Against the backdrop of continued failures in the Classics, Soudal-Quick Step have emerged as a dominant stage racing team that is repeatedly showing itself capable of protecting its leader Remco Evenepoel.
For decades the Belgian super powerhouse has been all about one-day and sprint successes, but while they are being embarrassed on home turf, they are outperforming expectations when it comes to supporting Evenepoel, now undoubtedly one of the leading GC stars of his generation.
Of the seven riders who rode as domestiques for the current world champion in last year’s victorious Vuelta a España, four of them - Pieter Serry, Ilan Van Wilder, Fausto Masnada and Louis Vervaeke - were present at the Volta a Catalunya last week where Primož Roglič of Jumbo-Visma just pipped Evenepoel to the overall win by six seconds.
Every triumphant stage racing team has a nucleus of core riders, and Quick Step have found theirs. “Before it was always a worry in the newspapers, but I think we have now shown the world that we are strong enough to support Remco,” Ilan Van Wilder, his compatriot and same-age peer, told Cycling Weekly.
“We won the Vuelta last year and the line-up hasn’t really changed. We now have Jan Hirt [who they signed from Intermarché-Circus-Wanty] as well, so that’s one more strong climber in our team. We try to look at what is the best for Remco, and until now we’re doing super great.”
Evenepoel was keen to draw attention to the evolution of the team at various points during Catalunya, mindful of the noise and perception from outer circles. Referencing the third stage when the team controlled the peloton in the final 100km, he said: “I think we proved and showed that we are really capable of controlling a mountain stage with such a strong field.”
Two days later, as the race tackled the fearsome Lo Port, Evenepoel was again quick to highlight his team’s strength. “We took the race into our own hands, and we were the only team to still have three guys in the final six kilometres,” the world champion said. “I think as a team we performed better than Jumbo did today.”
All of this, of course, is no happy coincidence. When Evenepoel arrived as a fresh-faced 18 year old in 2019, Patrick Lefevere knew that his team would have to adapt to get the best out of the prodigious talent. That advancement has only sped up post-Vuelta.
“We saw last year in the Vuelta - with a lot of the same guys who are also now here - that we know how to attack a mountain stage,” the team’s DS Klaas Lodewyck commented.
“It’s something we’ve been working on and you see the team is getting stronger. The confidence Remco took from the Vuelta was huge. He knows what he is doing, we know what we’re doing, and we’re all working towards the same goals.
“Just seeing how everybody is riding makes this week [at Catalunya] a successful one. For me, it doesn’t matter if Remco finished first, second, third or fifth on GC - what we really wanted to see was the team working well. We will go again for a training camp and we know the guys will only get better afterwards.”
Robert Gesink, Roglič’s trusted lieutenant of many years, said last week that the pairing “definitely look at each other for sure”, but Quick Step DS Lodewyck dismissed the idea that both teams are influenced by the other.
“Something I always say to our guys is that we race our own race, because you never know how strong someone else will be,” he said. “You start with your own plan, your own idea, and then you see what the outcome will be. That’s better than explaining 100 potential scenarios.”
Separating them in the mountains of northern Spain proved a difficult task, and Roglič’s narrow victory in Catalunya has prepared the ground for an epic showdown at the Giro d’Italia in six weeks.
Evenepoel also found another reason to be optimistic, acutely aware of his previous struggles in the high mountains. Discussing stage two, which finished above 2,000m, he said: “I am really pleased that I could put two big attacks in the last few kilometres. It’s the first time I could do this at altitude so it’s really good signs for this week and the Giro.”
His confidant Pieter Serry noticed other margins of improvement, too. “Being a world champion really gives him wings and motivation,” said the Belgian, who has been one of Evenepoel’s regular domestiques for five years.
“He already had so much motivation, but now he’s a phenomenon; you see it. He has more confidence now. The Giro will be a little harder than the Vuelta, but I think he will be stronger than he was in Spain. It’s almost unbelievable to say so, but I believe it. The team is also really motivated to be ready for the Giro and we will do everything we can.”
While it was Roglič who topped the final general classification standings in Catalonia, Evenepoel’s two stage wins liberated him from the pressure to win in the rainbow stripes.
“He was really chasing that first big win,” Lodewyck said. “He won the UAE Tour overall, but that wasn’t enough - he really wanted to win a big race. Now he has, he is even more relaxed, and like that Remco is at his best. He only knows one thing and that is winning. He is always hungry for more.”
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