Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl have to race "smarter" in order to make an impact at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, their boss Patrick Lefevere has said.
The team heads into the Ronde having only won once in Belgium this season, at the second tier Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.
In the all-important run-up to Sunday, the team have managed 10th at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, 32nd at Gent-Wevelgem, and 14th at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
They are not favourites for Flanders, an unusual position for the Belgian squad that are usually so dominant, having won eight editions since 2003.
“We are not used to racing defensively,” Lefevere told the media on Thursday. “We have to accept this. We have 11 riders who are sick. Even me, I am home sick. We are hoping we can recover Sunday, and maybe if we are not 100 percent, we will fight for the victory.”
Illness, along with injury to some key riders, has hobbled Quick-Step. Tim Declercq only made his return to racing on Wednesday after suffering periocarditis, and Yves Lampaert and Florian Sénéchal are both making their way back from illness contracted during Paris-Nice.
“I always say that we will make the full report after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and maybe it’s lucky for us, Paris-Roubaix comes one week later this year,” Lefevere said. “I hope, I saw it in the past, I remember 2001, we didn't have one result and then at Paris-Roubaix we went 1-2-3, so you never know."
Rather than their usual format of having multiple options, Quick-Step will ride out of Antwerp focusing fully on getting Kasper Asgreen to win. He is the defending champion, and has looked good at times this season, but it will be a different situation for the team.
"This year I am going into the race a bit more as the sole leader," he said. "Last year, with Alaphilippe as the world champion, the leadership was more shared. It means I am going in a bit differently, but the legs will decide who will be in the final. It would be amazing to win Flanders again, but it will be very difficult. It gives me a lot of motivation to be the defending champion"
“The goal is to try to win again,” Asgreen continued. “The team was generally stronger last year without the sickness we’ve had this year. We will make the best of it. It makes it more difficult to make a move. It’s not so easy to sneak away anymore.”
Quick-Step are normally the aggressors in a race like the Tour of Flanders, helping to blow the race apart, but on Wednesday at Dwars they were strangely absent from the front move. However, Lefevere said that he would not change the way his team rode, saying that they were better than it seemed at Dwars.
“We never focus on the wheel of somebody else," he explained. "You have to be intelligent and know when to move. We are not used to racing to defend, we are used to racing an aggressive race. The race is very long and there are a lot of tricky points. I hope the guys can stay on the bike and we can be there."
Despite the lack of top results in the Belgian Classics, the team boss insisted that the team was not panicking, and that they could grow from their hardship at the moment.
“You can always learn off the difficult moments, so if later you can win, it makes a lot of difference for us,” Lefevere argued. “I always say panic is a bad advisor, I don’t want to see them race with stress. We have to be smarter but we are not used to racing like in this manner of waiting for others.”
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