He had stomach problems and was unable to eat well. He fought his way through it but nowadays it’s an era in which it’s impossible to keep going and you’ll break if you’re not taking in enough energy, certainly in these kinds of races.

“The level from Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pogačar is too high for us,” Steels said. “Tactically this isn’t a difficult race. At certain points, it’s about having the legs and that’s where we had to bow our head.

“Gent-Wevelgem is another race but obviously E3 is the race where the top guns test their legs for the Ronde. We won here many times so we know how it is but now we’re in a different situation. Julian will improve. Merlier is going well and he joins the team for Gent-Wevelgem. There’s still the Ronde, Waregem, Roubaix. It’s not over yet.”

Lefevere: ‘The team is only as good as its leader’

Lampaert tried but faded when the real attacks came. (Photo: Gruber Photos/VeloNews)

Lefevere couldn’t believe that his men weren’t able to fight for the top-10 either.

At one point, there was no Quick-Step rider in the lead chasing group behind the “Three Kings” off the front.

“The team is only as good as the leader is, and right now we don’t have a leader,” Lefevere stated. “Others are taking the initiative and we are suffering. I hope we can still set something straight but it’ll be difficult. In Gent-Wevelgem they’ll say that they didn’t recover from this race. There’s a few who were ill.

“My stomach hurts, too,” Lefevere said when asked about Alaphilippe. “If you’re not feeling good then you shouldn’t start the race. It’s as simple as that. Tim Declerq didn’t feel good this week, he didn’t race. These days you can’t afford to race if you’re not feeling good.”

Quick-Step: ‘We’re not panicking’

Asgreen, left, couldn’t follow the winning moves. (Photo: JASPER JACOBS/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

Both Lefevere and Steels tried to put a positive spin on things.

The Belgian media are chewing all this up, and it’s rare not to see a Quick-Step jersey in the mix.

“We’ll glance back on the spring classics after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I’m not panicking but you have to understand that I’m not cheering either,” Lefevere said. “We’re not used to this. I can’t say they tried their best.

“I have to repeat the words from Flandrien Briek Schotte [triple Ronde van Vlaanderen winner, 1919-2004] who said, ‘You have to ride fast when you need to ride fast, you shouldn’t ride fast when you shouldn’t ride fast.’ Obviously when Mathieu went, even Van Aert was on the limit,” Lefevere said.

Steels was equally blunt, but said there are still more opportunities ahead. Last year, the team was also struggling until Remco Evenepoel saved the day at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“We’re in a situation that we’re not used to. We’re not completely blown away but there are three riders a level above the rest. That’s the case for all other teams,” Steels said. “They’re not lethal but it’s hard to fight up against them. Tactically that might cause some different racing but we’ll have to take it like it comes.

“We don’t need a miracle but we need to be realistic.”

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