Lacklustre E3 display raises stakes for Soudal-QuickStep at Gent-Wevelgem - Analysis

HARELBEKE BELGIUM MARCH 22 LR Kasper Asgreen of Denmark Julian Alaphilippe of France and Team Soudal QuickStep and Mathieu van der Poel of The Netherlands and Team Alpecin Deceuninck compete during the 67th E3 Saxo Bank Classic Harelbeke 2024 a 2076km one day race from Harelbeke to Harelbeke UCIWT on March 22 2024 in Harelbeke Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
Soudal-QuickStep stalwarts Kasper Asgreen (left) and Julian Alaphilippe (centre) saw little of race winner Mathieu van der Poel (right) at E3 Saxo Classic, as the pair finished 49th and 77th overall, respectively (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

For years, the road to victory in the cobbled Classics ran through Patrick Lefevere’s teams. Even on the rare afternoons when they were beaten, they always extracted a heavy toll from their rivals. These days, however, it feels as though Soudal-QuickStep have been bypassed entirely on their home patch.

The scene at the bus parking beyond the finish line of E3 Saxo Classic on Friday afternoon told its own story. In victory or defeat, the QuickStep bus was traditionally the focus of the post-mortem at races like this, with reporters and camera crews bustling outside to hear Lefevere’s snap judgement on events in the Flemish Ardennes.

Nowadays, the media scrums form outside the Visma-Lease a Bike and Alpecin-Deceuninck buses. At the Soudal-QuickStep bus, by contrast, the team staff could go about their post-race duties in peace. The Mathieu van der Poel-Wout van Aert rivalry obliterates all other storylines this Spring, of course, but it’s still striking that lacklustre Soudal-QuickStep displays no longer feel novel enough to be truly newsworthy. This is simply the new normal.

Friday marked the worst E3 Saxo Classic performance of QuickStep’s history, superseding even last year’s apparent nadir of 16th. Yves Lampaert was the team’s best finisher on Friday, and he reached Harelbeke in 28th place, more than four minutes down on Van der Poel. The team that won this race eight times in its first 18 years of existence has somehow become an also-ran on the cobbles over the past three Springs.

QuickStep have faced crises in the Classics before. In 2010 and 2011, there was much gnashing of teeth over their struggle to resist Fabian Cancellara’s imperial phase. But even then, Tom Boonen and company were Cancellara’s doughtiest rival, and they duly returned to pre-eminence as the decade wore on. In 2024, by contrast, Soudal-QuickStep are struggling even to compete with the men chasing the unassailable Van der Poel and Van Aert.

“I don't blame anyone for not being able to follow Mathieu van der Poel or Wout van Aert, who are hors catégorie, but we’re not even participating in the group behind them,” Lefevere wrote in his Het Nieuwsblad column on Saturday. “Lidl-Trek has clearly taken a step forward and is in the top ten with three riders. UAE Team Emirates has two men and neither of them is called Tadej Pogačar. We have no one.”

Soudal-QuickStep’s recruitment policy has contributed to their shortcomings in the Classics. In recent seasons, the team’s emphasis has shifted towards Remco Evenepoel’s Grand Tour ambitions and the transfer strategy has been altered accordingly. This past winter, Tim Declercq, Jannik Steimle, Florian Sénéchal and Davide Ballerini all left the squad, and the marquee new arrival was Mikel Landa, who will serve as Evenepoel’s key climbing lieutenant at the Tour de France.

“The fact is that I have made mistakes in my transfer policy,” Lefevere wrote. “I read everywhere that we are reducing the Spring team to focus on Grand Tours and that is absolutely true. But with riders like Julian Alaphilippe, Yves Lampaert and Kasper Asgreen, a significant part of the wage budget still goes to leaders for the Flemish Classics.

“This is the lesson for myself: no more entering into contracts amid euphoria, which may have happened too often with the riders mentioned. Whatever happens, I won't talk to anyone about contracts until after Paris-Roubaix.”

Alaphilippe, subject to such sustained and personal criticism from Lefevere over the past year or so, looks certain to leave Soudal-QuickStep at year’s end, but it remains to be seen who, if anyone, will arrive to plug that gap. On Saturday, Lefevere ruled out the prospect of signing Milan-San Remo winner Jasper Philipsen, whose contract with Alpecin-Deceuninck expires this year.

“I wish I could say that we are in the running to bring him in for next year, but, as always, I am running up against my budget,” Lefevere wrote. “My advice for Philipsen: stay where you are.”

Gent-Wevelgem

The great truism, of course, is that the final tally for the Classics campaign will be made only after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where Evenepoel is seeking to become the first man to win the race three times in a row since Moreno Argentin in 1987.

And while victory at the Tour of Flanders next Sunday seems a very distant prospect in the midst of the anticipated Van der Poel-Van Aert duel, Gent-Wevelgem does offer Soudal-QuickStep a more immediate chance to put a different gloss on a most trying cobbled Classics campaign.

The course around the Franco-Belgian border makes for a different kind of challenge to Harelbeke and the rest of the events in the Flemish Ardennes. The repeated ascents of the Kemmelberg are key, of course, but so too are the stiff North Sea winds, while the flat run-in to the finish offers a chance for a regrouping and a mass sprint.

With that in mind, Tim Merlier leads the line for Soudal-QuickStep on Sunday. Along with Evenepoel, the sprinter has been a bright spot for the team this season, weighing in with six victories, including Nokere Koerse and a hat-trick of wins at the UAE Tour.

“We know this race, we enjoyed a lot of great moments here, and we hope that on Sunday we’ll be up there when it matters,” said directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters. “If it comes down to a sprint, we have Tim who can rely on a strong team.”

The USA's neo-professional Luke Lamperti, so assured thus far, also lines out for Soudal-QuickStep, while Lampaert and Asgreen will hope to make more of an impression here than they did at E3. Alaphilippe sits out Gent-Wevelgem but is scheduled to race Dwars door Vlaanderen ahead of the Ronde.

“Tim Merlier joins the team, and he brings the winning mood more than anyone else,” Lefevere wrote. “If Van der Poel attacks on the third time up the Kemmel on Sunday, Tim will not stick to his wheel, but if Alpecin-Deceuninck plays the Philipsen card a little more and Visma-Lease a Bike wants to sprint with Olav Kooij, then that is also beneficial for us.”

The forecast for hailstones and high winds, in any case, could shuffle the cards in very unexpected ways on the road to Wevelgem, and Soudal-QuickStep are in dire need of being dealt a kind hand.

They aren’t alone in their travails, of course. Their old rivals at Lotto-Dstny, who had such high hopes for this Spring with Arnaud De Lie, were also largely anonymous at E3 Saxo Classic. De Lie shone at Omloop last month, but he was never in the race here, rolling home in 51st.

“I wasn't positioned well on the Taaienberg and then it was over," De Lie told Sporza. “My legs were not good, the feeling was not good. Did I lack experience? No, it was just hectic. If you are poorly placed in that zone, then it’s over."

Whatever the reason, for De Lie as for Soudal-QuickStep, the stakes at Gent-Wevelgem are a little bit higher.

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