A perfectly-bronzed Patrick Lefevere walks into the 20-degree heat of the patio area of the hotel his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team have taken over to launch their new season.
The 66-year-old Belgian is tailed by a couple of sponsors. Lefevere introduces them to any employee who happens to cross their path as they make small talk in the January sunshine.
"The José Mourinho of cycling," Lefevere says as sports director Davide Bramati walks past and greets them.
A couple of hours later, Lefevere greets the media and more sponsors in the conference room, toasting another successful year in 2021 and speaking into existence the hope for more wins in 2022. While he says his support staff have done everything they can to limit the continued spread of coronavirus as various people meet and mix in Calpe from all over Europe, he can't say for sure, although earnestly hopes, that no one leaves with a positive test. Patrick Lefevere isn't in the business of giving out guarantees he can't assure.
While his team was once again the most successful in the WorldTour last year, winning Monuments and Grand Tour stages aplenty, 2021 was often dominated by the war of words Patrick Lefevere often undertook either in the press or on social media.
“On Monday in front of my TV, I win every race I watch. And if I’m in the football stands I’m the best player in the world. It’s too easy,” he says of what he makes of the criticism that often swirls around him.
Although admitting that sometimes it would be better for him and everyone if he just "shut up", the Belgian also says quotes are often mistranslated by the non-Flemish speaking press and public, arguing that his comments are sometimes taken out of context and blown out of proportion.
“They [the controversies] are not pleasant but maybe sometimes I have to shut up because it’s very clear Flemish is not English,” Lefevere admits.
“But if some people are too lazy to translate what I really said, they don’t exasperate me. If look at these people with zero followers, or 10 or 20, and they attack me like I’m a criminal, they hope I will reply because then they have 100 followers.
“So at one point I said to myself ‘stupid asshole, you are 66, don’t be embarrassed by Twitter, you don’t need Twitter.’ So I stopped. And I didn’t miss it for one second.”
Say what you want about Patrick Lefevere, and yes, there is a lot of potential ammunition there, but he's not one for shirking an uncomfortable question.
Now, out of the circus that is Twitter and into the amphitheatre of the WorldTour. As his riders mill around, conducting their own interviews on their hopes and ambitions for the season ahead.
The rider whose year to come provides the most intrigue is a certain Mark Cavendish. Rescued from an early retirement by Lefevere last year, the British sprinter provided a return of investment the likes of which will rarely be replicated - a Tour de France green jersey and four stages to tie the Eddy Merckx record.
“In my opinion, it’s one of the best moves I ever did,” Lefevere will self-administer praise when he's deserving of it.
“You know the story of Mark and me, he left the team for budget reasons and then after the misery of his last few months at Bahrain he broke my heart.
“Everybody said you are lucky [with Cavendish's comeback] but I don’t think I was. I took the risk, the team immediately accepted him and he worked very hard. And we saw the result.”
What are the chances he rides the Tour again this summer?
“That’s a very interesting question, everybody asks me that question, especially the press,” Lefevere teases.
“But on the other hand, he was not even in the team for the Tour of Belgium, not even the Tour de France. Then with the history of Sam Bennett he took his place, he took his chance, he won. But it’s too early and too easy to predict today what will happen.”
After Cavendish, Remco Evenepoel's year is also of interest. The young Belgian hopes for a normal season after pandemics and serious injury have somewhat blighted what was supposed to be a quick rise to the top of the WorldTour, and Lefevere is confident his star can finally shine brightest.
“We’ll see what happens, and then afterwards you can ask me some questions," Lefevere finishes. "Because this is the nice thing, we don’t have that crystal ball, we don’t see the future. I’m not Madame Soleil.”
If cycling has anything close to the departed French astrologer (an exquisitely dated reference it must be said), with his multitude of wins each year, knowing when to sign and let certain riders go, then it probably is Patrick Lefevere.
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